BY MALCOLM PRITCHARD, MISSION PARTNER IN NORTHERN UGANDA
Wise advice given to visitors to a certain country goes like this. After one week you will be absolutely certain about what needs to be done to right the nation’s wrongs. After one month, you will not be quite so sure. And after one year, you will shut up.
So it is perilous to attempt an analysis of the way things are here from my vantage point of relative ignorance. And there are many desensitising ways to talk about Africa, so I am searching for a way of talking about life here that will evoke a response. Appropriately enough I am doing so in an ambiguous cultural context, with a foot in Africa and a foot in the West; I can see the fragility of the clinging consumer culture I have left (but only physically), yet at the same time I can see that there are undoubtedly ambiguities in Ugandan Christianity.
Unlike the UK, there is no embarrassment here in talking about God. “Praise the Lord” is a common conversation starter. Prayers are offered at every opportunity. Not even a cup of tea is taken for granted. The thanksgiving for safe deliverance through the night to the gift of a new day is heartfelt. The Bible is treasured. Worship is exuberant and joyful. Churches are busy with fellowship groups, youth groups, choirs, Mothers’ Union, Fathers’ Union, prayer meetings and more. There is lots going on.
At the same time, something is seriously wrong. Turning to our neighbour for a moment, where there are similar issues to be addressed, Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit of Kenya asked in his installation address: “If Christians form 80 per cent of Kenya’s population, why are our elections often violence-prone? Why is our society riddled with corruption, nepotism and a great level of social stratification? Why are environmental degradation, poverty and disease still ever-present realities?”
To visualise this, let me draw on something I see in everyday life here. I can look around and see plants that look good enough to produce a harvest, but closer inspection reveals “worms” (think caterpillars) which have devoured the business end of the country’s maize crop. The cause is a matter of dispute but what is indisputable is the large and powerful seed company selling maize seeds which, pests permitting, will produce only one crop. Any seeds from those plants will all be sterile. The poor farmers will have to go back to the rich multinational and purchase more “single-use” seeds next time. In my naivety I found it staggering that there are people who are deliberately creating dependency. A quick internet search of the company involved reveals deep concern about the methods the villains use to exploit the Ugandan poor with such impunity.
Of course Jesus talked a lot about seeds and sowers. So I find myself asking, what kind of seed are the sowers of today scattering?
Too often it seems the gospel seed sown is for single use only. It is buried in the heart of the believer as a golden ticket to secure safe passage from this wicked world to an ill-defined place called “heaven”. It is a private treasure that will not be required until the point of death. It is escapist and sterile. Jesus is a personal saviour but not necessarily Lord. Of course this blunt view of the gospel is not peculiar to the Church in East Africa.
So I find my primary challenge is to apprehend the true gospel and communicate what I have received in the various settings in which I now find myself. Recently this has been with a group of 23 enthusiastic lay readers and catechists at Archbishop Janani Luwum Theological College (AJLTC). The subject allocated to me was “discipleship” so we have spent time thinking about what the gospel really is and what it means to be a disciple. Of course I am learning loads and I cannot speak for the students but it feels good!
From a practical perspective I have put the classroom chairs into a circle. I have also broken a cultural norm by choosing to eat my lunch with the students from time to time rather than just with staff. I think students expected me to download information to them in a one-way “stuffing the goose” fashion. I hope that the discussions and shared learning and reflections on group activity have been pleasant alternatives to the traditional expectation.
In addition to work in college, the bishop has appointed me as curate to Christ Church in Gulu town with responsibility for the English service. Sunday morning services – and there are three in quick succession – last a couple of hours. Twenty minutes is given to the sermon and a churchwarden delivers a “time’s up!” note if you step over the limit. So glad the wardens in Luton didn’t think of that trick!
In all of these situations I long to find a way to sow seeds that will bear fruit. For my part, I will speak about a gospel that is always personal and never private, that will make a difference 24/7 and not just for a couple of hours on Sunday, and which is genetically engineered to make a difference to life on earth now, not merely in the new earth and new heavens to come, a gospel to be shared not guarded, Good News not fake news.