Build the school, then the church

Just outside Gulu, we visited OCER, a Jesuit boarding school. While there, we talked with Fr. Tony, the Jesuit priest who was the director of the school. He made a comment about how the diocese had been getting on his case to build a church at the school. It’s a quote that has been stuck in my mind since.

“I didn’t come here to build a church,” said Fr. Tony. “I came here to build a school. I’ll build the church later.”

Liberation theology makes a case that traditional Christianity has separated the body and the soul. The church has taken responsibility for the soul, while it has left the fate of the body up to the state. Yet, the argument goes that this is a false dualism. The body and soul are inextricably linked together, and as such the needs of the two cannot be separated. It’s false to think the church can address the needs of the soul without also addressing physical needs. Put simply, poverty, hunger, sickness, or lack of education can take away from ones ability to have a practicing faith in Jesus Christ. These problems are no where more prevalent than in the needs of the Ugandan poor and South Sudanese refugees.

In Uganda, it’s clear that the spiritual needs of the people are being met. The church is strong in Uganda, with nearly 85% of the population being made up of Christians, mostly Anglican or Catholic. Christianity and faith is much more openly discussed and displayed here than it is in the United States. Yet it’s equally clear that the physical needs are not.

This is part of the reason why I find Fr. Tony’s thoughts so striking. Despite his past as a Catholic priest, he has seen that the most striking need in Gulu that needs to be addressed is not a spiritual one, but this physical one: the need for education.

One of the growing branches of Christianity in Uganda (and in much of the undeveloped world), which has begun to threaten the established churches here, are Pentacostals. They have been able to push their way into a sizeable chunk of the population through prosperity theology, a doctrine that corrupts Calvinists ideas of election and predestination to propose that God chooses the elect based upon their merits (rather than unconditionally) and rewards them for these merits while still on Earth through wealth and power. It creates a construed misconception that God sees the rich as good, while poor as bad. This is a dangerous line of thought to follow, and one that goes against much of scripture.

In a strange way, this theology has been able to grow because of the physical need that has appeared here. When other churches have failed to address the physical needs of the people here, they have turned to another source, one that promises to meet their needs. Yet, God doesn’t work in this way. If churches don’t wish to continue losing ground to prosperity theology, they will need to begin addressing these same physical needs, but do so in a way that is real. They are going to need to realize there are times to build the school first, and the church later.

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