Easter in Kampala
David R. Weiss, April 1, 2013
Saturday night brought a torrential downpour to Kampala. It’s the beginning of the rainy season here, and it thankfully delayed its coming until just before my departure. My roof (like most roofs here) is corrugated steel. Which means that torrential is a uniquely aural experience, serenaded by a thousand drumbeats every second. You feel the rain. It also brought a “Western slip” (like a Freudian slip, when you have a Western thought that is almost grotesquely out of context).
After a long day out and about, followed by a soothing and cleansing shower, the rain drumming away above me as I dried myself off, I thought, “Gosh but I’m glad we beat the rain. Wouldn’t want to be racing up to my room in this.” And then, “Oh. But for at least half a million people in this city there is no beating the rain. Pavement is reserved for main thoroughfares here. The VAST majority of residential roads are dirt. And even “dirt road” is a wishful euphemism. They’re more accurately imaged as dried riverbeds used as roads in between the rains. I can’t imagine what the poor neighborhoods look like during a downpour. Kampala is built on hills, and the neighborhoods are a maze of twists and turns, but also ups and downs. This rain won’t “run off”; it will make a muddy white(red)water rapids. I was still grateful to be dry, but keenly aware of all who were not.
I slept early and long Saturday night. Easter morning dawned with drizzle. The Guesthouse was mostly deserted for the holy-day weekend. Moses came by to collect me and we headed over to join the Bishop for morning worship.
Bishop Christopher retired in the late 1990’s (’98, I think) and had his Ally epiphany not longer after that. Unfortunately his Church – the Church of Uganda (Anglican) – didn’t have the same epiphany and the bishop has paid dearly for being “off message.” His pension has been suspended by the church and he’s not allowed to preside at official church ceremonies. The church has even requested that he not allow people to address him as “Bishop,” any longer. But in his heart (and in God’s heart, no doubt) he remains a bishop, and his deep purple clergy shirt with white collar are a quiet reminder that he will not allow be invisible in this church. He tells me, “David, it would be like telling children to no longer call their father ‘father.’ I have confirmed so many and they know me as a bishop. I am no less to them today.”
So he worships regularly at St. Andrew’s Church, just a half-mile from his home. It’s his home congregation. Some in the congregation are respectful and appreciative of his work, though few will publically say so; to be seen too close to the bishop can set you back in both church and society here. Others tolerate his presence with respectful disdain. It’s hard to be openly contemptuous of a small stout eighty year-old man.
St. Andrew’s is a thriving congregation. Our service was the third of four scheduled for Easter. We had 400 people, and by all accounts the 7:30 and 9:30 services had been equally packed. The first is in English, the second in Luganda, ours in English again, not sure about the 4 p.m. one. Our service began with a familiar hymn: “Jesus Christ is risen today.” The whole service was a mix of stately (or staid) church music familiar to me from my youth interwoven with praise songs with lyrics projected a big screen up front. I’m not sure how long that’s been the case, but the praise aspect (almost Pentecostal energy) of these songs seems to fit the personality of the people better than the older and slower Anglican hymns. Not sure the theology serves them better though.
Still, it was a warm vibrant worship. A children’s blessing (an annual Easter event) that brought a close to a hundred children up front to “Marching in the Light of God.” I don’t know what the future holds for this church or these children, some of whom will no doubt grow up to be gay, but I felt honored to raise my hand in blessing in between those of Moses on my left and Bishop Christopher on my right. We were a trinity of subversive blessing; humble and gracious.
After the service, which ran almost exactly two hours, we drove back to the bishop’s residence for Easter dinner. He and Mary live in a spacious home. Hardly luxurious in its furnishings, but with eight children (all grown now), it is well-used. The living room is a large square room and has a variety of sofas and easy chairs to seat fifteen. Moses and I waited there, visiting briefly with the variety of family and friends who wandered through. Easter Monday is an informal holiday in Uganda so Easter weekend becomes gathering time not unlike Thanksgiving for us. And three or four of the bishop’s children gathered with us.
