Who Is My Neighbor?
by Twesigye Jackson Kaguri with Susan Urbanek Linville
In the 1970s, intent on eliminating all religions but Muslim, Catholic, Anglican, and Greek Orthodox in Uganda, Amin’s militia was on the hunt for members of other religions defying his orders. . . .
This might have discouraged some, but not my shwenkuru, my Grandfather, Stephano Rukwira, God bless his soul. As in the story of Daniel, when Nebuchadnezzar built a great idol of gold and commanded everyone to fall down before it or be cast into a fiery furnace, Stephano was like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He refused to worship another god, willing to give up his life for his beliefs. . . .
When Amin assumed power, the local militia closed the church, but could not stop Stephano. He possessed a twelve-room house with an iron roof, corrals, and a banana plantation off to the side. His family, neighbors, and servants secretly congregated around the table and Shwenkuru slid his Bible from a drawer to worship.
Stephano and his congregation did not escape Amin’s wrath, however. Someone must have heard them singing, and news that he was holding Christian services spread to local officials. One night during prayers, there was a knock at the door. Everyone went to their knees and prayed that the intruder would leave, but, as they feared, it was the local militia. Soldiers kicked in the door and dragged Stephano off to the sub-county offices. Stephano was jailed for three days that time, refusing food until the local chief persuaded the militia to free him.
It was not the last time my shwenkuru was arrested for his faith. Each time they put him in jail, he would pray for their salvation. And in the end it was Stephano who triumphed. Amin was forced from power in 1979 when Ugandan exiles and Tanzanian army fighters routed him from the country.
Now a new Adventist church stood on the land my shwenkuru donated all those years ago, a square building crafted from local red brick, situated in a grassy field bounded by trees.
I entered the building and walked up the aisle between rows of wooden benches, our student Scovia’s grave illness fresh on my mind. Sitting in the front row, I looked at the simple altar and dais, and recalled the Saturday when I had given the sermon at Pastor Ndimu’s invitation.
Worship began with Sabbath school and at least sixty worshippers in attendance, including many children and teens. As it progressed, I became more and more nervous about my impending speech, even though I had addressed countless church and civic groups about Nyaka School. This was the church of my childhood and my community. Often it is easier to speak in front of strangers than friends.
“Please welcome our own honored son and brother who has traveled far to speak with us today,” Pastor Ndimu said. “Twesigye Jackson.”
I stood and my fear suddenly melted.
“Who is my neighbor?” I asked.
I began with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story from the book of Luke about an average man who aids a stranger left beaten at the side of the road.
“This is a simple and yet most profound parable,” I said, glancing at some of those orphaned children in the room before me. “It can be applied to the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has claimed forty million lives, turned fifteen million wives into widows, and robbed fourteen million children of their parents. The parable challenges us today to ask, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ Is it only the person who lives in the house next to us? Is it only the people that attend our church? Is it only the people we know? What about the complete stranger who lives in the neighboring village? The stranger living in another country? The stranger living halfway around the world? Are they not our neighbors too?”
Many in the audience nodded. “Amen,” the congregation responded.
“In the parable, it is the men of God, the priest and the Levite, who fail to help the beaten man. It is the Samaritan, a person despised by the religious community as heretical and unclean, who comes to his aid.”
“Too often our beliefs do not translate into action,” I said. “We are the ones who turn away from those in need.”
“The Samaritan not only took pity on the man at the side of the road, he bandaged his wounds and poured oil and wine on them as a salve. He let the man ride his donkey to a nearby inn and left money for his care. He even promised to return and check on his condition. This was more than a minimal response. This was complete engagement.” I paused. “Can we ask anything less of ourselves?”
“No,” the crowd answered.
“As Christians, there are three things we can do,” I said. “We can pray. We can give. We can act. Or we can do all three.”