What happened when Christian cultural wars hit central Africa

Documentary • The effects of the First World's Christian aspirations under scrutiny in "God Loves Uganda."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Sundance Film Festival has always had more than its share of documentary films dressed as rallying cries for progressive and liberal causes. Director Roger Ross Williams' "God Loves Uganda," about the inroads of U.S.-style Evangelical Christianity into central Africa, falls firmly in that category. As a study in the dynamics of competing First World aspirations for Third World peoples, and even competing strains of conservative and liberal Christian theology, the subject also makes for fascinating filmmaking.

While the film carries Uganda in its namesake, it in fact rides on two tracks, with more than its share of time spent in the Kansas City, Mo., headquarters of International House of Prayer, an Evangelical church in the charismatic tradition sending young missionaries across the ocean to "the pearl of Africa."

While careful to never indict them directly, Williams makes it clear that these well-meaning youth are also playing with fire while simultaneously preaching the gospel to people striving for stability in a largely destitute nation.

Lured by generous religious donations from the United States — resulting in lavish homes for native Ugandan ministers and the sincere attention of missionaries — this atmosphere opened the door for the rabidly anti-gay preachings of Rev. Scott Lively and, to a lesser extent, International House of Prayer founder Lou Engle. The enmity fueled by their messages culminated in the Uganda's notrious 2009 anti-gay bill, which threatened the "crime" of homosexual behavior with imprisonment or even death.

The narrative heart of Williams' film resides in two Episcopal priests, the Rev. Christopher Senyonjo and the Rev. Katya Kaomo. Senyonio appeared as a special guest at the Q&A session at Sundance on Friday, while Kaomo is currently exiled in Boston with his wife and children because he believes the current religious environment in Uganda makes it too dangerous for him to live and preach in his native country.

The film offers a fascinating look into how the American culture wars first sprouted in Uganda during the AIDS crises of 1985, when conservative U.S. politicians advocated for sexual abstinence instead of condoms. In the Q&A session following the screening, director Williams said he's mounted a social media campaign to have his film screened in churches across the United States.

The film culminates in the beating death of Ugandan LGBT activist David Kato, with Rev. Senyonjo presiding over his funeral.

At the Q&A, Williams asked that those who see the film ask their church ministers where their contributions go. "You were brought into this world by God, and you are in heaven," Senyonio said. "Feeding orphans is great, but no Christian wants blood on their hands."

bfulton@sltrib.com —

'God Loves Uganda'

Saturday, Jan. 19, 4 p.m. • Redstone Cinema 2, Park City

Monday, Jan. 21, 3 p.m. • Screening Room, Sundance Resort

Wednesday, Jan. 23, 6 p.m. • Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City

Thursday, Jan. 24, 9 p.m. • Tower Theatre, Salt Lake City

Friday, Jan. 25, 6 p.m. • Egyptian Theatre, Park City

More information • www.sltrib.com/Blogs/sundanceblog