Creating Space for Strangers

David Evans and Kathryn Scherer

Gideon is one of those reassuringly human characters in the Bible. The sort of person about whom we can say, ‘if God can use him, there is hope for us all!’ When we first meet Gideon he is hiding in the winepress, threshing wheat in secret because of his fear of the Midianites (Judges 6). This fear is reasonable, and when the angel of God tells Gideon that he is going to save Israel Gideon is sceptical to say the least. But Gideon does save Israel, in God’s strength and with God’s help (see Judges 6-7).

If you said a few years ago to the people of Wera in northern Uganda that they would together transform their village and their attitudes to one another, without financial assistance from outside, they would have been as sceptical as Gideon. Yet that is what is happening.

Wera is a straggling village of about nine hundred people, living in traditional round huts with straw roofs. It is in a dry, drought prone area and the villagers eke out a subsistence living on the land immediately around their houses. The infamous ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’ rebel movement is active in the area, spreading fear among the people with its senseless killing, destruction of property and kidnapping of children to be child soldiers.

These constant insecurities have made the inhabitants of Wera fiercely independent, focussed on ensuring the survival of their own family in the harsh, unforgiving environment. Their lives have been the same for generations and it is difficult to imagine anything different. The villagers are therefore passive, dulled by the harsh monotony of survival and there is a sense of paralysis among the community; nothing much changes, nothing ever will.

But a couple of years ago a church in Wera started to work to change these attitudes. Vincent, a local area evangelist for the Pentecostal Assembly of God church (PAG), explained how this happened. ‘People came from another church and trained us to lead interactive Bible studies. These allow everyone to learn from the Bible and apply it to their own lives. Before that we only ever listened to sermons, now we understand the Bible for ourselves.’ And from these Bible studies the villagers have learnt that they can and should do something to improve their own lives. As a result the Christians gained the confidence both to act and to animate the community to do likewise.

As Vincent said, we now, ‘understand our responsibilities. Before, we left everything to God, but from the Bible study of the raising of Lazarus in John 11 we learned that the people did a lot in enabling the miracle to happen. This has given the people new courage to participate. We will never forget this.’

The whole village, Christians and non-Christians, chose some people to be trained by an outside consultant and then to survey the village. When they called a meeting at the church to present the combined knowledge of the village everyone came along, leaving the recently harvested cassava laid out to dry in front of their homes. This was important. As the information was shared, the villagers expressed amazement and anger about some of the things they learned, for example the frequent occurrence of preventable diseases.

Sitting under the welcome shelter of a mango tree outside the church, Emmanuel explained that the villagers used their anger and began to respond; some people, ‘have started to repair their old pit latrines and build new ones [because] they heard about the disease problems being linked to poor hygiene.’ Some households have sold a cow or a goat, and putting the money together with their neighbours’ have built a communal well.

Talking about the interactive Bible studies that stimulated the whole village survey and led to these changes, Pastor John said, ‘The teaching we received has helped us to reach the community. It has helped us to understand the problems we have here.’ And as the church members began to understand, they have shared that understanding with the whole village. ‘We discovered that ignorance was our greatest enemy. We have been given knowledge to face our challenges.’

There has been one other very dramatic result in Wera. The national government in Uganda have a programme to bring clean water to villages like Wera, but the community have to put down some money towards it, to encourage them to own and so use the water supply. The people of Wera had been keen and had raised some money. This was passed to the local government official who lives in the village. But he had misappropriated the money – he had spent it on improving his own house. Some people were already aware of this but as individuals could do little. The official had position and patronage within the village and had used that to threaten those who had asked about the money. It wasn’t until they talked together that the whole village realised what was going on and decided that they could do something about it.

So all the villagers, hundreds of men and women, walked to the house of the local government official and stood in the compound, among the goats nibbling the dry dusty grass. There were potent smells of that night’s meal coming from the hut used for cooking, but the occupants of the house didn’t appear. The villagers started to call out and eventually the official came out of his house, his wife peering round the doorway behind him. The villagers had chosen a spokesman and he went forward and confronted the official with the facts, saying they would not leave until he promised to return all the money. Faced with the united rebellion of the whole village, the official’s powerful position became meaningless and he backed down, promising to repay them all. The villagers left, understanding that the official would borrow the money to repay them. And both he and the villagers knew that they could easily return and put more pressure on him if no money appeared.

This success has greatly encouraged the villagers and given them confidence in their own abilities to improve their own lives. Patrick is a PAG pastor in a neighbouring village to Wera, where similar changes are being seen, and he outlined the impact the church is having on attitudes in the village. ‘Villagers used to think that development came from outside, as handouts. Now they realise that they can do things themselves.’ The church has not provided answers or resources, but has found and shared its hope and its belief that things can change. And the community has been both inspired to act and prompted to reflect on the role of the church.

Amos, a non-church going villager, sits outside the church in Wera that he used to avoid, drawing with his feet in the dust as he discusses the education of the village children. ‘I used to think that the church always stood away by itself,’ he says, ‘but now I have learned that the church loves the community.’

What a great realisation.

This story is an excerpt from “Creating Space for Strangers” published by IVP by David Evans and Kathryn Scherer. The book contains a host of stories, mainly from David’s time working with Tearfund at various times between 1993 and 2003 as a Regional Team Leader, HIV/AIDS Advisor and Church and Development Advisor.