Oh Uganda! The land of freedom
Our Love and labour we give
And with neighbours all
At our countries call
In peace and friendship we’ll live
(Excerpt from the National Anthem of Uganda)
Commissioning: It was Julius chettan who brought the idea to us. He had been speaking about aMission toUganda for sometime since March 2010, and though initially the idea was considered as far-fetched by some of us, soon enough, it began to materialize into reality once we started praying about it. Any exposure toAfrica was limited to just watching the African Community gather every Saturday at the St. Mary’s Church Mini Hall for their Prayer Meetings, the same time when we all got together for the JY prayer meetings above, on Room No 4. Their lively songs, vibrant dancing and loud drumming got us wondering where they got all the energy from, but never in the world would we have even dream about being ‘missionaries’ to Africa one day.
So it was to be Dony Peter,Bibin Solomon, Diago Mascerenhas, Bran Patrick, George Benny and Rupesh chettan who would accompany Julius Chettan on this endeavour. Bibin and Diago sang at the local prayer meetings, Bran and George played Keyboards to support; Dony was the young, dynamic and radical preacher from Bangalore, and Rupesh chettan held us all together – his charism was one of that was to prove the most important of all the above, as Paul in the letter to Corinthians rightfully said.
Departure: The D-Day was Friday, the 13th of August 2010. Most of us put on our out-of-offices in the wee hours of the morning, packing up the critical life supports such as toothbrushes and shaving kits only at the nth moment. The mad rush to the Airport was accompanied by Sheryl,Sherwell and Bejesh. After a bout of good running, we realized well that Terminal 3 was about as big asDubai itself. Only 5 minutes shy of the gates closing, we hopped on to the Plane to fly all the way- 7 and a half hours – toAfrica. Bran, Diago and Julius chettan dozed off as soon as they hit the covers, while Bibin, myself and Dony busied ourselves with our narcissistic tendencies – capturing photos of each other. Rupesh chettan on the other hand, made friends with the co-passengers on the plane – other missionaries on their way toAfrica. Only when we touchedAddis Ababa (Ethiopia) for an hour long stop – the whole thing just sank in – we had only heard about the continent. And here – lying before us – misty grasslands, winding rivers, and rolling hills -Africa herself.
Entebbe: When we reachedEntebbe – the only airstrip inUganda, there were two ladies waiting, sporting placards saying ‘Jesus Youth’ to receive us. Apparently, Father Jomesh (who we would shortly meet) from the Vincentian Retreat Centre had entrusted them to make the immigration clearance easy for us. Out of the Airport and here was a crowd of enthusiastic Ugandans with beaming smiles hugging us and giving us flowers. One look at their lovely faces and you know you have a family to live with for the next 9 days. Vincentian Retreat Centre was a short drive from the Airport. This place was an outreach of the Divine Retreat Centre, Kerala – where a community of Christians gathered regularly to attend weekly retreats, masses and adoration. The highlight of the place – something that is a rarity inDubai – was the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament – 7am to 7pm.
Masaka: After lunch – we were to move to our first mission ground – at Masaka. Masaka is a City in Southern Uganda, lying west ofLake Victoria and very close to the Equator. This City was destroyed in the Uganda-Tanzania War of 1979 and again in the 1981-1986 civil war. The Van-drive to Masaka rattled up almost all the bones in our body – the tar on the roads was almost non-existent, yet it was on the way when the outpouring happened. We started with the rosary and prayers to our blessed mother – and moved to a time of impromptu praise and Worship. The Spirit took over in a mighty way and we are all speaking in tongues, prophesying and seeing visions. All our doubts, feelings of incompetency, and unsureity were taken away while the Holy Spirit was poured out upon us – a double portion of it on each person in the Van – empowering us to be the heralds of the Gospel inUganda. It was a wonderful experience to be touched by the hand of God, when you needed Him the most. As we passed through the vast grasslands, we could see the people around us – and could see each person longing for Jesus. The land itself seemed to call out in thirst for Jesus. And it all seemed so true – the harvest plenty, but the labourers few. How privileged and blessed to be the ones to bring Jesus toUganda! It was late in the night we got toKimanyaSchool, where a Retreat for Young Adults was held, organized almost solo by Fr. Michael Ssenfuma, a Priest literally on fire for Jesus and a having an insatiable burden for the youth ofAfrica. It was a time of Adoration with Confessions happening simultaneously when we stepped inside the cold and dimly-lit hall. But the Choir was soft and lovely and the exposed Eucharist radiated warm love all around the place. After the elevation, Fr Ssenfuma introduced all of us to the crowd – what joy it was to see all their happy faces and cheering ovation. It seemed like they were in eager anticipation for what was to come. Sure enough, a request for a song followed and we did what we know best – A foot stomping rendition of Darrel Evan’s ‘Trading my Sorrows’. There – the ice was broken. After the session, the retreatants retired for the day and we went ahead with a short sound-check for the next day’s program, befriending Fred Mugagga – A NET full timer, a drummer and an even better singer, who would help us on the pounding for the rest of the mission.
