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... From the Goodnews archives, Mar/Apr 2008

 

Goodnews to the Poor

 

Fr John Bashibora, a priest from Uganda, who is a regular speaker at the New Dawn conference, and is known for his healing and deliverance ministry, tells us about his call to the poor and its effect in his priestly ministry.

 

Fr JohnI felt called to be a priest at the age of six. I had seen a picture of the young Jesus praying and decided I wanted to be like that. Thus I went to a preparatory seminary at the age of 10 years old and was ordained when I was 24 for the Mbarara diocese in Uganda. It was when I was 17 in the minor seminary that I became involved in the CCR through Fr Roger La Bonte, a missionary priest who was a teacher there. I asked the Lord for the gift of healing, and God gave it to me, but generally I hid it as the CCR wasn’t accepted and Fr Roger eventually had to leave the country.

There was terrible civil war and poverty in the country. There was no soap or sugar or bread and we had to cut the host into four pieces for communion. I was appointed youth chaplain for the diocese and was sent to the villages to form children. It was a very hard life for them. It was through this that I met a young girl. She was seven years and very intelligent but she wasn’t going to school. When I asked her why, she told me that she was an orphan and her relatives didn’t want to pay for her schooling. Thus I decided to use some of my ordination money to help her go to school.

It all began from there and eventually I ended up sponsoring five children for their education. As a priest I had free food and enough clothes so I used my Mass stipends to support them. Thirty years later one of them is now a big business woman, she has a university degree and five children who are all doing well. Another is a lawyer and another a doctor. Unfortunately the two boys, although they did well and got good jobs, both died of AIDS and I am now sponsoring the son of one of them.

Easy to become attached to luxuries

I have always felt a call to the poor. The danger as a diocesan priest in Africa is that although you don’t have as much as in the West, you are given lots of gifts and nice clothes, food and luxury items, which many people can’t afford and it is easy to become attached to these things.

Thus I decided to leave the diocesan system and become a religious so I could serve the poor more effectively and I joined the Holy Cross order. I was sent to Nairobi where I tried to help the girls who had become prostitutes and the delinquent boys. It was wonderful work and many of the young people gave their lives to Jesus. Unfortunately so many of them started turning up at the house, that the priests living there began to feel swamped, and it was decided it would be better if I went to India for my studies.

I faced new problems here. Our noviciate was built in a high class area opposite a place where the untouchables lived and many of my fellow students came from a Brahman background. I soon got to know the children in the area because I used to pray in a garden nearby. The people round about discovered my healing gift and started to ask me to come to celebrate Masses for them. Even Hindus started coming because of the healings and some even asked for baptism. But once again this caused problems because too many people were coming to the noviciate and it was interfering with the community life of the order.

Rules an obstacle to love

I then got into trouble again for giving away my pocket money. We were all given 25 rupees each but one day I came across a woman with a baby who was dying with fever and who had no medicine or food, so I gave her my 25 rupees. In doing this, however, I broke one of the rules of the community because we were not supposed to give people money on an individual basis like this. Only the community gave to the poor. Then one day one of the Christians invited me to go and visit a sick person. I left the novitiate without permission because I thought it was an emergency. For me some of the rules seemed an obstacle to love. The community didn’t think so and I was told I was considered not suitable for community life and asked to leave a month before taking my vows.

I felt humiliated by what happened and wondered where to go and what to do with my life. I had been given some money by the order so I decided to go and study at the university. Ironically no sooner had I begun than I received a call from the noviciate. The rector had got sick and they needed a priest, so they asked me to come back and help. I agreed. Soon afterwards my bishop in Uganda got in touch and asked me to come home.

When I arrived back I was a given a parish. Here I encouraged some of the women in the parish to start making handicrafts to alleviate poverty. When people saw I was caring for the poor many of them started to come back to the Church. Protestants started coming, because of this and because of the healing services I started with the Blessed Sacrament. Some of the people, however, didn’t like the fact that my clothes weren’t very good and felt I was letting down the image of what a priest should be and that I was too poor. In 1983 the bishop suggested that I go to Rome to study spirituality. I really wanted to study scripture but I went out of obedience.

Is Christianity just a white man’s religion?

