Wednesday, November 16, 2011


(Focus Column, February 3, 2009)

My family just returned from our Christmas vacation in Kampala—the land of Garden City Mall, Speke Munyonyo Resort, Alleygators Bowling Alley, Cineplex Cinema, and boundless biwempe churches and buvera.

Entertainment knows no bounds in Kampala and her mushrooming churches provide almost as much entertainment as her noisy FM stations. My unceasing pondering mind had to wrestle deeply. Why, when I drive into Kampala, do the number of balokole churches and organizations become as noticeable as the uncollected trash? It seemed that every 200 meters was graced by a church and every 2 centimeters was graced by a buvera.

I planted a church in Kampala, but in my quiet moments I pondered if it was just more religious clutter. Did it really make a difference? As time went on during our 11 years in Kampala my church paradigms were reborn through friendly discussions with those who did not share my beliefs, but who were my colleagues in dialogue about development.

My conclusions were no longer orthodox and I became a controversial figure among some balokole. Thus I arrived in Rwanda convinced that the faith community had a voice to offer, but by and large her paradigms of the last 30 years had been irrelevant noise.

During my morning Kampala run I ran on some of my old paths, but came with new eyes. History tells me that the faith community has built the leading institutions of communities during seasons of renewal.

However, sometimes what masquerades for renewal seems like the loud noises of my Lord’s opponents. His opponents were masters at drawing attention to themselves with the impressive sounds of religious babble.

The Kilokole language is so intense that it is like a new tribe speaking a jargon only known by itself. I know the lingo, but it all seemed the same—religious clutter with no point.

About every 200 meters on my run I noticed a balokole church or NGO. The names changed, but it all seemed the same.

Then I noticed Kampala’s other striking feature—boundless buvera. Mingled among the buvera was the urban refuse of life. Occasionally, some one would sweep it all together to start a fire. For my runner’s lungs this was murder. Why can’t someone pick up the trash so I can just deal with elevation and old age?

Trash, dust, and smoke are not the substance of life’s best breath. I noticed a striking pattern—the churches in Kampala that had made an impact on the city cleaned the trash in front of their structures. The biwempe who mastered in Kilokole was no different than a fish monger when it came to cleaning the trash. For those who must discern whether a church is legitimate, I offer the buvera test. Can they clean up after themselves? My suspicion is that a dirty church front represents a dirty community.

My morning run found other tests to discern the legitimate from the buvera church. The second test I would offer to provide discernment is the witchdoctor test. Can the Kilokole be easily translated to the jargon of witchdoctors? Is the music the same with only translated words?

If the cross and church name were removed could this place easily be mistaken for a shrine? Is the predominant concern success by all methods, healing, and cursing those who one is jealous of? Too many biwempe are witchdoctors masquerading as Christian theologians. If this is a true church she shares my Lord’s convictions that suffering, service, and a prophetic voice are core to all she does. Witchdoctors are never comfortable in an environment where philosophic truth and uncompromising ethics reigns.

My third test is the institution test. When I read the history of religious renewals that history determined were legitimate they always left a legacy. The legacy was institutions—schools, hospitals, libraries, and community gathering points of service and knowledge. Unfortunately, among some balokole “institutions” are a dirty word.

They prefer to huddle and babble in their strange new tongues. What better way to promote donor guilt and rake in money? After all an institution requires a budget, and a budget requires accountability. Thus the buvera church prefers to avoid building institutions. The legitimate church hungers for more opportunities to build.

My fourth test is the partnership test. History also tells that during seasons of renewal Christian people put aside their denominational divisions to build. The needs of the community were too compelling for sectarian posturing. From the United States Second Great Awakening to East Africa’s Revival partnerships are a consistent mark of the legitimate legacy.

In Kampala’s buvera churches are ruled by a lone pastor. He is a one man show. His preaching seeks to divide from others. His buvera community proclaims him king, and he prefers to be king of the buvera than a partner in a clean community.

Thus as we discern the legitimate from the buvera we look for a leader who is most comfortable with people who reason different from he. The legitimate finds lively discussion both refining and refreshing. When the discussion brings many diverse hands together the buvera is cleaned and the community thrives.

So my morning Kampala runs affirmed by new birth. The biwempe and the buvera are close cousins. My balokole brothers at times are misguided. The path to renewal is rather simple. Can someone pick up the trash?

Come run with me.

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