We lodged at a nearby Hotel for the night and came back the next morning for the mass. Fr Ssenfuma was as vibrant as ever, delivering his homily between the aisles. A great time of Praise and Worship followed, led by Bibin. The crowd themselves were great singers, filling in with voluntary Altos, Sopranos and Tenors. This was followed by an amazing talk by Dony on God’s Grace. The message was so powerfully delivered and we could witness the Holy Spirit touching many youngsters. Come afternoon – and there lands Fr Stan Fortuna – The Jazz Musician-Rapper turned Missionary Priest fromBronx,New York. The rest of the day saw us and Fr Ssenfuma taking turns at ministering to the Youngsters. The second day at the retreat, there were more sessions to follow, a whole load of Action-Songs, and initiatives from Dony and Fr Ssenfuma to foster follow up programs for the rest of the year in the different parishes where the participants came from. Toward midday, Fr Ssenfuma asked if Fr Stan, Jesus Youth Dubai and Anawim (Fr. Ssenfuma’s Band) could perform together for the grand finale– which was far too great a privilege to deny. We had an amazing time jamming with everyone and making music for the Lord. The Africans have a quality – Music is in their blood, and the resultant groove just makes it all the more easier to gel with each other. The children we met were from impoverished families, often orphaned or living with relatives. Polygamy was prevalent, so were loose Morals and AIDS. But we saw Jesus in their hearts and it was not so much as what we ‘the missionaries’ could ‘contribute’. In the end, it was WE who received. Victory indeed belongs to Jesus alone and we could see how far, wide and majestic his kingdom was, all over the Earth. In Africa, InUganda, all the way down to a devastated old town – Masaka. Fr Ssenfuma and the rest of the leadership team had just one request – that Jesus Youth would take up the initiative to conduct the retreat next year, in Masaka.
Kiyunga: The next day, we left for Kiyunga, a remote village which was a 7hour drive from Masaka. The scene was not one what we expected. The parish priest- Fr Mathew Mundackal, explained that the Feast of the Church was going on, as the custom was, villagers from far and near would camp in the Church compound, and nearby areas with their families and children. In the compound and surrounding areas, they would cook, eat sleep and live till the Feast got over. English was not familiar to the locals but never did it dampen the enthusiasm when they found us enter the Church Hall. Dony planned up Action Songs and Skits to deliver the message. We also found a translator for the talk. From 6 upto 11pm, we just let the Spirit lead. The children were amazing and responded and sang well. As we advanced into the night, some children at the front lay down to sleep, the elders at the back took a comfortable position, but not even once did they stopped listening attentively to the songs being sung and the message being shared. Such innocence where could we find but in places like these, and we reminisced about how similar the setting could how been when Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. A beautiful time of Adoration followed when we could see the glory of the Eucharistic Lord fill our Hearts, and make our skin tones just irrelevant, under the universal priesthood of all believers.