While we waited for the meal we could see cars pulling up and potluck dishes carried to the back door. The aromas of multiple foods teased us, but it was a full hour before the curtain was pulled back, a table prayer said, and Moses and I were sent through the feast line first. Aside from mashed bananas, there was nothing unfamiliar to me. Cole slaw, avocado slices, beans, rice, potato/egg salad, and an African flat bread. All home-made, all delicious. Best of all, to be surrounded by family, including six grandchildren overlapping some of the ages of my own. Family is different everywhere, but family is also the same. And the two and a half hours I spent with the Senyonjo family on Easter felt like home to me.
I had told the bishop when we arrived that I had some gifts to share and he said, let’s wait until after the meal so the children and grandchildren can see, too. So, after a light and fresh fruit cocktail for dessert I made presentation after presentation. Several copies of my book; one to stay in the Centre library others to be passed on to potential allies in this work. Two copies of my CD of welcoming hymns along with lyric sheets. Icons featuring multicultural images. At this point the bishop asked Mary to join him. Two framed photos: one of St. Paul-Reformation as a sign of our partnership; one of our “We have heard that God is with you” banner as a sign of our solidarity. Then the three signed cards and the $300 love offering.
Finally, I said, “And Mary, we also have a gift for you, because we know it is not easy to married to a man like this.” Smiles and laughter all around. She began to protest, but I continued, “No, I know this, because I do some of the work back in Minnesota, and I know it is not always an easy thing to be my life partner, but I also know that Margaret’s love for me is a priceless gift to what I do, and we know that the bishop treasures your support in his work.” The bishop loudly confirmed this, and then Mary opened the box with a sigh of astonished delight. The necklace, crafted by Lisa Mathieson, was a huge hit, with both children and grandchildren eager to see it.
I know the bishop’s work has been a stress on his family. Although they are all supportive of him, when your father receives death threats and plenty of bad press, it has to take a toll. So I think he was very pleased to let me join their family for this meal, and to allow his family to see in these gifts and in my grateful presence the testament of those who honor, support, and treasure his work from afar. After this we assembled outside for a bit of a ragtag family photo. We gathered as many as could be corralled, I was placed next to the bishop, and Moses and two of the bishop’s sons snapped pictures to capture the occasion.
Then, around 4:30 p.m. we walked two houses down to where the Centre is located and set up for the afternoon chapel service. People come by foot or by bus from a range of places, so 4:30 to a little past 5:00 is gathering time. By 5:15 we began, fifteen of us. Using thin paperbound Ugandan Anglican liturgies and songbooks, with extras photocopied and stapled, we were a small band struggling to carry a tune, struggling (some at least) to carry faith, and yet, as they say in Latin America, we were, each one of us, Presente!
Dennis, a gay man in his thirties whom the Centre helped complete his education to qualify as a teacher, serves as the volunteer chaplain. The bishop helped Dennis guide us through the service of evening prayer, mentoring Dennis to become a worship leader. At eighty the bishop has plenty of spark, but he is actively looking to position leaders at the Centre so that the work has fresh sparks as well. We sing (sort of), pray (deeply), and listen to the bishop’s reflections on 1 Corinthians 13. At the end, I’m invited up to say a word.
I tell them how honored I am to be with them on Easter, this festival of transformation and hope. I explain that I met the bishop several years ago. That Wingspan has helped fund his work the past several years. That the bishop and I have crossed paths four times now in America, and that Wingspan felt it was time for someone to cross paths with the bishop here in Uganda, and that I was chosen for this honor. I offer greetings on behalf of all who sent me. And, speaking directly to those gathered in this garage … not much larger than an empty tomb … I salute their courage and encourage their faith. They clap. I hope for all of us, but I am least deserving of applause. But it is good. So good. Christ is risen. In kampala, we are risen indeed.
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.”