Sunday in Kawanda
David Weiss, March 24, 2013
The dust is the least of it. But it’s red, and it has an aura of beauty to it even as it gets everything dirty. As Rev. Mark and I drove out to his New Life Unitarian Church in Kawanda, about 11 miles NE of Kampala (google it and you’ll see how empty it looks on satellite) we were greeted by red dust, noisy traffic, and the cacophony of architecture that is Kampala. (I know, it’s a mixed metaphor, but it’s a mixed city.) Tall (8-10 story) “modern” building sit side-by-side with Third World shanty shops. I don’t mean from one neighborhood to the next, but from one storefront to the next. Success and struggle sit side-by-side here, and I suspect the boundaries are all too permeable from one month to the next.
Leaving the paved road, we drove another 20 minutes on what was clearly built as a dirt road, but now rode far more like a rutted river bed. Serious ruts – 8-12 inches – everywhere. A one-lane road shared equally by pedestrians, bike, boda-bodas, and cars. Whoever gets to the next stretch of road first has the right-of-way – at least for a moment. It’s a competition between speed and size (and each has its advantages and disadvantages) that looks like ever imminent catastrophe, but somehow unfolds into a choreographed dance where everyone moves at just the right time to avoid each other.
In the middle of nowhere, past mud homes the size of garages and some barely the size of sheds, we came to the church’s property. After renting for years much closer to the city they made the difficult and daring decision to move to the “burbs.” Or what they assume will become the suburbs over the next decade as Kampala continues its outward sprawl. Although these suburbs are not for the affluent, but for those at the edges, displaced as the city center modernizes itself bit by bit. They own about four acres. Bought the land completely undeveloped and have cleared about half of it. They make bricks from the dirt on their land and the building braces come from trees they felled.
There are two buildings so far. One is finished: five school rooms, with a pair that can be opened up to use as a sanctuary until they build that. The other will be done soon and has four more school rooms. Their school has almost 200 students and seven teachers. The rooms all have walls and roofs, and open-air windows and iron gates for doors. No electricity. Marginal by our standards, but an education in the middle of nowhere is a grace to these people.
Worship. I have been to several Unitarian worship services, and this one felt FAR more Baptist than Unitarian. But I can only base that on the volume and rhythm of the music which roused even my reserved German blood (if only because the bass got my blood cells vibrating!). The preaching and singing were mostly in Luganda (one of several Ugandan languages and the one predominate in this area). The singing was beautiful, mesmerizing, hypnotic. I couldn’t understand a word, but I could feel the joy. Vincent, the lay pastor was as fiery as any Baptist preacher I’ve heard – I suspect he would send most US UU’s scurrying toward a door. But, like the singing, his fire was joyful. Loud. Actually LOUD. But even across the language barrier you could tell this was gospel encouragement not hellfire and brimstone.
I was introduced and invited to bring a short greeting, which I did. In my best English since my Luganda is nonexistent. I think the children (half the congregation of 40) understood me better than the parents (they go to school in English). I didn’t see anyone who might pass for a grandparent. Life expectancy is early 50’s here and while there are elders, they are few and far between.
At the end of the service – for many of them it was a 2-hour aerobic workout; for me it was occasional attempts at rhythm interspersed with long lapses into stiff Western whiteness. Oh well. In any case, during the postlude (which is my word, it was really more like a song-encore or two or three), someone came around with 12 oz. bottles of sodas for everyone there and we all refreshed ourselves – me, with pineapple malt soda – while the singing coasted to its end. No communion. No palms. But I knew I had been to worship. And in Kawanda, on Palm Sunday, it left the taste of pineapple in my mouth. Praise Jesus.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). He and Margaret have a blended family of five children, five grandchildren, and assorted animals that approximate a peaceable kingdom. A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at http://www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”