The Easter lilies have bloomed; the rains have returned; the oxen are in the fields plowing; white ants and wild greens and mushrooms are available. Everywhere we are surrounded by seasonal reminders of life renewed and refreshed. But the lilies and mushrooms spring up and die, here today, back into the soil tomorrow. So too the seed, planted in its grave. So we find ourselves also in a season of death. Mariko, the former employee and gunshot victim. Pillipo, the husband of Chloe’s language teacher. The child of Maruk and Josephine, members of our church. Veronica, the old woman who tried to cross the downed power lines hanging across the road in front of our compound. Lokwii David, former translator for the mission.
Death—of the old and young alike—is commonplace in Karamoja. Shot while defending cows has again become unfortunately familiar. In a sense, these days are not unexpected. But in the last weeks, death seems to have descended with particular insistence on people currently or formerly connected to Nakaale Presbyterian Church. There is always a temptation to see a pattern or meaning in what is, humanly speaking, random happenstance. The inclination apparently afflicted those who were so eager to tell Jesus about the Galileans who had been killed by Pilate as well as, in the opposite direction, Martha, when she told Jesus that if he had come sooner, Lazarus would not have died. So what to make of the recent spate of deaths sharing our congregation in common? Is there a message in them for us?
In the case of Pilipo, I was surprised to be reminded that he was a church member. I have not seen him in church perhaps ever in the last decade. His first wife, Rose, who died last July, was until the end of her life a faithful witness to the Gospel in her home. Pilipo’s two children by Rose are now orphaned. One professed his faith publicly as a teen, but now shows little interest in the life of the church. The other never professed. Do they divine meaning in the different lives of their two parents, both now gone?
The congregation at Nakaale and the mission have cared for Veronica for many years. Her end was as believable as it was unexpected. The real surprise is that no one else thought to cross through the downed wires before she did; they lay across the road over eighteen hours before they were deënergised. When word came that the power company would pay out for her death, two able-bodied adult children appeared whom we had never seen before. These many years, they have lived quietly nearby as the church helped Veronica to eke out an existence.
The death of the child of Maruk and Josephine is doubtlessly the most tragic in its seeming meaninglessness. There is no connect-the-dots, no personal agency that led to her passing. But it is Lokwii’s death that is to me the most baffling. In life, he was something of an enigma. Catechised as a young boy by one of the early members of the mission, he drifted in and out of employment on the mission and participation in the church. With his wife, Hellen, his was the only wedding ever performed at Nakaale Presbyterian. He was a brilliant translator, and the main contributor to the publication of the Children’s Catechism that the mission published in 2015. Several weeks ago, driving recklessly, he was involved in a head-on collision between two motorcycles. He broke his jaw, but seemingly sustained only minor injuries otherwise. His counterpart in the accident had injuries that were much more severe.
When Chloe spoke to him several days back, he expressed his great thanks to God for sparing his life and his desire to make the most of a second chance. He was, in fact, on his way to mourn with the family of Pilipo. We can hope with all his knowledge of the Gospel that he brought Christ’s comfort to that home. Six days later, he himself was dead.
As strong as our desire is to make sense of these deaths—an activity that is easier in some cases than others—perhaps Jesus’ reply to those who told him about the death of the Galileans in Luke 13 is what our community most needs to hear. These who have died are not worse than we. Unless we repent, we too will perish as they did. This season of death ought to be a wake-up call to everyone. To the church—let’s dig around the roots of this tree and spread manure (the manure of the Gospel, what an image!) with a renewed sense of urgency. To the unbelieving community of Nakaale—it’s time to bear fruit or be cut down.