I have a favorite photograph from my first visit to Karamoja—one of the mission’s workers at church on Sunday morning. The background is washed in morning light. He is smiling and wearing a mint-green broadcloth button-down shirt that he, no doubt, purchased especially to wear to church.
The photograph itself freights a considerable diversity of meaning, and the memory attached to it, still more. This is an individual who obviously cares a great deal about worship. In a place where many are wearing rags, he has invested the worship of God with enough import to purchase a clean shirt that has no practical value for him beyond the confines of the sanctuary. He is visibly joyful, which is not necessarily a typical Karimojong trait—and not one strong in this young man during the other days of the week where he is resigned, quiet, and normally fairly stoic. Beyond the borders of the photograph, I know that he is a member of the church in Nakaale, and a very faithful attendee. He has departed from the traditional shepherd-warrior culture in order to attend school.
I asked him that day when he was going to marry and he responded that if God desired to give him a wife, He would provide a way. The service had just ended with everyone singing:
Erae icamit ngakiro a Yesu If you want the Word of Jesus
Kiwonyu atipei nyingodingod Come quickly, dont delay
Ngakiro a Yesu ikes arae akiyar Jesus’ words are life
Ikes iloito ngiboro daadang They are above all things
Neni a Yesu alakara In Jesus, there is happiness
Six years after this photograph was taken, Chloe and I returned for our current stay in Karamoja. Our first day was a Sunday. I hoped we might sing some of the songs with which I was familiar, and that I might return and recognize many of the faces of church members. There were, indeed, songs that we remembered quickly, but the congregation had changed and the man in the photograph was not there. When I asked, I was told that he had not been seen regularly for some time and that he had secretly taken a second wife.
I saw him on Monday for work, but these conversations are not the sort that you simply jump into after so long an absense. I asked him Saturday if I would see him for prayers the next day and he said yes, but did not come. The following Sunday the same, and while this was troublesome, it becomes common enough over time to blur into background noise behind the more visceral problems of the moment.
Soon after, another of our most faithful members came forward to confess to Pastor David that due to a difficult marriage, he also had taken a second wife. The Sunday after he made this known, he vanished from the congregation, his customary seat left conspicuously empty. The discouragement surrounding this revelation was a tremendous burden on the pastors and all of us working with this man during the week.
As we heard from Ephesians chapter five this last Sunday, the Church is compelled to have moral and ethical standards of behavior for its members. The Gospel calls on men and women to depart from the ways of the world, sometimes radically. And sometimes, this involves standing up against sin in the congregation. Something had to be done about this man who had confessed, but what could the Church do if it was to punish this one and ignore the other who had committed the same sin?
So David met with the man from my photograph and confronted him. The man confessed that he had been living in sin, that he knew his actions had been wrong, that he regretted them and had further sinned in forsaking the corporate worship. He took the further step of saying that he wanted to confess these things before the Church and there receive forgiveness.
And so we met on Sunday morning, as we always do. There he was in back of the congregation. Even in the midst of crushing circumstances God is always working for His own glory. I was reminded of this on Sunday morning as, together, we sang the simplest of affirmations:
Ameci ayong neni a Yesu I take refuge in Jesus
Ameci ayong naupal ngina a Yesu I take refuge in the shield of Jesus
We confessed our sins to God as we do every week, and following our confession, where, every week, we receive the assurance of God’s pardon, there was silence. Pastor David explained that these two wanted to come and confess their sins publically, that sin which is committed so publically warrants a public confession. This young man came forward, as quiet as ever, and began to speak.
As he spoke, softly and self-consciously, he looked at the ground and crumpled his hat in his hands, and beyond the difficulty of what he was saying, beyond the sadness I experienced over this man’s sin, and the almost paradoxical joy of seeing him confess it, I noticed that he was wearing the same clothes he had come to work in the day before. The hat doing ellipses in his hands was the sweaty, dirty work hat that he wears every day of the week. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps this man had sold his Sunday wardrobe, or worn it out in some other capacity, having no need for it as long as he had stayed away from the church. It occured to me that he had been away for so long, he had forgotten the joy of participation in the body of Christ, and that perhaps this would be the first step toward the renewal of that desire in him.
When these two men had finished, Pastor David asked the congregation if we would forgive them and we all responded, “Amen.” He then pronounced the blessing of God’s pardon to all after we sang these words:
Kisyoni ayong , Akuj alotooma Have mercy on me, O God
Akonimina ngina ngilocokin According to your love which is unchanging
Ee, alotooma, akonikisyon ngina apolon Yes, according to your mercy which is great
Kisyoni ayong kilota ngakaasecisya Have mercy on me, cleanse my sin
Kilotara ayong, anaronisya kang Wash away my iniquity
Kilota ayong anasecisya kang Wash away my sin
Kisyoni ayong Have mercy on me
The songs that fill our worship services here are variously joyful, reverent, somber, but for someone used to the traditions of hymnody, they lack the theological articulation offered therein. While I might expect myself to be bothered by this, there is something about our station here on the raw edge of the Church that calls out for and befits the simple affirmations of faith and simple pleas to God of those who are contending mightily just to grasp hold of Christ without falling away.
Aiokini ayong akisyon ke Ekapolon I will sing of the mercies of the Lord
Ngikaru ka ngikaru Forever
Aiokini aiokini I will sing, I will sing