When I heard that terrorists had killed almost 150 students at a college in Kenya, I stopped breathing.
My colleague and friend, Pastor Joseph Tolton, was in Kenya at that moment. I breathed again when I learned that the tragedy took place in a part of Kenya far from Nairobi. I was still shocked but I was breathing.
Would I have cared if Joseph had not been in Kenya?
Where will this end? Al Shabab gunmen killed 147 students who didn’t know the Koran well enough to pass as a Muslim. Here was another planned attack with targets in mind—like the attacks in Paris where 17 people were killed because they published satirical material on Islam.
Wait—17 died in Paris. 147 students died in Kenya.
Blow-by-blow coverage of the actions in Paris kept the public mesmerized for days. But when 147 Kenyan students were executed, journalists seemed less interested. But the tragedy and terror were no less real.
What caused the difference of reporting between Paris and Kenya?
We could point to skin color, American assumption that war and violence is the norm in African countries, or just a lack of interest in what happens in Africa. Paris, on the other hand, is romanticized and is a destination city for so many Americans.
I don’t think the disparity of media attention has a simple answer, but there are so many reasons why we should care about Kenya.
First and foremost, Africans are our siblings. Secondly, the future of Christianity will be determined in Africa since anti-LGBT Christians are targeting Africa like never before.
Progressive people of faith in the USA need to learn about Africa. We fear repeating our colonialist past so much sometimes that we avoid doing anything at all.
But is it colonialist to care about the families who are grieving their losses—or is it part of the pattern of domination to simply ignore the pain of “others?” If we want to be anti-colonialist we must care about the growing fear among LGBTI people in African countries. In Uganda, Ghana, Liberia, Kenya, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and dozens of other countries, legal actions against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people are being fomented by political and religious power brokers—and United Methodists are being impacted by these same people.
However, we are far from helpless. Reconciling Ministries has been on the cutting edge of outreach to Africa since implementing its “Let Us Talk” Africa campaign in East and West Africa leading up to the 2012 General Conference. This year, RMN African Central Conferences Coordinator, Dennis Akpono, is helping Pastor Joseph Tolton meet with United Methodists in both Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire to talk about diversity in an African context.
There is support in Africa for LGBTI people, there are brave spaces where people refuse to be dominated by either Islamic or Christian extremists. The price for this bravery is sometimes very high, but the gifts of a beloved community across lines of country and culture are rich.
Perhaps out of our sadness for the loss of 147 beautiful young people in Kenya, we can work together to put an end to all killing fields. You might say, “What can I do? I will never go to Africa.” But all of us can pray about Africa, all of us can learn about Africa, and all of us can make the work of RMN in Africa possible.
Let us grieve with the Kenyan families who lost their loved ones. They are young people we will never meet. Look at their faces, weep, and then decide what you will do.