When Good Intentions Cross Ethical Lines
HAAM’s VP Pat Morrow recently contacted Southland Church (Steinbach) to express his concerns about their association with organizations whose conduct in Uganda is unethical. Below, he explains those concerns and then discusses Southland’s response.
An Ethical Question
When the actions of a person or organization include both good and bad, when does the good outweigh the bad? At what point does the bad become so intolerable that the person or organization is not worth associating with?
HAAM as an organization has existed for over 20 years, and during that time we’ve formed partnerships or associations with other organizations that mirror our beliefs and understanding of the world. We are also willing to end those partnerships if the actions of these organizations conflict with what Humanists understand as good, moral, and ethical behavior. However, this is often not so with religious groups, especially those practicing more evangelical/ fundamentalist types of religion.
According to the Hartford Institute, Southland Church in Steinbach is Manitoba’s second largest mega-church, with a weekly attendance of over 3000. Through Tupendane Africana (a mission of Southland Church) and Back to the Bible Truth Ministries, Southland Church (along with their partner churches in Africa) has done some good work in Uganda. They have sent shipping containers of farm equipment, printing presses, and other goods to the Christians of Uganda, and have helped build an orphanage and one of the largest commercial farms in the country. While spreading religion is not something Humanists would consider good, teaching people better farming practices and more efficient ways to feed themselves is.
But here’s the ethical rub: when should an organization step back and ask itself “is what we are doing really good?”
Setting aside the propensity of evangelicals/fundamentalists to support creationism, reject science, and promote ideas that are proven not to work (such as abstinence-only sex education), Southland is partnered with Back to the Bible Truth Ministries and its president, a man known as the Apostle Alex Mitala. Mitala is also past president of the National Fellowship of Born-again Pentecostal Churches (NFBPC) in Uganda, a coalition of 18,000 churches and one of the many virulent homophobic organizations in Africa. In order to understand just how ethically questionable this partnership is, a little background is necessary.
Uganda is one of the most religious and homophobic nations of modern times, due to the predominance of evangelical/fundamentalist religious beliefs, a sizable chunk of which are imported from the west.
Between 2009 and 2014, the Ugandan government attempted to pass the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which came to be known as the “kill the gays bill“. This bill would have allowed the death penalty for what they called “aggravated homosexuality”; in other words, you could be killed for being gay. The bill was written by government minister David Bahati and supported by a large coalition of churches and church leaders, including Martin Ssempa and Alex Mitala. Fortunately, in 2014 the penalty was amended to “life in prison for aggravated homosexuality”, but this change was due to immense international pressure, not because the churches suddenly changed their collective minds.
In Uganda today if you are LGBT and you are outed you could be beaten up or even killed. This is the legacy of the “kill the gays bill”. In 2010 one Ugandan newspaper ran an edition naming the top 100 “homos” in Uganda, with pictures and the caption “hang them”. More recently in 2014, another tabloid released an 200 additional names, which resulted in many gay Ugandans being killed, and others being driven into hiding where they remain to this day. This is the nature of life in Uganda. Religion has cheapened life; many of its adherents have sold out their humanity and made good, decent, loving, gay folks cheap and disposable.
Which brings me back to Southland.
The Manitoba Connection
Why would a church which claims the moral high ground of Jesus’s peace and love have such close ties to a man and organizations that advocate for a law that would see gay people put to death? I have a difficult time believing they didn’t know about it. Promoting the “kill the gays” bill by Uganda’s churches began around 2006. Southland has been involved with Mr. Mitala and his 18,000 churches in Uganda since 2007, and has had missionaries in the country on several occasions. Mitala himself has preached at Southland.
As a Humanist, my involvement with a man like Alex Mitala would be limited to attempting to change his mind and rid him of his harmful ideas. To engage with this “man of god” in any professional sense would be for me what Canadian General Roméo Dallaire described as “shaking hands with the devil”. Endorsement would be out of the question, but endorse him they did. Mitala even secured an endorsement from MLA Kelvin Goertzen, who is now Manitoba’s health minister. Goertzen endorsed Mitala on Southland’s website, and praised him in the legislature (see page 144 of this transcript). Since receiving my letter, Southland has removed most of the content from the Tupandane section of their website, but the page with Goertzen’s endorsement of Mitala can be viewed in archive here, and in this screenshot.
This is not to say the folks at Southland want to kill gay people. In fact, I would venture most don’t, but it does inspire us to ask – why partner with people who do? I can only conclude that the good folks at Southland are either ignorant of the situation in Uganda, apathetic, or worse, ok with it.
The ugliness of this form of Christianity is well supported by scripture. If Southland wants to take credit for the good works it does in Uganda through the organizations it supports (and so it should), then the church should also bear at least a modicum of responsibility for the damage that organizations like the NFBPC have done (and continue to do) to the LGBT community in Uganda. A community that to this day lives in fear and is largely in hiding.
It is time for good people everywhere, atheists and theists alike, to hold Southland Church to a higher moral standard and request that Southland Church sever all ties with organizations that would support the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act. We hope they will seek more moderate partner churches or NGOs for their charitable endeavors in Africa.
Kris Duerksen, the executive pastor of Southland Church, agreed to meet with me to discuss the concerns expressed in my letter. For the record, he stated that Southland does not support either the death penalty or life imprisonment for homosexuals. “Jesus tells us to love one another”, he said. But unfortunately, Pastor Duerksen can’t see (or doesn’t believe) that the evidence supports a different conclusion.
Southland Church feeds and clothes some 2000 orphans, according to Duerksen. Simple demographics would indicate that at least a few of those children will come to identify as gay, yet at least some of the people raising them think they deserve jail or death. This presents a problem for people who supposedly love everybody. Southland Church sends money, supplies, and farm equipment by the container load, the cost of which surely totals well into six figures, to Uganda; but Duerksen would have us believe that Southland has little to do with day-to-day operations once it arrives. Those are run by Alex Mitala and his churches – churches that apparently have a different theology, one that allows capitol punishment for gay people and the imprisonment of those who aid them.
The relationship between Alex Mitala and Southland Church has grown and developed over the last ten years, with many visits and exchanges between Southland and its mission. One would think that during that time, Southland’s leadership would have uncovered Mitala’s organizations’ support for the “kill the gays” bill. With the support of the NFBPC (of which Mitala was leader) for the Anti-Homosexuality Act being well-known; all the massive press attention given to the bill in both Uganda and internationally, and the massive pressure brought to bear by western countries to stop it, it seems logical that someone should have heard about it. But according to Duerksen, the issue never came up; it was never raised by Tupendane, Mitala, or any of the 3300 parishioners at Southland.
Finally, I asked about the Tupendane website, and why it was pulled down shortly after I emailed Southland. Duerksen told me it was “down for updating”; the timing seems a little coincidental.
The Bottom Line
In the end, we’re back to the beginning. Southland is still stuck with the ethical and moral problem of supporting something they (and almost all Canadians) believe is abhorrent. But at least they can’t plead ignorance anymore. They will have to either fix the problem or choose to ignore it, because when you believe a book that tells you to love gay folks and at the same time put them to death, both options become equally acceptable.