In August 1914, Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association because he believed strongly that people of African descent needed to unite to lift the race out of poverty and to position Africa as a political as well as an economic force. To Garvey, Africa was a source of strength for all Black people across the globe and that healing from the great tragedy of slavery was a possibility.
One hundred years later, Garvey’s vision for a global initiative amongst people of African descent has yet to be realized, yet remains paramount to our progress as a race. Black lives are under attack in America and in Africa.
I first stepped on the continent in 2010 as an Ambassador of goodwill and the founding pastor of The Fellowship Global to stand in solidarity with Uganda’s LGBTI community. For over a year, the Ugandan parliament had been debating the proposed Anti-Homosexuality bill that would make being gay punishable by death.
Prior to my arrival, I was warned that I would not be accepted as a son of Africa, but seen as a privileged and intrusive American. Once there, I quickly realized that LGBTI rights is at the Pan-African nexus of colonialism, economic exploitation, sexism, fear of Black sexuality as well as bought and sold democracy—and look a lot like oppression in the United States.
The issues plaguing all of my African brothers and sisters are close to home for African American communities—poverty, state-sponsored violence, disease, and unemployment. To the shock of many—and my deep relief—I was embraced a son of the Diaspora and a partner on the complex journey toward freedom.
In May, I concluded a month-long tour of Africa, including, the DRC, Uganda, Rwanda, Cote D’Ivoire and Kenya as the founder and pastor of The Fellowship Global.
One of the most moving moments came from my interpreter in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He and I established a very warm rapport and it became clear that he was not just interpreting for me, he was preaching along with me.
When I got home I received an email from him asking me to adopt him as a spiritual son. I was overwhelmed and deeply humbled. He affirmed the God in me by confirming the conviction and possibility of building a new spiritual justice movement connecting the continent and the Diaspora.
During the tour a Pentecostal denomination in Rwanda embraced and welcomed LGBTI people. I witnessed a coalition of pastors in Kenya commit to a journey of exploring radical inclusivity. And, two church networks in the DRC requested an introduction to the universal message of love, justice, holiness and the pursuit of peace.
Of course, the backdrop of homophobia is always present and the treatment of LGBTI people can be horrific and shocking. Political and religious leaders have used LGBTI people to fear-monger votes and leverage obedience as surely as whites have used Black people in the United States as their “tough on crime” targets.
The Fellowship Global was birthed as homophobia surged in Africa and efforts to stop police violence against U.S. Black bodies emerged. As part of The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries (TFAM), a “radically inclusive” Christian movement led by African-Americans, we understand the need for both pastoral care and prophetic witness for LGBTI people in the Diaspora.
Under the umbrella of TFAM, The Fellowship Global is supporting pioneering efforts in Africa by Africans to establish an inclusive African Christian movement. As the NGO for TFAM’s international work, we are partners with Africans who are striving for freedom.
The truth is, freedom is not a destination, but a journey.
While in Cote d’Ivoire, the pastor of a prominent church convened his leaders and other clergy from throughout the country and together we explored the promise of a Pan-African collective of independent Pentecostals working together on a campaign to honor the Black female body, impact structural poverty, create inter-religious dialogue, advocate for HIV/AIDS research and promote better healthcare for Black people everywhere.
Then, I introduced the need for the church to commit to the full inclusion of LGBTI people. The Pastor got it…his eyes said so. But, the journey toward freedom can include a stony road. Ultimately, the internal politics of the Pastor’s church played out and they demanded the relationship with me be severed, which he was forced to do. Even though the naysayers won that battle, I knew the conversation had changed the Pastor, the church and the leaders forever.
The seeds were planted and now we wait for what has been sown to reap the benefits. As further evidence of a shift, the Pastor called weeks later and said to a staffer, “Tell Tolton, they that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength and shall mount up on wings like eagles.”
I have hope! I invite people of African descent, and all people of goodwill to join this journey of uncovering the beauty of Blackness in every manifestation because, truly, all Black lives matters.
Marcus Garvey was right. We have to go back to Africa. But, after my many visits to the continent, my understanding of what Marcus Garvey was seeking to convey has shifted – Africa is inside all of us!
I will keep going back to Africa. Not just for Africa, but for all Africans everywhere. Come with me!
The Fellowship Global is supporting pioneering efforts in Africa by Africans to establish an inclusive African Christian movement.
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Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, NoWedge 2012