Inside the tiny church where members of Uganda's beleaguered gay community have found sanctuary

Sunday is a special day in Uganda, the conservative east African country that is threatening to put gay people behind bars for life. On Sunday you can see families flocking to churches all over the country for prayer, wearing their best clothes.

The sermons are predictable. Church leaders will pray for divine intervention against the corrupt leaders, poverty and the potholed roads, and then finally call doom upon the country's homosexuals who are sinning against the Christian God and ruining African culture.

But not at a tiny church tucked away in one of Kampala's suburbs. Here, gay people meet in devoted challenge to mainstream denominations that have declared them outcasts. With dreadlocked hair and in jeans and bathroom slippers, members of this congregation would stand out in the prim and proper evangelical church I sometimes go to. I feel overdressed in my white dress.

"Here we are all about freedom," Pepe Onziema, a gay rights activist tells me. "It is a universal church. We welcome people whether gay or straight."

The gates may be open but the road to the church that calls itself a friendship and reconciliation centre is not paved with sleek cars or thronged with believers. The worshippers trickle in. They take their seats, but not before surveying the crowd furtively, trying to identify everyone. Their life depends on this vigilance.

In Uganda, police raid homes and arrest those they suspect to be gay. Homosexuality is an offence under the penal code. The president, Yoweri Museveni, refuses to pass a bill that seeks to strengthen the punishments for homosexuality to include life imprisonment, but isn under pressure to do so. Conservative Christian churches, under the auspices of the Uganda Joint Christian Council, refuse to accept homosexuals in spite of more gay-friendly approaches from parent churches abroad. The anti-gay furnace is fanned by American evangelical churches that have made it their mission to free Africa of homosexuality, saying it is alien to African culture.

The gay Ugandan church seeks to spread an alternative gospel of love and acceptance for all. On this particular Sunday, it is the memorial of David Kato, a gay rights activist who was murdered in 2011. So the numbers are bigger than usual. When the church was started by Bishop Christopher Senyonjo (who has since been thrown out of the Anglican Church for ministering to gay people), the gay community in Uganda attended devotedly. But with arrests and growing anti-gay sentiments, threats to their lives and arrests, fewer and fewer people come to the church.

"Our numbers have reduced ever since we started in 2008," Denis, the chaplain and a primary school teacher, tells me. "It is worse now that the bill has been passed." If Denis's employees knew of his orientation or his calling, he would certainly lose his job. "This is the only place we can feel at home. Here we can worship God without feeling guilty or fearing persecution."

Joining a gay congregation in Uganda is risky but Onziema says it is necessary in a society that greatly values community. For on Sundays, when many Ugandans spend time with their families, most gay people have nowhere to go. "Coming here lets us know that we are not alone and gives us the strength to continue the struggle," Onziema says.

You can see both hope and fear in the eyes of the congregation as they read Bible verses proclaiming God's protection over them and sing "What a friend we have in Jesus".

Here, there are no thunderous shouts of praise, speaking in tongues or Bible-thumping that is characteristic of the evangelism that is so trendy in the country. In the quiet worship of Uganda's gay community, there is a still hope and the kind of courage you can only muster after you have seen it all and there is nothing left to fear. Sunday is also the day gay people in Uganda cast off their masks to chat about the latest fashion, cars and celebrities.

"You thought we were going to pray that God stops the anti-homosexuality bill," Mugisha, the head of Sexual Minorities Uganda, asks me with laughter and mischief in his voice. "It will not pass. We do not need to pray for that."

Mugisha is for a moment free from his job, his life, fighting for the basic human rights of gay people. "I come here for the community. It is better than staying home alone," he says. As the service ends, members of the congregation are asked to say something in memory of David Kato, whose spirit of resilience they will need as they walk out of the church into their daily routine.

"We know he did not die in vain," Mugisha says. "One day we shall be accepted."