Is the OPC work in Karamoja at the end of a failed twenty-year attempt or the inflection point of a fifty-year project? With all the upheaval the mission to Karamoja has experienced in the last few years, it’s a question that is increasingly asked not only by our supporters, but also by members of the mission, with everyone having their strong opinions. “Where you are now is where the Reformed Church in Mexico was twenty years ago, so don’t lose heart.” “From the beginning, instead of a clinic, we should have started a Christian school,” “The apostle Paul was a strategic thinker; he never would have come to Karamoja to plant churches.”
As I write this (and likely as you read it), we are in as dry a dry season as I can remember in the last decade. The rains were slight and inconsistent this year. The brush fires, always a fixture of late December and January, began in early November this year. The ground is hard and cracked wherever I look, and what grass is left waits only to be burned off at any time.
We are living in a postcard picture of the wilderness. Still, modernization is happening all around us. Power lines, solar panels, knockoff designer jeans, smartphones, and even the preparatory grading for a tarmac road mean we are confronted daily with a Karamoja undergoing a radical birthing into the twenty-first century. Yet while the external elements of our lives are a frenzy of change, the hearts of our neighbors remain in many ways a wilderness—wild, untamed, and absent the gardening work of God’s grace. We have been reminded repeatedly in recent months of the time and energy that has been expended on people who failed to produce fruit. That list of names seems to grow much more quickly than the church rolls. What would Paul say about our plan of action?
Is our mission’s wilderness experience the sign that God has not gone with us, that we have failed to follow his leading? To be sure, there have been not a few tactical blunders in our history. One may rightly question whether the massive infrastructure required to facilitate our current team of missionaries is justified or whether we ought to strip things down to the essentials in every aspect. These are questions the missionaries in Karamoja do well to regularly reëvaluate. One can wonder whether it would be better to focus our efforts on building up the church in more urban areas of Uganda, expecting those churches eventually to send missionaries to Karamoja.
What we cannot ignore, however, is the fact that there are Presbyterian churches in every corner of Uganda with the singular exception of Karamoja. With Christian ministries in Karamoja sprouting up and dying off like grass, our mission has maintained a faithful presence for over twenty years. Missionaries have come and gone, but the goal of an indigenous Reformed Karimojong church continues to inch forward. For all our false starts, we should give thanks for this fact, because the wilderness is also a place of transformation. The place least likely to yield any actual fruit has a mysterious way of bearing fruit in God’s kingdom. Jacob wrestled in the wilderness and was made Israel; John the Baptist, paved the way for Jesus’ ministry, calling people to repentance in the wilderness of the Jordan; and we are reminded throughout Isaiah that the wilderness will blossom as God’s kingdom reaches the ends of the earth.
But how does God’s kingdom come? Like seed in soil, like yeast in dough—invisible even to the sower or the baker. As missionaries, we simply do not know what is happening in the lives of those with whom we have had contact. The loaf of bread that is Nakaale may be fifty years rising. Our list of failures is long indeed, but even this week I spoke with Joyce, probably a familiar name, who serves on our church’s mercy committee (we still wait for God to raise a qualified diaconate). She had been approached by a woman with a supposedly orphaned niece, sick and malnourished. In my office at the clinic she asked whether the mercy committee had money for this child to be seen at the clinic. She had already agreed with another committee member that this was the right course of action, and further said that she would raise the case of the child at the weekly committee meeting on Friday, but that given the difficulty of finding out the true situation because of the distance to this woman’s home, she doubted whether the church would be able to help on an ongoing basis. After she left, I realized that it had been a textbook example of mercy ministry.
Twenty years of kingdom leavening went into that conversation; it could not have happened even last year. How many more conversations like this might we be able to have with twenty more years of faithful presence in Nakaale? These bright points in our ministry are like oases in the desert—as refreshing as they are rare. They sustain us in our trials, for the wilderness is also a place of testing. Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and there tempted by Satan. We, too, are being tempted in the wilderness of Karamoja—to despair, to doubt that God’s kingdom can shine in such a dark place, to pull up the tent stakes and decamp to a more strategic location.
As a team, recent months have been a particularly intense time of testing. We are undermanned, assailed seemingly on all sides (in one case even literally) by those who want to get some benefit from the mission or missionaries by any means. Those not seeking their own gain are simply indifferent to our presence and the message that we bring. For my family personally, these things have been writ large in the last year. Yet, as Chloe went this week to visit a former worker, former church member, former friend, she received a call that a member of our Word ministry team had been imprisoned, falsely accused. As she made a brief side trip to visit Angella, a young man now in training for church leadership, she found him in the single police-station cell with several other inmates. As she spoke with him, he explained to her that he had been trying to preach to his fellow prisoners, a claim they heartily confirmed.
The work of the Holy Spirit is wonderful and mysterious. Preaching from a jail cell—what would the apostle Paul have to say about that?
This post appears under heavy stage makeup in the March issue of New Horizons.