“You can leave us here,” I told the driver not wanting to trouble him further after 3 long hours drive through the heavy traffic jam. “We can find our way to the apartment.”
“I can’t leave you here,” declared Peter the driver with a determined face. “I will come with you.”
We were at one of the busiest and chaotic street intersections in downtown Jinja, Uganda, 2 days before one of the most deadly election periods in Uganda’s history with more than 56 persons shot dead during protests and many arrests of those from the opposition party. Because the celebrity-turned opposition candidate Bobi Wine was so popular among the youth, it was a perfect storm for unrest against the incumbent president Museveni who had ruled for 35 years.
After much advice from concerned locals and ex-pats, we decided to leave Kampala, the capital of Uganda, and head to Jinja 80 km away to “wait out” the potential election violence and lockdown. Nassar, a friend we met in Kampala, offered us his driver Peter to take us there.
“Okay. Let’s find her together. I think she is waiting for us in front of the African Bank,” I told Peter.
Only after finding the person who has the key to our Airbnb apartment and seeing us through the shabby gate with our luggage to the apartment complex made of aluminum sheets, did Peter felt safe enough to leave us and drive for another 3 hours back to Kampala.
Before coming to Uganda, we were advised by several people not to come because of the potential danger during the election. While in Uganda, we even spoke to locals and ex-pats who had left the country or about to leave due to the potential danger. It seemed foolish for us to come when others are leaving.
However, we felt God had opened doors after doors for us to serve in Uganda through our connections in South Africa. After praying as a family, we decided to not give in to fears, but to trust that if God wants us to come, He will watch over us.
Come and See
Our first open door was to “come and see” the “ghetto” Pastor Wilson.
“You are most, most welcomed here. You are most, most welcomed here,” Stella, the wife of Wilson, repeated several times when we arrived at 3 am in her home.
Pastor Wilson picked us up at the airport at 2 am after flying from South Africa through Ethiopia airport to Uganda. We were thankful that we and our luggage made it despite only having 15 minutes for connection. Because of us, Wilson and Stella’s five children and one helper moved out of their bedrooms to the kitchen shack behind the house. They even bought a new bed for us.
Every morning we woke up with complete breakfasts laid out on the dining table. During the day, we followed the Ghetto Pastor as he visited the slums and encouraged different discipleship group leaders there. We joined the discipleship group meetings and prayed for the orphans, prostitutes, and drug addicts. When we came back, Stella again had dinners all prepared for us. At night, we had lots of fun and waves of laughter playing bluff, spoon, Spikedball, and charades with their children Fortunate, Alvin, Jordan, Gift, and Ethan.
For 9 days, we lived, ate, watched, and followed him.
Make Disciples of All Nations
“I want to start rabbit churches, not elephant churches,” Wilson shared with us in his office. “Rabbits have 8 baby rabbits every 3 months. Elephants have one baby every 1-2 years.”
Our entire family was hooked on every word he was sharing to us like watching a Korean drama. The idea of multiplying small groups was not new but it was the first time I heard it explained so clearly.
“Jesus’ command is for us to love God and love each other,” Wilson continued as he drew a triangle. “Love God is Worship, Love Each Other is Community, and Love the Lost is Missions. These three are the essence of following Jesus. Everything else is secondary.”
In 7 years since Wilson started the first discipleship group (using Discovery Bible Study), the groups have multiplied to 1000+ groups through 7 generations of leaders discipling new leaders.
On our first day, we went to a slum and watched the discipleship groups in action. The members came one by one. When there doesn’t seem to be room for one more, somehow the people were able to find a way to squeeze one more until our small mudroom was filled with more than 20 people.
The steps of the Discovery Bible Study is very simple so anyone can lead:
1. Worship with a song.
2. What are you thankful to God for right now.
3. What is your greatest need right now (Meet the need as a group immediately. If not able, then pray)
4. Did you shared with someone what you learned last time as promised?
5. Read a passage several times then discuss what the passage said about God, People, and You.
6. What will you do to obey his scripture this week?
7. Whom will you share with what you have learned today? (give a name)
8. Close in prayer and decide when is the next meeting and who will lead.
As we witness the group in action, I am amazed at how simple yet powerful it was. People were quick to meet each other needs. Actions were concrete and specific. Learnings are to be shared with people outside of the group which might become a new group. A different person offered to lead next time through which new leaders are developed. There was no need to buy or rent a building as they meet where they live.
I Am Thankful to be Alive
One of the days we drove a long way on a dirt road to a large dirt field next to one of the largest slums in Kampala. There we met several groups of youth, meeting together in discipleship groups.
Afterwards, Olivia wrote:
We went around the circle each listing one thing we were thankful for.
“I’m thankful to be alive.”
“I’m thankful to be alive and my family is alive too.”
“I’m thankful to be alive and you guys can come to visit.”
“I’m thankful to be alive…”
At first, I thought they were just copying each other. And then I realized it is I who have been taking being alive for granted. Life in the ghetto is hard. There is not enough food, not enough space, not enough money, and too many troubles. Yet they face it with bright smiles, they don’t give up meeting together and meeting each other’s needs. Rain or shine, they are family. Today, they are thankful to be alive. I am too.
These youth meet together because they enjoy dancing in groups and as we found out, that’s how most discipleship groups were formed, through common interests or facing the same social challenges.
One of the youths there, Kelvin, asked Olivia, “What tools do you use at home to gather people for Christ?”
