KAMPALA, Uganda (BP)–The young girl, wearing a blue and white striped dress, walked slowly into Lake Victoria to be baptized.
About 30 people stood on the shore, clapping and singing. Several children beat drums with their hands. On this bright Sunday morning, sailboats from a nearby yacht club skimmed along the glistening water in the distance.
“I decided to be baptized and die together with my Lord Jesus Christ,” she said as she stood almost waist deep in the lake.
Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board missionary Jim Rice dipped her back into the water for an instant, then brought her up and said:
“My sister, we are baptizing you to show what has already happened on the inside. This is a symbol to show you are dead to your sins so you can be a new person in Jesus Christ. We are here to share your joy and say thank you, Lord, for the Holy Spirit that now lives within you. I baptize you, my daughter, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”
Jim Rice has been a missionary since 1974. This was his first baptism.
“I really enjoyed doing that,” he said later. “It deepened the meaning of baptism for me.”
Bringing people to Christian faith is at the heart of a missionary’s work. For the new believer, Jim explained, it may mean letting go of traditional beliefs. Some people want to be part of a Christian church but also hold on to spirit worship and other tribal rituals.
“They go to church on Sunday but don’t take it seriously. They think it makes them seem more civilized,” he said. “But they have to make a choice. The Bible says: ‘There are no other Gods before me.'”
Jim and his wife, Linda, both from Richmond, Va., have been missionaries in this East African country 22 years, all but four in Kampala, Uganda’s capital.
Missionaries don’t just win souls. The Rices are called on for all sorts of things. Because of the country’s extreme poverty, the people have many physical and social needs as well as spiritual needs.
People needing medical care and those seeking spiritual support turn to missionaries for help. The Rices accompany people to funerals, sometimes even transport the body. People come to the missionaries wanting someone to pray with them; others ask for money.
The Rices have a steady stream of guests in their home: mission board officials, visiting missionaries, volunteers from churches in the States working on short-term mission projects.
Jim and Linda also serve as mentors to local church leaders and generally offer examples of Christians living out their faith, sometimes under difficult conditions.
Their primary assignment is to be sure Bibles and other Christian writings are available in Uganda, a vital part of the church’s ministry.
Jim, whose background is in public education and business administration, has been treasurer and business manager of the Uganda Baptist Mission. In Kampala he started a bookstore that stocks Bibles, Sunday school curriculum and other religious materials. He also is assistant pastor of Nakawa Baptist Church, where he does some preaching and teaching.
Nakawa’s senior pastor, Methuselah Sebagala, said Jim “helps us have a more orderly service, a more Baptist service.”
Linda, a former medical technologist, oversees the Bible Way Correspondence School, which has had more than 37,500 students since she started it in 1977. Materials from the school have been used not only to teach individuals about Christianity, but also to help start new churches and to assist ministry to those in prison.
She also works with AIDS patients through Kampala Baptist Church’s AIDS ministry and oversees a Baptist student ministry.
The missionary’s role, Jim said, is to be a resource.
“One of the biggest needs here is leadership training,” he said. “We don’t want people to think a missionary has to be the pastor or the leader. They can do these things themselves.”
In the AIDS ministry, Linda started out doing everything.
“Now I sit down and help them with their plans and ideas,” she said. “My white face can be useful in cutting through red tape sometimes.”
Jim said there are several reasons for that. Among them are a longstanding respect for missionaries and the notion that most white people are rich and might do something in return for favors.
Among the AIDS victims Linda visits in their homes are William and Margaret Maseruka, who live near Kampala with their six children. Often she takes food from Kampala Baptist Church.
William, who lost his job as an auto mechanic because of health problems, is convinced God has given him extra time to live to start a church, Linda said. “People with AIDS who become Christians really know how to redeem their time.”
In the correspondence school Linda started, office work has been taken over by Ugandans. “We now have a person who focuses on outreach, going to trade shows and cultural events. I help arrange some of these promotional things,” she said.
“My Tuesdays are usually out. We are testing a new book we just got in the Luganda language. I’m teaching it in six churches.”
Bible Way has “been a tremendous ministry in a lot of ways,” her husband said. “The first book, ‘Who Is Jesus?’ is really nice for helping us start churches. At a Christian resources exhibition, people came up to Linda and said, ‘Ten years ago I took your course and went on to seminary.’ It’s also good in prison ministry.”
Not everyone who takes the course becomes a Baptist.
“We try not to stress Baptist distinctives as much as Christian basics,” Jim said. “The books encourage people to find a church where Christ is taught.”
Since August, Linda has overseen the Baptist student ministry for secondary and university students.
“We do a lot of films and games. We buy a lot of buns. You don’t do student ministry without food,” she said.
“People are always wanting money,” Linda said. “You can hit several days in a row when there are 75 people a day who need your money, and 75 percent are deceivers. You have to figure out who needs it and who doesn’t.”
When they know there is a real need, they try to help as many people as they can. But they, too, run out of funds.
Mission work has many rewards, Linda added quickly.
“We’ve seen our churches multiply and many, many people saved. We’ve seen so many people changed and so many experience the joy of being loved by Jesus Christ.”
One of the biggest rewards is “the satisfaction of being involved in something very significant. That could be anywhere, but for us it’s here.”
The Rices arrived in Uganda in 1975, four years after military leader Idi Amin began his eight-year reign of terror, in which thousands of Ugandans were murdered.
“In late 1972, Amin made it very hard on missionaries. He accused them of being CIA and made a lot of threats. We had five or six (Baptist missionary) families in Uganda then. One went on furlough for a year. Some left. When Linda and I came, there were only two families,” Jim Rice said.
In 1973, Amin banned 14 religious bodies but Baptists were not included. In 1977, he expanded his ban and included Southern Baptists.
“We were told we could do social services things but could not hold church,” Jim said.
“We were all ready to start the Bible Way Correspondence School. They said we could use our books if we took out the two pages about Baptists. We did that and we distributed Bibles,” he recalled.
“I never had any trouble bringing in Bibles during Amin’s time. We were giving them away or selling them, depending on the circumstances. People had a lot of cash and little to do with it then. I used the money to buy more Bibles.”
Jim, as treasurer of the mission at the time, made frequent trips to Kenya where he purchased Bibles, aspirin and medicine for worms and malaria. During food shortages, he also bought food.
“I spent about a third of my time driving back and forth to Kenya. It was the only way we could continue to live here,” he said. “It was stressful getting through the border. Soldiers could take what you had or send you back.
“I started bringing back Christian books, other than Bibles, which is how I got my start with the bookstore,” he added.
At one point, Ukrop’s Super Markets in Richmond shipped the missionaries two 4- x 4- x 8-foot crates of flour, rice and cooking oil. The Foreign Mission Board helped get canned food to them.
But for all the Rices are able to accomplish, sometimes missionaries are faced with situations about which they can do little. Recently Jim experienced such a moment.
He stopped to help a young woman walking along a dirt road in the country. The woman, blood running down her face onto her dress, had a deep gash below her eye. She said her husband hit her with an ax, and she was trying to get to a medical clinic in Semuto, a town about 12 miles away.
Rice helped her into his truck. As they bounced along the pothole-filled dirt road, the woman described what had happened.
Before the couple married, the woman had a child who wasn’t her husband’s. Her husband had said he would accept the baby. But when she returned to their house with the youngster, her husband was drunk. He tried to put out her eye with the ax, she said, but missed. She fled, leaving the child.
A very somber Jim said, “I’m concerned about the child.” But he didn’t turn the truck back toward the woman’s village. He was certain the child was dead.
All he could do was help the mother.