Wineskins Archive

February 6, 2014

In Line at the Church Customs Office (Sep-Oct 2001)

Filed under: — @ 4:49 pm and

by Greg Taylor
September – October, 2001

After seven years planting churches in Uganda, I’m nervously returning to America.

Upon arrival, a United States Customs officer may rifle through my suitcase, looking for fresh pineapples, contraband weapons, drugs, and of all things, elephant tusks.

What if a church customs officer inspected the theological baggage I’m packing from my experience in Uganda?

The conversation between the church customs officer and me might go like this:

“What’s in the bag?” the church customs officer asks.

“The suitcase marked, Christian community?”

“Yep, who packed it?”

“This baggage was packed by my experiences in Ugandan churches,” I tell the church customs officer. The officer peers inside, furrows her brow and motions for me to account for the ideas inside. I explain to her that in Uganda, where a mix of witchcraft, Islam, polygamy, and nominal Christian living clouds the religious atmosphere, many Christians view neighboring churches as respected allies and welcome guests in their worship and decision-making, rather than the competition.

I tell church customs that we missionaries taught the finer points of church anatomy to Ugandans: that churches can best be led by local leaders who discern Scripture and wisely decide what to teach and do in each church. Church autonomy, however, sounded more like church isolation to ugandans, who asked, “Why be independent of other churches when they could visit in our church, help us solve problems with a sinful member, give us wise counsel, or help us with money when we want to build a church shelter?” What would churches in America think of this? I wonder.

“Any Ugandan bananas in your suitcase?” the church customs officer asks me.

“Say, aren’t you supposd to ask me church questions and leave the fruit questions to United States Customs?” I shoot back.

The church customs officer backs off asking about bananas and sorts through more of my belongings while I muse aloud, “No Christian in Uganda is an island. An African philosopher once summed up how Africans find their identity in groups with the motto, We are, therefore I am.‘” At this, the church customs officer puts her hands in her pockets, nods approval and stretches her mouth down like expressive people do when they’re impressed with an idea.

“If no person is an island, then what about knowing Jesus personally? What do Ugandan Christians say about that?” the church customs officer asks politely but with her eyebrows above her head like a cartoon character waiting for the next frame.

“The idea of having a faith outside of the Christian community, personally, is as hard to find in rural Uganda as it is to find personal space on an African transit bus,” I tell her. “To many Ugandans, relationship with God exists in the context of community, shared beliefs, and the Holy Spirit who inhabits all believers and gives them power over curses cast by jelous or hateful neighbors. I suppose Ugandans could learn more about personal faith from American Christians who focus more on that, but I wonder what American churches might be able to learn from African ideas of community?”

“What about when community doesn’t work in Uganda? Do they disfellowship a person with a sinful lifestyle?” the church customs officer asks me, poking at the side zipper of my theological baggage.

“Ugandan Christians are gracious with one another even in a society which rains harsh retribution on the guilty. A thief who steals a pari of pants in the market may be beaten or burned to death by an unruly mob. Among family or in churches, however, Ugandans loathe losing ties to that community. Church hopping is as rare as a smooth road in Uganda. Yet, I have occasionally seen Ugandans withdraw from a brother or sister who persists in drunkenness, divisiveness, or adultry.”

As I say this, I show the customs officer a photo of a Ugandan Christian who is still tempted to use witchcraft and marry a second wife. “Did they disfellowship him?” the church customs official asks.

“He’s been taught to give up using witchcraft and stop marrying more wives,” I tell the church customs official, “but he is still learning why the Bible teaches something different from what his society promotes. He has not turned his back on God, so his church continues to teach him how to fight off these temptations.”

“The churches in America can disfellowship someone,” says the church customs officer, “but it sometims doesn’t work to bring the sinful one back to faith because the person goes to another church that doesn’t know about the situation or the person doesn’t feel the sting of disfellowship because Christian community may have been lacking in the first place.”

“Christian community fails in Uganda, too. While Ugandans are full of grace for others, they often see sin destroying relationships and community yet fail to bring it into the light because they believe they might harm their relationships more by confronting the sin in their brother or sister,” I explain to the church customs officer.

Then pausing, I glance back at my luggage of experience in Uganda, sigh, and ask, “So, what should I do with all this baggage?”

“You’d better leave it in church customs custody until you’ve adjusted to American culture and community. You could learn something from Christian community life in America as well, you know,” she says as she slaps a Handle with Care sticker on my suitcase and impounds it.

“You’re right – I have a lot to learn in my own country,” I say to the church customs officer. Strolling out, I feel a burden has been lifted. I’ll never forget and will forever be changed by my Christian community in Uganda, yet I’m also ready to discover and understand Christian community right here in America.
New Wineskins

Greg TaylorGreg Taylor is managing editor of New Wineskins, a former missionary in Uganda, and now an associate minister for spiritual formation, outreach and small groups at Garnett Road Church of Christ in Tulsa. He is married to Jill and they have three children. [Journey With Greg Taylor Blog]. E-mail him at gtaylor@zoegroup.org.


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