Albert J. Tricarico, Jr.
Ten years ago my family moved from the suburban United States to rural Uganda—to the village of Nakaale in a region of the country called Karamoja. We arrived to join a team assembled to work, by the grace of Christ, toward the formation of a national church. While it was difficult to leave dear friends and family, we were pleased that the Lord had led us to a new sphere of life and work. We were excited at the prospect of serving him in Africa.
Several things were in place when we arrived. A congregation, under the care of the OP Uganda Mission, had been established the year before. There were two venues for Sunday worship and two midweek Bible studies in nearby villages. Diaconal efforts were being made through the work of our medical clinic, our work-for-food farm, and our well-drilling ministry. Meetings were taking place in local schools, where Mission members delivered Bible teaching to the students. Other things were going on as well, and I was glad to be joining such a robust work of mercy-filled gospel witness.
I must say, though, that thinking back on our first months in Nakaale raises mixed memories. I recall the excitement of being in Africa and gazing upon the rugged beauty of the fields surrounding our compounds. I was thrilled to meet and learn about my fellow missionaries. I was glad that my children enjoyed such a positive entry into life in Africa. At the same time, I felt uneasy about living here and wondered whether things would work out. I had spent most of my years in the suburbs of New York and Washington, D.C. Now I had to find my way in a place that had no paved roads, no phone service (at that time), and no hot showers. Brrrr.
Preaching was a daunting task to me. I wondered if I would be understood, if illustrations would hold, and if I might unwittingly offend. Speaking through an interpreter felt awkward to me. And I did not imagine how I would ever connect with pastoralist people who grow sorghum, wear blankets, and keep livestock.
I began to discover what I thought I had already learned. No matter how different people are, there are two great realities that equalize—sin and the gospel. We are all, by nature, in trouble with God. We are all invited to believe. We who belong to Jesus have been rescued from sin, death, and hell by grace alone. I had come to Uganda with a message that had transformed my life, and I rejoiced at the thought of gently bringing that message to my new friends. Over time, the differences that unsettled me at the beginning lost much of their force. I have learned, and continue to learn, to connect with my neighbors. I thank Jesus for that.
I have also learned, and continue to learn, that the Lord equips his servants for the work he calls them to do. I thank Jesus for that. I have come to enjoy thinking of ways to communicate and illustrate gospel truths in a culture that is not my own. I have grown in my love for the Karimojong people, who have taught me so many things about their lives and even about myself. I have learned to handle, and sometimes enjoy, cold showers. I report these things as testimonies of grace. God has been kind to help me adjust and serve with the strength he provides (1 Peter 4:11). Glory to him!
The foreign missions program of the OPC operates with a specific goal in view. That goal, as expressed in the Foreign Missions booklet Making Disciples of All the Nations, is to establish in each fully operational field “a healthy indigenous national church”:
As I reflect on the early days, I do so with the above statement in mind. Missions is the work of the church. The church is also the fruit of the church’s work of missions. The church sends workers who labor to see the church formed in their fields. The mission objective is to establish a mature church that fulfills that fivefold description.
The ministries I found when I arrived in Uganda were meant to support this vision. Worship, the sacraments, preaching, prayer, and Bible instruction are the means of grace for needy people. That is why our Mission put them in place early on. Acts of mercy are vital expressions of love, which is the ID of the Christian (John 13:35). These worthy works adorn the gospel we profess, and, in fact, they save and heal the lives of people who were created by God, are loved by God, and bear the image of God.
The commitments I noticed at the beginning have not changed. There is more going on now, but the gospel-centered, church-forming objectives remain. Here are some of the things the Mission is doing to proclaim Christ in Karamoja:
We in the Mission rejoice that so many people are hearing the gospel of Christ. Some are coming to faith, and we thank God for them. But as we look carefully at the goal, we see how much work remains to be done. As we think of the next stage in developing the work, here are three things we would like to see—and believe we will see—in the coming years. Please pray as you read them:
The prospect of developing indigenous, ordained leadership is exciting. Dave Okken and I have worked with several young men who love Christ, have shown faithfulness in their walk, and possess substantial gifts for teaching. One has become something of a teaching mentor of the others. They all love their families and pray for their neighbors. We want to be careful not to ordain men before their time, but, at the same time, we do want to challenge our brothers to think about the part they might play in the future leadership of Christ’s church in Karamoja.
This would, of course, have a significant, positive impact on many aspects of the gospel ministry. For the ministry to include the thoughtful spiritual care of families, for instance, the church needs indigenous pastors, elders, and deacons who understand the Karimojong language and culture in ways that may never be within the reach of missionaries from another continent.
The church should be marked by deep fellowship, fervent prayer, generous giving, and faithful service. Along with the Word and sacraments, church discipline must be practiced. Most of these elements are present now, and we are committed to doing what we can to maintain them. But in their best forms, they are still overseen by people from other places. What will serve Christ best is for the work to be taken up by Karimojong brothers called to humbly serve as officers of Christ’s church.
Mercy is already beginning to be administered indigenously. Four members of the congregation have come together to form what they call a “mercy committee.” So far, they have met three times (with some missionaries present) to discuss how they might care for the needy in the church. These were uplifting times of searching the Scriptures and praying for help to do the work.
It was especially encouraging to receive the suggestion to form such a committee from a member of the congregation. He is a man with a loving heart and a burden to serve widows and others who are in need of help. He has shown much generosity himself, knows the blessing that comes with generosity (Acts 20:35), and wants others in the church to enjoy the same blessing.
At one meeting, we spoke of a partnership in the work. The missionaries joyfully bring biblical instruction and wisdom to bear upon the church’s work of showing mercy to the poor. The church members, however, are better equipped to visit people, assess resources, and discern need. The committee members seemed genuinely pleased to think about all of us doing our part in serving Christ and helping the needy for his glory.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism has been translated into Karimojong, although some editing remains to be done before we make regular use of it. This text will play a significant part in our training efforts, and we are glad that it is almost ready. The Children’s Catechism is also completed and will soon be available for use.
Our mission has a school in Mbale (Knox Theological College) where men attend and receive outstanding training for the ministry. The ministers of the Mission are just now talking about how to provide the training for men in Karamoja without separating them from their families. Stay tuned and pray.
We who serve in Uganda deeply appreciate the prayers of God’s people. Thank you for thinking of us, supporting us, and especially for remembering us as you pray. God has blessed our work and blessed us as laborers in his vineyard. There is much work still to be done. It is good work, we believe. And it is your work. Thank you for joining us in the harvest.
The author and his wife, Laurie, are missionaries to Karamoja, Uganda. New Horizons, May 2015.