Here I am looking at someone who has not finished high school, living in the ghettos and does not know where his next meal where come from. But he goes to two different ghettos every day to teach more than 100 kids how to dance.
“I did a lot of bad things growing up. I don’t want these kids to grow up doing the mistakes and bad things I did, so I teach them how to dance. What tools do you use at home to gather people for Christ?”
I didn’t know how to answer him but I know now that I am without excuse.
Jonathan, who was one of the key youth leaders that started these groups, shared how his life was changed.
“Everything changed the day the police pointed the AK45 assault rifle at me. My parents use to tell me God loves me. I was a Christian but my life was not like that. I was in the gang. I danced in bars. I did drugs. I thought that as long as I had my friends I would be okay. But that day when the police came, I realized I had no excuse. I thought that people steal because they are hungry. People rob others because they have been robbed. But with the rifle pointing at me, this close, I knew I was wrong. I am responsible for the things that I do. That day God saved me and I knew I had to change.” (written by Olivia)
After that day, Jonathan gave his life to Jesus. A stranger on the street told Jonathan that God loves you which touched him deeply. He joined the stranger for a Bible study and they prayed and prayed. Then the stranger told him that tomorrow he should go to a particular bar to meet a prostitute. Below is the story told by Jonathan, recorded by Olivia.
“The man told me that tomorrow I should go to this bar and I will meet this prostitute. He told me her name. The next day I went to the bar with my friends and sat in a corner. Two prostitutes came to join us.
“Do you know this prostitute?” I told them the name.
“I don’t know this person. Why are you looking for her?”
“I have something I want to tell her.”
She left and then came back again. She was the boss of the place.
“What is it that you want to tell her? You can tell me and I will tell her.”
“No, I must tell her myself.”
More time passed and no one showed up so I got ready to leave. She left to go upstairs to look for someone, but she came back with just herself.
“She is not here. Tell me, what is it that you wanted to tell her?”
I gave up, “I just wanted to tell her that God loves her.”
“Why would you want to tell that to someone you don’t know?”
“Because a stranger told me that God loves me and I prayed that God would show me a sign. He told me to come to find her.”
She started to cry. “I am the person you are looking for.”
I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there watching her cry. This is the first godly thing I’ve done. This is my first sign, my first miracle. After that, I couldn’t go back to the way I lived before.”
Hanging out with “Sinners”
Jesus told them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)
Another day we walked inside an abandoned building that was unfinished. At the very last corner of the building, we saw some men with great fineness separating small leaves from branches and using a handmade apparatus to roll the leaves into “cigarettes”. Around them were their wives and babies.
I wasn’t sure what they were doing since Pastor Wilson didn’t warn us ahead of time but after more careful observation, we realized that we were in the middle of a marijuana joint workshop. The man in charge told us that he sells each marijuana cigarettes for US$0.15 so that he can feed his family.
One by one we listened to their stories. One of them is Zaga.
Zaga used to be a drug addict, but after knowing Jesus he stopped doing drugs. He introduced us to his daughter Martha who was 1.5 years old who still have trouble walking:
“She was born prematurely at 25 weeks. There were 8 other premature babies in the hospital, but she was the only one that survived. “You should name her Miracle!”, “You should name her Gift!”, people told me. But no, I named her Martha, because she was a friend of Jesus. I love my daughter. She is a friend of Jesus.”
“My big daddy is my father in heaven. Jesus changed everything for me. I use to be on the streets, and in the bars singing for the ladies. But now I sing for Jesus. My dream is to become a singer and let people in all the nations hear my songs.” (recorded by Olivia)
One of the main discipleship group leaders is Ghost (He was called Ghost because whenever the police come, he was able to disappear like ghost). His grandma who raised him died of COVID-19 last year and for a while, he fell into depression. Out of his depression, he wrote a song about not giving in to fear to COVID, “With Solid(ti), and Vivid(ti), We’re not fear of Covid(ti), ooh…He will guide me…” (see https://www.instagram.com/p/CJ0daY4skkk/ for the story of the Stronghold Tree told by Ghost)
Some of the discipleship group members have stopped taking and selling drugs. Some still do.
“In discipleship group with drug addicts or prostitutes, I don’t tell them to stop what they are doing,” Pastor Wilson shared his approach. “I tell them about Jesus and encourage them to be like Jesus. As they be more like Jesus, they themselves will stop doing what is not of Jesus.”
Before we left, we prayed with them and laid hands on them, including those who are still selling drugs. I trust one day they will also change their ways as they follow closer and closer to Jesus.
Emmanuel – God is with Us
“God heard our prayers,” Pastor Wilson shared after the election when we went back to visit his family. “The election was very peaceful.”
Not sure what will happen, we stored food and water to last us few days the day before the election on Jan 14th. On the 14th, all the stores were closed. Large numbers of military troops guarded all major intersections. The government blocked all social media starting January 11th. In addition, for the few days before and after Election Day, all internet was cut off for five days. It felt like we had no electricity. I wasn’t able to plan for our next leg and didn’t have the chance to tell our friends that we are off-grid. It felt very strange. In the end, the worst case of riots and shootings didn’t happen so we left Jinja and headed towards our next designation, Arua, where the second-largest refugee camps are located.
“Wilson is like Jesus,” Zaka, the former drug addict, shared with us. “He is our ghetto pastor. There is no one like him. He is the only pastor that will come and wait for you to finish smoking before sharing about God; he really loves us like God loves us, unconditionally.”
The driver didn’t leave us there. Wilson didn’t leave them there. God won’t leave them there.
Emmanuel – God is with us.