Last Sunday I went along with Bishop Johnson to St. James Church, a sub-parish church of the larger Keyo parish, for confirmation of an estimated 60 people. We piled into a white pick-up truck and left the Bishop’s compound around 9:00am for the 20 minute drive to the church. The Rev. Canon Willy Akena, the Bishop’s chaplain, was in the driver’s seat with the Bishop as front seat passenger. Mama Christine, her three year old daughter Mercy and Willy’s wife Pauline, along with myself, were in the back seat. One of the students from the Women’s Development Center who was being confirmed rode in the back of the truck. As we pulled away, dark rain clouds were gathering and the air was unusually cool. Pulling out of the road to the Diocesan property, we turned right onto Juba Road. This road goes north into South Sudan, about 100 miles to the border. There has been significant road work going on the last year and we were soon on brand new paved highway and the ride was uncharacteristically smooth for Uganda. Eventually the paved road will extend all the way through Gulu and the road to Kampala. I settled in for the drive, staring out the window at the beautiful countryside. As we left the outskirts of Gulu, the savannah grassland stretched out as far as the eye could see. The green vegetation was vivid in color against the backdrop of the low grey clouds. The land is so beautiful and peaceful. We passed many small groupings of round thatched roof houses. Most Americans seeing this for the first time would think it was primitive…but I’ve come to appreciate the simple life the Acholi people live. I wouldn’t call it primitive. It’s not modern but it works for them. They plant and harvest, they work hard, they love their children, they live in close-knit communities, they practice hospitality like no other place I’ve ever lived, they share with each other, they celebrate the joys of life together and they mourn collectively over individual losses and tragedies. It’s not perfect of course, but it comes the closest I’ve ever seen to being an Acts 2 community of God’s people. We have more to learn from them than they have to learn from us.
When we reach the church and the people see that the Bishop has arrived, they surround the vehicle and begin to dance and sing songs of welcome. The Bishop gets out and begins to greet the people. We remain seated in the truck and Willy drives to a place to park. I asked Willy for an idea of the agenda for the day, knowing there would not be a time schedule that would be kept. He explained how the day would likely unfold…the first event being breakfast for the Bishop. It was 10:00am.
As we began walking towards the building where breakfast would be served to the Bishop, church leaders and special guests, I took a look around. The property was a wide open field with green grass and several large trees. There were a few small buildings, all used for the local school. There was no church building. There was a large tree under which I noticed
rows of wooden benches. This is what’s called a tree church! In villages where there is no building for the believers to worship, they gather under a tree for shade. St. James Church does not have a church building but I was to learn that, in faith, they had recently laid the foundation for one.
We were led to a small classroom where the Bishop was already seated at one end at a long table. As we entered the building, the smell of smoke filled the air and I saw that women were busy cooking on charcoal fires behind the building.
I was encouraged to sit next to the Bishop, a place of honor for which I did not feel worthy. Important people in the parish came in to greet the Bishop. As we sat waiting for the food to be brought, the rain finally began to fall. It was a heavy rainfall and the sound of it on the tin roof was very loud. One of the church leaders began to speak to those gathered in the room in Luo and I didn’t understand what was being said. He then turned to me and repeated what he had shared in English, which was very thoughtful of him. He said that when it rains when guests come it is considered a special blessing. This is the rainy season but it has been unusually dry and many gardens are starting to wilt so this rain was much needed and welcome even though it might affect the day’s festivities.
While we waited for the food to be served, the Bishop was presented with a gift from the church leadership. It was a plaque commemorating the blessing of the new church foundation which the Bishop was going to pray over and bless that day. It was then that I learned the church was named St. James. I asked the Bishop how much it would cost to build the church and he said about $30,000. As the rain continued to fall outside, I understood the need for and desire for a dedicated church building. When it rains, there is no where to go. The school buildings are too small. I got up and went to the door and looked toward the tree with its benches and everyone had fled to find shelter from the rain.
