KITGUM, Uganda (BP)–The sound of beating drums and singing drift down the walking path, beckoning those nearby to join the celebration.
Joicemary Anyiri joins the singing as she picks up the pace on the short walk from her mud home. The barefoot old woman walks with a slight limp. Despite the discomfort, an unmistakable joy radiates from her face — the same joy many of her neighbors gathering in the primary school shelter have — Jesus Christ.
As the Bible teaching begins, silence falls across the 200 people squeezing under the limited shade. Anyiri concentrates on every word the teacher speaks, trying to memorize each point so it can be recited later at home. Her older sister, Doloryina Obol, sits next to her doing the same.
At first glance, Padibe Baptist Church looks like any other. You would never guess that this group is only months old and many of its leaders are even younger in their faith.
What started out as a hunger for food ended in a hunger for Christ.
International Mission Board hunger relief distribution reached this small community by providence. Not wanting to waste nine tons of cornmeal and beans left over from a previous relief project, missionary Jack Frost decided to send it with Ugandan home missionaries to 10,000 displaced people staying in a camp outside of Kitgum.
Even though last year’s drought is long gone, many are still hungry and in need of food. Most living in the camp are there simply for safety reasons. Back in their villages, danger awaits in the form of rebels and raiding parties.
Rebels are known to raid villages, killing the elderly because they are of no use and cannot carry heavy items. The raiders also abduct the children, take the girls as wives and the boys to train as fighters. They also take any food in sight, dig up and burn any food they do not want for themselves and then set fire to the thatch-roofed homes.
For safety’s sake, nine parishes, encompassing 25 villages, now live on a five-mile stretch of land. There is no room for gardening or farming as each house is less than three feet from the next. The gaunt old men and women walk around the camp watching out for the children while the young men and women walk four or five miles back and forth to the nearby villages every day in efforts to keep a garden and feed their families. Spending the night in the village is not an option due to rebel attacks.
“These people were in desperate need of food. As the relief help was given, it gave a chance to do some evangelism and a fellowship developed out of that,” Frost said. “We also had 32 Bibles in the Acholi language to help the new believers have regular Bible study.”
Ugandan pastors Jasper Sam and Moses Oludot preached the gospel and handed out the food, which was purchased with money from the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund at a cost of 12 cents per meal. Oludot said that when the invitation was given there was no response at first.
“Then one hand went up and another and another,” Oludot said. “By the end, about 60 people were saved. We were surprised, but the Spirit moved that day.”
“We always have evangelism with relief and this was an exceptional response,” Frost said. “I could see joy on those faces that only Christ can give in such places. That is the kind of relief we strive for and it is lasting. That is more than food!”
The two pastors knew they could not leave the camp with new believers and no one to disciple them. So Sam turned over his pastorate at the Baptist church in Kitgum to a man he had been discipling and began making the eight-mile trek on his bicycle.
“The people responded. They are ready for Christ,” Sam said. “The Acholi were always the hardest people to tell the gospel to because they fight and quarrel and did not want anything to do with the Bible.”
Testimony after testimony reveals many saved from drunkenness, witchcraft, idol worship and constant fighting. Anyiri said since moving from the village to the camp, the Acholi have been forced to look out for one another and care about more than themselves.
“Before, you did not care for anyone but your family,” she said. “Now, when there is a threat of the rebels coming, you grab all of your neighbor’s kids or any others standing around and gather them in your house. Things are changing here.”
When peace finally reaches this northern Ugandan province, those exact changes are what Frost hopes will start a church planting movement. With so many villages represented in one camp and most villages represented in the Baptist church, the young believers are being discipled in the Great Commission.
“When there is a time of peace, these people will all go home to their villages,” Frost said. “The gospel will be taken to 25 different villages — all of it started from this one central place.”
The small church grows steadily as word spreads about Christ throughout the camp. Anyiri was the first Christian in her family — now there are four. She reads her Bible daily while sitting on a mat under the shade tree. Many gather to listen to the biblical truths, including her older sister.
As the session begins, Obol walks out of her house, using a tall, whittled stick as her cane. In the other hand, she holds a homemade megaphone. She takes a deep breath and sings into the megaphone, announcing that Christ is her Lord and King.
Anyiri jumps up and joins her in song.
“I will never stop praising and praising God for what he has done for me,” she says with a joy on her face that belies the lines and wrinkles of a hard life. “There has been a lot of painfulness caused by the rebels, but we still praise and we still pray. God is our only helper.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: CONCENTRATING and PRECIOUS WORDS.
— Learn about outreach to people groups in eastern Africa:
— Learn about the World Hunger Fund: http://www.erlc.com/Hunger/hunger.htm.
— On-line video: Completing the Unfinished Task: http://real.imb.org:8080/ramgen/Media/UTPray.rm.