Paul Uchechukwu – « The will of God »

Paul Uchechukwu

« The will of God »

Stefanie Knauss – Carlos Mendoza Álvarez

Concilium 2019-5. Queere Theologien: Der queere Leib Christi werden
Concilium 2019-5. Queer theologies: becoming the queer body of Christ
Concilium 2019-5. Teologías queer: convertirse en el cuerpo queer de Cristo
Concilium 2019-5. Teologie queer: diventare il corpo queer di Cristo
Concilium 2019-5. Théologies queer : devenir le corps queer du Christ
Concilium 2019-5. Teologias queer: tornar-se o corpo queer de Cristo


After having two boys, my parents earnestly prayed for a girl. When my mum became pregnant with me, my parents were convinced I was going to be a girl. Even though I was born a boy, they accepted me gladly and said God must have wanted me that way, hence my name, Uchechukwu, meaning ‘the will of God.’

I first heard the word ‘homosexual’ when I was eleven years old while in boarding school. I was lying down beside a close friend of mine, and we were talking and laughing. Another student passed by and said, ‘why are you guys all cuddled up like this, are you homosexuals?’ I asked my friend what that word meant and when he told me, I immediately left him and scurried back to my bunk. I was terrified because I had this sexual attraction toward him which I could not explain. It also seemed ‘wrong’ to me coming from a strong Catholic family where I was baptized as an infant, received my first Communion at the age of ten and was confirmed three years later. In my family, sexuality and sex were taboo topics, and my parents always emphasized that we were never to have sex until marriage. 

Throughout high school and university, I was aware of an attraction to the same sex, but it was an awareness that came and went quickly. Sometimes, when the feelings were overwhelming, I would pray to God to take them away. No one talked about ‘these things’, and the internet wasn’t easily accessible then. While in university, I was still a ‘virgin’ in the sense that I had never been involved sexually with anyone. I was caught up with studies and very active in the Catholic Charismatic movement. I eventually talked to a priest about my same-sex feelings, and he told me that they were satanic and that if I ever gave in to them, I would find myself being a pedophile. As penance, he asked me to do the Stations of the Cross. Being a perfectionist, I did them three times, one of them on my knees. What the priest said to me on that day stuck in my mind, and it took a while before I was healed from it. I graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor in Economics and decided to enter the seminary in order to be a priest, a calling I felt I had from childhood.

I joined a Missionary Order, and my formators (mostly European) helped me to come to a place of naming and accepting my sexuality by suggesting some books to help me. Theologian James Alison, whose emails, phone calls, and friendship were sources of encouragement for me, sent me many of these books which helped me in my journey towards psycho-sexual integration. The ones that impacted me most include: Faith Beyond Resentment by James Alison,[1] Embracing The Exile by John Fortunato,[2] Taking A Chance On God by John McNeill[3] and What The Bible Really Says About Homosexuality by Daniel Helminiak.[4] The greatest challenge was that even though my seminary studies were outside my home country, I had yet to see something written about gay matters by an African. Later on, when I met Jide Macaulay, a very courageous British-Nigerian theologian, writer, and poet,[5] I knew that I was not alone.

It was, however, during a period of pastoral work that I came to a place of radical acceptance of who I was as a gay man. I was still a bit conflicted about my sexuality. I was working in a hospital, and during my lunch break, I snuck away to the chapel for a few minutes of prayer, and I fell asleep. I had a dream in which a beautiful lady who seemed to come from the tabernacle came towards where I was sitting in the chapel and hugged me while saying, ‘It’s okay, you’re okay.’ When I woke up, even though I was somewhat terrified, I wept uncontrollably, after which I felt a deep peace within me that I hadn’t felt before. I never doubted myself again after that day. During my theological studies, I focused on Scriptures and graduated with a first class degree. By this time, I had managed to integrate my sexuality with my identity as a whole. I focused on my vocation to the priesthood, and I was out to some close friends.

