This is an Easter season story with all the makings of an uplifting message, except for one thing: At the end, there is no victory. To be sure, this account contains elements of despair, pain, sacrifice, hope and an unselfish devotion to the powerless. There's also international intrigue linking a central Pennsylvania community to a distant village in East Africa. But coming at the time of Christianity's central event, this is, in essence, a tragic tale of ignorance, bigotry and love unreturned.
It begins in southwest Uganda near Mount Rwenzori (Mountains of the Moon) in an area called the Kasese district. Kasese is home to about 520,000 mostly illiterate people. During the war in nearby Congo that ended four years ago, more than 150,000 of Kasese's residents were displaced; many ended up living in camps.
The insurgents have faded away, only to be replaced by another deadly enemy: HIV-AIDS. Kasese has the highest rate in Uganda, with five people dying of AIDS every week. Would that HIV-AIDS were Kasese's only danger. Each week, malaria also kills about 20 of its children. The 1996-2001 insurgency has left much of Kasese broken and with pressing needs: schools, dispensaries, homes and morale, all in need of repair. About 70 people who lost their legs to land mines are still living in the area.
All this has become known through a written appeal for help issued by Jackson Nzerebende Tembo, Anglican bishop of the South Rwenzori Diocese, which serves the Kasese district. Bishop Tembo, a native of the area, prayed in his message that "the Lord will bless the Diocese with resources needed" to continue the church's work with the desolate and forlorn people of his community.
The bishop's desperate call for help was heard and answered by the Anglican Communion on the other side of the Atlantic: the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, headquartered in Harrisburg.
The Pennsylvanians pulled together more than $350,000 for Kasese to support HIV-AIDS patients as well as a little extra money for the Bishop Masereka Christian Foundation to help pay for the education of Kasese's orphans. The Pennsylvania Episcopalians also arranged to send a group of physicians and other medical personnel to the South Rwenzori Diocese this summer.
After a visit to the area by Tom Leaman, who is a physician and professor at Penn State University's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and a member of a local Episcopal parish, the diocese of Central Pennsylvania set up a Prayer Friend program in which a diocesan member would select a Ugandan as a prayer partner, keeping that person in daily prayers and regular correspondence. Nearly two dozen members of the Pennsylvanian diocese had entered into such arrangements.
Then, darkness and betrayal.
Last week Bishop Tembo suspended all activities with the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania. He withdrew his request for $352,941 to support his HIV-AIDS program, including money for orphans' education, and he postponed the visit of the medical team. What, pray tell, could have led the bishop to refuse this help for people in need?
In every large organization, there's always that 5 percent who never get the word. The Anglican Communion is no exception. In a March 8 "Dear Friends" letter, Bishop Tembo said he had just learned the week before that the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania had voted "yes" to the election of openly gay Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. The election, by the way, took place two years ago.
Asserting that the South Rwenzori Diocese "upholds the Holy Scriptures as the true word of God," and implying that the Pennsylvanian diocese -- by supporting a gay bishop -- does not, Bishop Tembo proclaimed the two dioceses to be in "theological conflict," thus leading him to reject all ties to his brothers and sisters in Christ living in and around Harrisburg.
Apparently it matters less to the good Bishop Tembo -- who does not have AIDS -- that it is the suffering men, women and children in his diocese who may pay with their lives for his action, not the Central Pennsylvania Diocese. What's more, Bishop Tembo and his wife, Dorothy Nzerebende, are the proud parents of five children who don't have to fend for themselves. So when he turns down money for the education of orphans, it's no skin off the teeth of his kids.
Yes, Kasese has only 15 trained physicians to treat more than 500,000 residents. Which, however, is better? Thumbing one's nose at Episcopalians in the United States or bringing more doctors into the midst of Kasese's human suffering? Bishop Tembo made it known where he stands.
All this he did in the name of God.
Sadly, Bishop Tembo is being cheered by conservative Episcopalians in this country. Some of them believe that the Episcopal Church of the United States, by consecrating a gay bishop, is, as one of them put it on a conservative Web site, "sending people to hell by the boatload, by presenting a false gospel." Thus, the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania's money is tainted.
So here we are this Easter, the day that Bishop Michael Creighton of the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania described in this month's message as representing "the victory of God's love and life." What a victory. What an Easter moment.