The food was brought in, a blessing was said and we began to eat. It was not western “breakfast” food but was instead of spread of rice, potatoes, cassava (a kind of sweet potato) cow liver, chicken and I think goat. I had the cow liver and it was delicious. By the time we were finished the rain had slowed and we were led to the tent near the big tree where a makeshift altar had been set up and plastic chairs had been put out for the Bishop, other clergy and special guests. The traditional African worship music began as people took their places. But the Bishop first went to say a special blessing over the new church foundation. It was still raining a good bit but dozens followed the Bishop in the rain to a corner of the property where the church building would go up. Then, they all made their way to the memorial set up to commemorate the church members who had been killed by the rebels in the civil war. By this time the rain had begun to fall heavy again. I wanted to go but the thought of being wet all day kept me under the tent with Mama Christine. Soon everyone began heading back towards the tent and the big tree for the service to begin. There were about 400 people present. By now it was around 1:00pm. All the clergy in their robes were dripping wet and the tent was beginning to leak in places but that did not dampen anyone’s spirits. Finally the rain subsided.
The Scriptures were read and then those being confirmed were called forward. They kneeled, seven or eight at a time, on a mat in front of the altar and the Bishop prayed for and laid hands on each one.
After each blessing to whole crowd would say “Amen” in unison, followed by lots of clapping and rejoicing until the next group had kneeled and the Bishop began again. This took about 25 minutes. After he was finished, the Bishop began to preach the gospel, starting with Romans 7. He was speaking in Luo but a wonderful female deacon named Necolynn (soon to be ordained as a priest) sat next to me and translated. It was preaching in its purest form. Plain and simple. We are all slaves to sin. It wreaks havoc in our lives. There is one way to get out from under the weight of sin and back into communion with our Creator…through Jesus Christ, who invites all who are weary and burdened by life to come to Him, through whom there is forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life. The Bishop preached for about 30 minutes and then he invited those who wanted to commit their lives to Christ to come forward. I estimate about 20 people came forward, some making first time commitments and some recommitting their lives after having fallen way.
The Bishop prayed for them and invited some of them to share what was on their hearts. As I sat watching, I was reminded of how relatively easy it is to proclaim Christ and how complicated we tend to make it sometimes. We then celebrated communion, which was led by Canon Willy.
Next the Bishop began to encourage people and he challenged everyone to do their part in building the new church. Many people came forward to pledge bags of cement or money. I think about $800 was raised. It’s a good beginning. I pray that soon they will always have a dry place to worship when they come together each Sunday. (If you or your church would like to contribute to the building, please contact me.) By now a cold wind was blowing and I was freezing! I actually had chill bumps. I wished I had a sweater or jacket. Strange thought to have in Africa but there you have it. It gets cold in Uganda.
Then came dancing and singing. Various groups of children had practiced songs to sing for the Bishop. In between songs there were speeches by various community/church leaders. By now it was around 3:30pm. After speeches, gifts were presented to the Bishop. Those who presented gifts would dance in to the center of the circle that had now formed around the tent. Some would give small amounts of money but others gave out of their material possessions. That day the Bishop was presented with ten goats, two chickens and a huge bag of charcoal for cooking. I leaned over to Mama Christine and asked how the goats would get back to Gulu. “In the back of the truck we came in,” she said. I just laughed. Sorry, I didn’t get pictures of the goats. Guess I was too caught up in the moment to snap pictures. LOL!
After the presentation of gifts it was now around 5:30pm and it was time to eat again. Another huge spread was laid out. This time everyone would have the chance to eat, not just the Bishop, guests and church leaders. A long line formed. Willy came and told me it was almost finished. I think he was worried that I was really tired or bored. But to be honest, the day went by really fast. I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt blessed to be there.
After eating Willy told me to prepare to leave. I wanted to take a photo of the memorial so I ran across the field to snap a picture of it.
Seated on the ground near the memorial in a big circle were friends and family of those who had been killed. They did not want to eat, only to sit and remember those they lost. The Bishop talked with them and prayed with them. In the meantime, all the goats and chickens were piled into the back of the truck. As I sat in the truck with Willy waiting to depart, lots of children came and stared at me. White skin still holds a fascination for them, I suspect, even though I am certainly not the first white person they have seen. I said hello to them in their language and they just giggled at me. Such beautiful children!
It was nearly 7:00pm when we finally pulled away and headed home…goats, chickens and all. Little Mercy climbed into her father’s lap in the front seat and was fast asleep. I was worried about the goats and chickens being okay in the back of the truck :>) while the Bishop and Willy chatted about the day. What an awesome day it was. The Lord was worshipped and glorified and the Kingdom grew and it was a first rate celebration…despite the rain. Now that’s what I call going to church…all nine hours of it! Praise God!