I was so disillusioned by this stage that I decided to use this time away to do my own personal research to find out if Christianity was real and for me or was it just some white man’s religion. If I wasn’t convinced I planned to leave the priesthood and abandon Christianity altogether. Things had got worse and worse from a social point of view in my country. I saw people dead in the streets from war and malnutrition and lack of medicine. Although I had seen a few people healed through my ministry, this was nothing amongst so much suffering around me. Thus in Rome I spent all my time in the Jesuit library. Here I began to study the writings of the early Church Fathers. Their insights into redemptive suffering saved me, also the praise and worship I experienced at the Lumen Christi prayer group which helped me get myself out of all my anger.

But even here I was troubled by the fact that the poor and suffering outside their own lives didn’t seem to feature at all in the prayers or concerns of the prayer group members, although it was clear they loved God and wanted to do his will. Sr Miriam Duggan an Irish missionary fired me up, however, by making me see that the message of the CCR really was for the poor of Uganda too. It was hard for some Italians to accept me in the beginning. They had not lived under the same roof as any Africans and I think they wondered if I was quite civilised and if I knew how to use a knife and fork or the bathroom. The people in the Renewal helped to support me, however, during my studies. The Lord had used me to heal a handicapped boy and afterwards his family insisted that I stay with them. It was at the Lumen Christi prayer group that I got to know Fr Bob Faricy SJ, the famous charismatic Jesuit. He told me “You have a gift of healing and you are hiding it.” He encouraged me to step out and use it more.

I returned to Uganda in 1988. By this time I had my doctorate and had saved $4000 as I hadn’t spent much of my allowance and had received gifts from people in the Renewal which I was determined to use for the education of the poor back home. Once again I was asked to be youth chaplain and before long I was sponsoring not just my five original children but 145 children, mainly in primary school. Education is the only way out of poverty, and I wanted to help as many as possible.

Call to heal the sick

When I returned to Uganda my healing ministry grew and I began to be invited to different places to preach the gospel and do healing services or simply pray for people one to one. For me the call of a Christian is to be the hands and mouth of Jesus - to do what He did - to heal the sick, deliver the oppressed and help the poor. For me they are all part of the same message and when we do this the people flock to the Church.

My major responsibility was running a major seminary, but in the holidays I would go to Italy where they remembered me. They would ask me to give talks and celebrate Masses with them. I didn’t like to fund raise as such because I wanted people to hear the Gospel message and not for money to get in the way of this. Thus I just relied on the offerings they gave me and these were often generous. In this way I was able to support 450 school children. Over the years things have grown and grown and now I am sponsoring 60 university students, 480 primary school children and 780 in six secondary schools. A special school has also been started to recuperate some girls who have had problems because of poverty and rejection and lack of parents. Every year I now need to find ?150,000 for their school fees and expenses. It is a huge amount of money, but somehow the Lord provides. Seventy children, for example, are sponsored by people in Italy. In the secondary school that I run 200 of the children pay fees and this helps to pay the salaries of the teachers and pays for one meal a day. It is very hard in Uganda at the moment, however, as the poor teachers have to work in many schools to pay the fees for even their own children.

Caring for all these children has helped me to grow stronger in my celibate life and has given me more compassion for people. They are like my children and I know what it feels like to be a parent and I feel their troubles. I have started a new school for single mothers with their children because I realised that most of these children were becoming prostitutes because they would be sent out to beg because their mothers had no money.

If the Church doesn’t help the poor, she will die…. And the giving must begin with me

I remember once feeling really disappointed and upset at the enormity of the problems I was facing and full of self pity. Then the Lord spoke to me. “What is your mission if it is not for helping the poor? Is it your money you are using or is it mine? You got it from my people.” And it was true. I believe that if the Church doesn’t help the poor, she will die… and the giving must begin with me. Thus I never have any money in my account although people have been very generous to me. Twice money has been given to me to buy a car but even this has been used for school fees. I even sold my mother’s house to help with the funds.

But the fruits have been good. So far I have been able to help graduate 140 teachers, 12 university graduates, 40 nurses, 60 secretaries, 70 carpenters and builders and 5 doctors, 4 lawyers. And many more per year will be released in the future as the ones in education complete their studies. In fact one of the doctors now helps me and wants to work with the poor too. She wants to set up a clinic where we can treat people free of charge. One of my former pupils was berating me because she hadn’t been able to reach me over the holidays. I told her I didn’t have a mobile because it was too expensive. She told me, “I’m earning now father, I’ll see you have a mobile. After all we are your children!”


If you would like to help to sponsor one of Fr John Bashibora’s orphans please contact him via Prince of Peace Community, St Emilies, Oakhill Park, Liverpool L13 4BP tel 0151 228 0724.

 

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