While working as a missionary priest in 2014, I heard that a law had been passed by the Nigerian government criminalizing relationships between gay persons, with prison sentences of up to fourteen years. I was disappointed that some bishops approved of this law which led to increased victimization and attacks of LGBTQ persons and suspected LGBTQ persons. I wrote an article condemning this law, and it drew a lot of criticism from some of my African confreres. Years later, while working in the seminary back home, I was shocked at how homophobic people were. One of our priests preached a sermon in which he abused and mocked LGBT persons. There was also another case of a man who was beaten to death close to our seminary because he was gay. The seminarians supported his being beaten to death.

I tried to ‘educate’ them on the fact that gay persons were also human beings through classes and some educational movies. One of the students who confessed his homophobia to me, and another priest, who confessed to being allergic to gay persons, filed a report to my superiors accusing me of being ‘too friendly’ with the students and also of trying to ‘promote homosexuality’. I was asked to leave the seminary and sent to work in another diocese outside the country. The bishop there, on hearing about my sexual orientation, decided he didn’t want to employ a priest who was gay because of past cases of the abuse of children by priests. I was asked to leave the diocese, and this became the lowest point of my life. I had not broken my vows or done anything wrong. The thought of being compared to a pedophile made me angry and sick to my stomach. I simply suffered because of stereotypes and the ignorance concerning gay persons. 

I suffered a severe depression and took some time out to go to Europe for counselling, rest and self-care. It was a healing experience: when I attended a retreat for LGBTQI persons, the retreatants came around me and placed their hands on my shoulders. When they prayed with me, I felt the same way I had felt many years before in that chapel. I felt that I belonged, that I mattered and that hate was not going to take away the love which God has placed in my heart. I felt peaceful.

I returned renewed from my mini-sabbatical. I also re-discovered contemplative spirituality through the writings of the Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, which has been very helpful to me. It’s clear to me now that I may never work at home, in my country, but I’m quite happy and content where I am. I feel that despite what I’ve been through, my sexuality has made me more compassionate as a priest. A lot of homophobia comes from ignorance and while I now know that the burden of informing and changing people’s mindset doesn’t rest on my shoulders, in my own small way, I still try. Recently, a mother brought her young son to me for counselling because she thought him possessed by the devil. He had stopped coming to church, and when I asked him about it, he said he thought he was an abomination to God because he was gay. I opened my Bible and read these words to him from Wisdom 11:24: ‘You hate none of the things you have made, for you would not have made anything you hated.’ A former student whom I taught in seminary wrote and thanked me for what I shared with them during my time in the seminary. He’s now happy as a gay man and quite fulfilled with his life. I know we still have a long way to go towards the full acceptance of LGBTQI persons in Church and society, but I’m happy that attitudes are changing, albeit gradually. I find inspiration from people like Fr. James Martin SJ, an American Jesuit priest who emphasizes building bridges between the Church and LGBTQI persons. I see a lot of hope in many LGBTQI persons who continue to love and serve the Church despite the hate they often receive. But most of all, I find peace within my heart where I hear the Spirit whisper to me, ‘You are not a disorder, you are Uchechukwu, the will of God’.


Notes

[1] James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001.

[2] John Fortunato, Embracing the Exile: Healing Journeys of Gay Christians, San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1984.

[3] John J. McNeill, Taking a Chance on God, Boston: Beacon Press, 1988, 1996.

[4] Daniel Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, New Mexico: Alamo Square Press, 2000.

[5] Jide Macaulay is the founding pastor of the House of Rainbow Fellowship. He is British-Nigerian, born in London, a Christian minister since 1998 and focuses his ministry on inclusion and reconciliation of sexuality, spirituality and human rights.


Author

Paul Uchechukwu comes from Nigeria. He is a Catholic Priest who works with a missionary order in sub-Saharan Africa. He has a degree in Economics, Philosophy, Theology and a diploma in counselling. He is involved in Parish ministry as well as giving retreats to both religious and lay groups. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Biblical Studies.