Have you ever made a necklace for a child by stringing together an assortment of odd buttons? You might end up with a jumble of buttons that is beautiful to the child and cannot be reproduced; it captures the whim of the child.
Our family reunion in Uganda certainly did not go to plan, but looking back it is like the necklace – something that captured the passion of the moment and is radiant in the beauty of God intertwined with his people.
The tale begins when I was just 10 years old in 1977. At that time Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was silencing all opposition to his brutal reign. The Archbishop of the Church of Uganda, Janan Luwum, was killed for his opposition to Amin’s government. Janan’s brother and family then fled to the small town of Pajok in Sudan.
On the way they met with a young man who directed them to speak with the Africa Inland Church pastor, Andrew Lakana. Through this divinely directed meeting, a deep bond developed between the Luwum family and that of Pastor Andrew. When Amin was gone and Uganda normalised, the family returned, but the bond of Christian love that was forged in adversity endured.
Pastor Andrew Lakana’s family also endured their share of suffering. Andrew died on the Juba road in the early 80s and the family fled to the refugee camps in Uganda.
That is when I entered this story. When the Africa Inland Mission restarted its work in Sudan in 2002, I met the Lakana family in the camp at Bwoyali. Eight years later Tabitha, Pastor Andrew Lakana’s daugther, and I married. We have since been blessed with three children.
Last April, we contemplated a family reunion in the refugee camps of Uganda. It had been seven years since my wife had seen her family and our two youngest children had never met the extended family.
In the early planning my brother-in-law contacted James Luwum, the nephew of Janan, himself a pastor in the Church of Uganda. James insisted that he would drive us from Kampala to the camps.
His influence proved very valuable. When we arrived at Entebbe airport with sick and tired children, we were whisked to the front of every queue. Within 10 minutes we were in the embrace of our extended family.
Hope, our eldest, was four when we left so didn’t remember anyone. Faith was happy to be carried by her grandmother, who she had been asking to meet for the past year. And little Fred was passed from one uncle to the other. I rarely got to carry Fred for the remainder of our stay.
We stayed for a couple of days at James’ house and he showed me his church. James said when he started the church he gathered a team of six to pray for the local residents, mostly underpaid police. The group went door-to-door telling the story of Jesus.
Out of 2000 houses visited, more than 200 people made a commitment and started attending the church. On any Sunday the church runs seven services, as well as midweek meetings and they have to erect tents and a TV for those who won’t fit into the building.
We then travelled to Bwoyale and the refugee camp that half the family call home.
This was the place where I first met my wife and where Hope was born. The camp had grown with the recent influx of refugees and there was greater diversity of tribes, resulting in the increased use of Arabic as a common language.
Life in the camp is more difficult than it was in 2002. Refugees still receive food or money to buy their own supplies, but fuel for cooking is not provided. In the past they were free to cut wood from the bush but now have to buy wood or charcoal for cooking, which is forcing some to return to South Sudan because they have no resources or relatives to help.
We stayed with family in the camp in a mud brick house with corrugated roof. Mattresses with new sheets on the dirt floor and mosquito nets made it look like a real safari camp.
The Africa Inland Church has a vision to reach out to South Sudanese and Ugandan diasporas. The services focus on choirs with men, women, youth, and children taking turns to present songs. The churches have very few trained pastors, so mature leaders take turns to preach and the licenced pastor presides over baptisms, child blessings, funerals and communion. I went with a message prepared knowing that visitors are given the honour of bringing the message.
I was surprised by the number of people who still remembered me from South Sudan and my previous time in the camp. We also visited a new camp called Palabeck where the rest of the family live. This camp was less settled, with residents still working to establish their homes. Many shelters were little more than a UN tarp draped over poles.
At Palabeck we visited Tabitha’s grandmothers and introduced the children to them and the family heads. Hope was dragged into sitting on her great grandmother’s knee and everyone laughed. The great grandmother gave her blessing over the children.
This was what the trip was all about, that the children would know their extended family and be remembered in the land of their heritage.
On the way back to Bwoyali we stopped at Mocwiny just outside Kitgum in Northern Uganda. There we were formally introduced to the extended family of the late Janan Luwum. The family head made a speech acknowledging that because of past hospitality in the name of Christ the two families had become one. This was followed by a meal together and a well-appreciated rest that night with the sound of rain gently falling.
What power there is in Christian hospitality, especially in the midst of crisis, where every day of life is a blessing and, with just a little kindness, lifelong friendships are formed.
Chris Machar is an Uniting Church pastor working in Geelong.
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