Born Again in Uganda

“Don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’” ~Jesus

“I’m a Christian, but I’m not born again,” Gideon shouted over the clamor of taxis honking and motor bikes revving. My confusion at this statement was second only to my amazement at his skill in navigating us through the chaos that is Kampala’s road system—a system whose only rule seems to be “Just go or you’ll never go.”
“What exactly do you mean by that?” I asked. I had been in Uganda about 30 minutes and had only just met Gideon, but what I was to discover in the coming weeks is that he represented not an anomaly, but a norm.

Uganda is a country awash in Christianity—at least, a form of it. As we made our way through the maze of traffic, I noticed a crowd eating outside “The Glory of God Pork Joint,” saw a man getting a hair cut and shave at the open-air “God Is Love Hair Salon,” and took in a sharp breath of diesel fumes and dust as we swerved around a taxi with “Praise the Lord” blazoned across the back window. Uganda is about the closest thing you can find to a Christian country. But in a sense, when everything is Christian, nothing is Christian.

“Born Again”

This is why many Christians in Uganda have brought back the phrase “born again.” The term is used to distinguish between those who may identify themselves sociologically as Christians and those who are followers of Jesus. So it is not uncommon to hear someone refer to a “born again church,” or conversely to hear someone say, like Gideon, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not born again.”

While labels like this can be handy, they have potential to be harmful. One could easily see how a practice like this could lead to a “camp mentality” or an “us vs. them” mindset. And yet, to my joy, what I discovered was exactly the opposite. Among followers of Jesus, there is a profound recognition that being born again is a gift to treasure with humility, not a badge of merit to wear with pride. I saw this most vividly one sunny, breezy afternoon when Sarah, a young wife and mother of three, shared her story with me.

“I Prayed and Prayed and Prayed”

Sarah is from Rwanda, “the Switzerland of Africa.” For her, the innocence of childhood met the harsh reality of suffering in 1994 during the Rwandan genocide. She was 11. As the war quickly escalated, Sarah’s family (who are Tutsi) fled the country for Uganda–but not before her older brother was killed.

Feeling helpless and alone in a country not her own, Sarah’s suffering was alleviated a few years later when she found love. She moved in with her boyfriend when she was still very young. They both identified themselves as Christians, but neither knew Jesus. In fact, Sarah’s boyfriend became deeply involved with sorcery and witchcraft.

One of Sarah’s co-workers was a pastor’s wife and began sharing the Gospel with her. She earnestly prayed and one day, Sarah was born again. Sarah told me that, in her mind, there is no explanation other than a miracle of God.

A new believer in Jesus, Sarah began to pray that her husband would also believe. This seemed so impossible (he practiced sorcery!) that there was nothing to do but pray. And so she prayed. She fasted, she “begged God,” she “prayed and prayed and prayed.” Two years later, the sorcerer was born again.

It’s A Miracle

One of my last days in Uganda, Gideon drove me around Kampala again. Later that night, as we made our way back, I sat quietly thinking about what it means to be born again. I thought of friends and family I wish would trust Jesus and a feeling of helplessness came over me. How do you convince someone they need to be born again.

But then I thought, “Isn’t that the point?” At the end of our helplessness there is glory: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Pet. 1:3).” Jesus rose again, so that we could be born again. We can’t give new life, or convince anyone else that they need it, but God can give it.

How can the blind see? It is only through the gracious power of the Spirit. And that means when someone is born again, there is no explanation other than a miracle of God.

The Angel of Baghdad

The Angel of Baghdad

In the fall of 2011, I had completed the filming of Father, Give Me Bread in Ethiopia and South Sudan. I was scheduled to travel on to Afghanistan to meet with a co-worker; however, I had a week of down-time in between. So, wanting to take advantage of being “in the neighborhood,” a friend and I went to southern Iraq on a scouting mission. I recall what Samuel Zwemer said of his Gospel work in the same region a century earlier, “From the outset, the mission policy seemed to be expansion rather than concentration.”* Mine, too. And the only way to test the door for Gospel work there was to go to Baghdad.