Faith as I saw it in Uganda

Faith as I saw it in Uganda November 1, 2011

I knew the sound the second I heard it, a loud sustained cry, undulating but strong. “Is that the call to prayer?” I asked Eva, a Christian woman operating a small crafts shop.

“It is for Muslims,” she said.

It was the first time I’d ever heard a Muslim call to prayer. It wouldn’t be the last during my stay in Uganda. Mosques seemed almost as plentiful as churches do in some places in the U.S. I’d never seen so many as I did driving around Jinja, Kampala, and the areas around the two cities.

You see more men in short brimless hats than women with head scarves, but you can’t miss either of them, nor all the men on Friday wearing their long robes to services. For an American in whose country Islam is still largely an abstraction, the stuff of newspaper articles, I found it all a bit jarring.

Megan and I had traveled to Uganda to adopt two boys, Moses and Jonah, but while there I found the various expressions of faith endlessly fascinating.

I asked Job, a driver, his thoughts on Islam, particularly how Muslims interacted with others. By and large, he said, everyone gets along, but some Muslims are up to no good. He said they largely behave themselves because Christians far outnumber them and they don’t want trouble. Job is Roman Catholic. He has a son named George Walker Bush.

There are many Roman Catholics in Uganda, and if you drive by at the right hour, you can hear masses, Sunday and weekdays too, coming from one church or another. As with many buildings, most churches are fairly open-air with doors or windows ajar all round.

Another driver, Emma, short for Emanuel, took me around to several sites, including the Catholic cathedral in Jinja. It was Saturday afternoon. Several children were playing out front. An elderly nun in a bright blue habit walked out and waved to us. I had my boys in tow; Jonah was strapped to my chest, and Moses rode my shoulders. She beamed at the sight of the two.

Inside, Emma and I stood at the back. Up front, two nuns in blue habits played the drums that are ubiquitous there. Boys danced up the center aisle, rehearsing. The choir sang in Luganda that Mary was the mother of Jesus. Emma translated for me, but even without understand it all, the scene was delightful, even beautiful.

The Church of Uganda, part of the Anglican Communion, also predominates. I attended one service at St. Andrews’ parish in Jinja. The Common Worship liturgy was loosely followed and at one point the choir sang the American spiritual, “I Shall Not Be Moved.” A few of the old hymns were sung as well; sometimes it seems that there is nothing so universal as an Anglican hymn. The priest gave the singles in his congregation a rough time and encouraged the men to go out and find a wife.

There are many other Protestant groups in Uganda as well, including Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists, but Pentecostals seem to surpass all the others.

Driver Emma is Pentecostal, as is the group from whom we adopted the boys. We attended church there the first Sunday I was in town. I grew up in a charismatic church and I was surprised by the similarities, despite the fact that the service was conducted under an open-air structure with a dirt floor.

The worship was primarily choruses, backed by drums and synthesizers. The pastor, Ivan, and another leader in the community, also named Emma, went back in forth in English and Luganda. The sermon involved a lengthy discussion of proper baptism.

Prior to the service Ivan told me that it is imperative for Pentecostal pastors to get training. Too many people feel the call of the Spirit and then just start ministering, he said. Without training, their ministry suffers because they’re not equipped to lead their people. He said their ministry ends up very shallow. His heart for cultivating serious believers and serious pastors was evident and inspiring.

By far the most moving experience involved attending liturgy at St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Kampala. Megan and I are Orthodox and love our church and its worship. To be halfway around the world and find the liturgy virtually identical was wonderful.

The service was in the local language and I could not understand anything but a few snatches of English and one Greek phrase (Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy) thrown in because the priests noticed some mzungus (white folks) in the congregation — there were just four of us in a congregation of about eighty or ninety Ugandans. The other two mzungus, a wonderful missionary couple, would lean over and tell us where we were in the service, but the cool thing was that I knew. I could follow it all even though I didn’t understand the words. I just overlaid the English in my mind.

Uganda has adherents to Islam, Hinduism (there are a sizable number of Indians in Uganda), local folk religions, and even a few Mormons. But Christianity is the dominant expression, and I found its vibrancy there exhilarating.

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