Entebbe: That night we slept dead tired. Since we had sent our luggage back toEntebbe the previous day, there were no change of clothes. However, with memories afresh which would last for a lifetime, we boarded the Van on the long way back toEntebbe, to the Vincentian Retreat Centre, where we were to minister in the evening. Along the way, we stopped at the Equator to take photos and buy some souvenirs for families back home. Jesus was faithful and He had recharged us along the way with fresh energy from above to take on the next assignment – The Youth Retreat atEntebbe. Now Bibin did not have permission for a full week leave from his Company and though he tried again, it was in vain. Bibin had to turn back toDubai. Believing it was the will of the Lord, I prepared to take on the task of singing. And the Lord was faithful again.EntebbeChurch had an amazing Choir led by Cecelia on the voices, and an array of perfect blending harmonies. Bran and Diago would play the Keyboard and Guitars/Drums and support wonderfully. Fred Muggaga from Masaka turned up to help with the Drums, and we had a beautiful time of Worship. Dony’s talk on God’s love was a new dimension to many and we could see many hearts open up to the Love of Jesus. Julius chettan and Rupesh chettan, would meet, counsel and share the love of Jesus with people and intercede during the whole time at the Chapel in the front. There would be two talks of 1 hour each with music to fill, and Adoration would follow. Fr. Jomesh would end the day’s retreat with the Holy Mass, and this would be the pattern to follow for the rest of the week.
Throughout the week, we witnessed the amazing work of the Holy Spirit, while he opened up the hearts and minds of the youngsters attending the retreat. We were informed that 5 out of 10 in the place were AIDS victims and most of them walked long distances to come to the Church. Poverty and unemployment were prevalent. But nonetheless, the thirst for Jesus was evident and when the congregation worshipped, they worshipped in Truth and in Spirit. During the Praise and Worship sessions, the Congregation would actively involve themselves with Singing, dancing and even howling – which the Priest later explained as an avid expression of African-Joy. During mass, they would be doing the same, which gave us a different outlook towards the cultural differences in the same liturgy.
Kampala: While at Entebbe, we also visited a Hospital inKampala (an hour’s drive) to minister to the Hospital staff – who were mainly young people. It was a regular Prayer meeting and we were welcomed by the team. There was a joyful time of Praise and a spirit filled time of Worship. Dony shared the word and I shared my testimony. After some time of free praises, we felt the Spirit telling us to lay hands on the youngsters and pray for them. So Fr Jomesh and Fr Mathew laid hands and prayed over the congregation. The presence of the Lord was tangible and we could see many youth crying and recommitting their lives to Christ.
Departure: We also met the Bishop of Kampala one of the days, and his eminence invited us to a Recording Studio to record some songs – which we gladly did. During the daytime, Julius chettan also arranged a meeting with the Malayali community ofKampala with the intention of initiating a JY Families group there. God was working amazingly and we got to meet the wife of the Vice President of Uganda – whom Julius chettan shared his onward plans of evangelization. The retreat at the Vincentian Retreat Centre was increasing in attendance day by day since the news spread that there was a revival happening far and wide. By the second last day, we could see the Spirit working mightily and there were visible manifestations. Somehow the zeal of the retreatants coupled with the need for the hour made it all the more easier to minister to the people. This is something that you cannot find in the Metropolitan Cities. Here the people do not have anything to lose – They had only Jesus to hang on to. Julius chettan explained about the Jesus Youth mission and encouraged the youngsters to become part of it for a consistent growth in the Lord. Towards the end of the Retreat, the youth of the parish organized a thanksgiving. All of us wore the traditional African Shirts, and we did look like one amongst them. Though parting brought on pain to all of us, we did feel a sense of great fulfilment knowing that we were completely used and spent for the glory of God.
Africais a beautiful place. And more beautiful are the people in it. Their love shines off them and there is a natural sense of brotherhood in the land. Around you would see the aftermaths or War, Violence, Corruption, Poverty and Disease. The land itself calls out, thirsts for Jesus.Ugandais a perfect example of the lack of Labourers for theKingdomofGod. Being called as a Missionary toUgandawas a blessing to us, and all we pray is that Jesus uses us again and again to share his love to our neighbours and give them hope, that He uses us till we break.