June 2008 - Vol. 20

Uganda: Friends
in Christ

Travelogue by Dave O'Connor

Several years ago, I read the story of the martyrs of Uganda. In 1866, because of the madness of their king, approximately 40 young men paid the ultimate price for their newly embraced faith in Jesus. The youngest of them, Kizito, was only 14 or 15 years old when he was killed. The account of their martyrdom was very inspiring, but little did I realize at the time that I soon would have the chance to visit their homeland.

Last summer, I traveled to Uganda for five weeks. For part of the time, I stayed on a ranch 90 kilometers north of the capital city of Kampala, where Cornerstone Leadership Academy, a school for young men that has an informal connection with Cornerstone school in Detroit, Michigan, USA, where I teach, is located. Cornerstone Leadership Academy does a marvellous work of bringing together and training young people – generally from very poor backgrounds – from all the various tribal groups of Uganda as well as from different Christian denominations. Their vision is to create and sustain a strong network of “friends in Christ” who share the common goal of transforming their society.

I also joined two fellow Servants of the Word from our European and Middle East region of the Sword of the Spirit, Martin Steinbereithner and Dave Quintana, who happened to be in Uganda at the same time. They were visiting a group called Emmaus Community and helping put on a two-week conference for university student leaders. I assisted them for three days, and was amply rewarded by the opportunity to fellowship and pray with those attending the conference. Wow! The joy and energy in their worship were amazing. Once the singing started, it was impossible to stand still! Through my connection with Cornerstone, we arranged for one of their senior staff to lead a session at the Emmaus conference. The two organizations have had contact over the years and clearly hold one another in high regard, but they were grateful for how our presence facilitated a renewed connection between them. Their relationship is particularly noteworthy because Emmaus is a Catholic community while those connected with Cornerstone are predominately Protestant and Pentecostal.

Other highlights of my time in that beautiful East African country were the opportunities I had to visit two youth homes. One was in the northern city of Gulu, which for many years was terrorized by rebel forces specializing in the kidnapping
of children. Cornerstone has opened two homes there to care for street children, to help them return to school, reconnect with relatives, and realize a purpose in living. I was deeply moved by the evening I spent with these traumatized kids who now have become as family to one another. Later, I had the special treat of visiting Komamboga Children's Home, an orphanage started by my cousin and his wife years ago when they were missionaries in Uganda. Once again, I was greatly uplifted by the joyful singing of the children and the powerful beat of African drums.

There is much more to relate of my Ugandan adventure, but space is limited. I'll close simply by telling of the afternoon when I was asked to speak, with no advance notice, to several hundred school children. The school was named after none other than the youngest of the Ugandan martyrs, St. Kizito – whose story I knew! (In fact, I have
taught it to my own students in Detroit.) So, thankfully, I was well prepared to say something encouraging that day. In so many ways, big and small, the Lord provided for me on my travels.

[Dave O'Connor lives and works in Detroit, Michigan, USA. Dave is a member of the Servants of the Word, a missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. He is a coordinator of Word of Life Community and leader for Detroit Community Outreach.]


The Martyrs of Uganda

June 3, 1886

by James Kiefer

On 3 June 1886, thirty-two young men, pages of the court of King Mwanga of Buganda, were burned to death at Namugongo for their refusal to renounce Christianity. In the following months many other Christians throughout the country died by spear or fire for their faith. 

These martyrdoms totally changed the dynamic of Christian growth in Uganda. Introduced by a handful of Anglican and Roman missionaries after 1877, the Christian faith had been preached only to the immediate members of the court, by order of King Mutesa. His successor, Mwanga, became increasingly angry as he realized that the first converts put loyalty to Christ above the traditional loyalty to the king. Martyrdoms began in 1885. Mwanga first forbade anyone to go near a Christian mission on pain of death, but finding himself unable to cool the ardor of the converts, resolved to wipe out Christianity. 

The Namugongo martyrdoms produced a result entirely opposite to Mwanga's intentions. The example of these martyrs, who walked to their deaths singing hymns and praying for their enemies, so inspired many of the bystanders that they began to seek instruction from the remaining Christians. Within a few years the original handful of converts had multiplied many times and spread far beyond the court. The martyrs had left the indelible impression that Christianity was truly African, not simply a white man's religion. Most of the missionary work was carried out by Africans rather than by white missionaries, and Christianity spread steadily. Uganda now has the largest percentage of professed Christians of any nation in Africa. 

Several years ago I heard an African clergyman, born of pagan parents, tell of his conversion. He said: 

One afternoon I was bicycling along a road and met a young man about my own age bicycling in the opposite direction. He promptly turned about and began to ride beside me and to talk. He spoke with great enthusiasm about Jesus, whom I had never heard of before, and how He had destroyed the power of death and evil by dying and rising again, and how He was God become man to reconcile man with God. I heard what my companion had to say, and before we parted I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Now, the young man who preached the Good News of Jesus Christ to me that afternoon had himself heard of Jesus for the first time that morning.
Renewed persecution of Christians in the 1970's by the military dictatorship of Idi Amin proved the vitality of the example of the Namugongo martyrs. Among the thousands of new martyrs, both Anglican and Roman, was Janani Luwum, Archbishop of the (Anglican) Church of Uganda. 
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