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    Poor People Don’t Need Help

    Where rich and poor come together, there is the kingdom of God, says Ugandan bishop Zac Niringiye. That’s quite different from pity, charity, or aid.

    By Frank Mulder

    November 14, 2022
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    • Mike Wise

      It is true, when I talk to my fellow American Christians regarding their missionary works, inevitably they explain how difficult it is to witness to folks here, because we believe we have all of the comforts in life, so why do we need Jesus? Other countries in the world, like Uganda, have basic needs unfilled, so the Christian missionaries (all of us) have an obligation to both meet basic food, housing, and education criteria, as well as share the gospel. The "sharing of suffering", unfortunately, is something the American Christian does very poorly. We do need to get out, reach out, meet the needs of this lost world!

    At a conference in the Netherlands about justice, I met a man whose message was different from the other speakers. His words were harsh, in a way, but also full of joy, which made the audience feel comfortable nevertheless. He was Zac Niringiye, a bishop from Uganda. I had a chance to talk to him during the following lunch break.

    The conversation started right away. “No thanks,” he said, when I offered him a few pieces of bread with good Dutch cheese. “I never have lunch on school days. As long as Ugandan school kids don’t have lunch, I skip it.” I realized it would be impossible for me to talk to him with a plate full of delicious sandwiches and fresh juice in front of me, so, a bit dismayed, I put them back on the counter. We found a table in the corner and with a cup of tea, and, my stomach growling, we continued.

    Many Ugandans are too poor to give their children a packed lunch, explained Niringiye. “That’s why schools want to offer lunch themselves, for a small fee. But the president doesn’t allow this to happen. He wants to be known as a strong leader who keeps education free for all. As a result, 80 percent of children are still hungry at school.” Niringiye had vowed to skip lunch on school days “until the government changes the law.”

    Niringiye is an ordained bishop in the Church of Uganda, the Anglican church to which roughly a third of Ugandans belong. As an auxiliary bishop in Kampala, he became famous for his open criticism of corruption. He took early retirement to have more time for his calling: campaigning for justice. Every Monday he took part in a funeral procession, dressed in black, to bring attention to government corruption. Sometimes he was arrested. “It happens. If you participate in God’s kingdom and bear witness to his peace, the powers of this world will react. Doing this will not be without suffering.”

    Ugandan bishop Zac Niringiye

    Bishop Zac Niringiye

    As he told this, Niringiye, with his little gray beard, laughed heartily. He seemed to accept that suffering is part of working for the kingdom of God. But what, I asked him, is this kingdom? “It is ‘righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,’ Paul tells us in Romans 14:17. That means that God’s kingdom is wherever a community is doing justice, where people are reconciled, where people are one in joy.” Which is very different from saying that the kingdom amounts to a fair and just world. “That would simply be liberal,” he said, “and that’s not what I mean. Paul adds something: ‘in the Holy Spirit.’ Any form of justice that does not rely on God eventually becomes paternalistic and oppressive. It cannot be done without God.”

    The task of the church, according to Niringiye, is to point to this reconciliation and this unity. “Unfortunately this is something churches often forget. They are divided into groups, with white or black people, rich or poor. They are very religious. But Isaiah says that God hates it when his people do not manifest his righteousness and his joy. And these are only created when – by the Spirit – the walls between the groups are broken down.”

    We all tend to feel comfortable with people from our own social class, also in church. That’s obvious. But what can we do? “Get out there!” Niringiye said. “Don’t wait for poor people to come to church, but go out and look for them! Look for people who are different from yourself. Go and visit Muslims in their own environment. The Holy Spirit always pushes us out of the center, toward the margins and the people who are less privileged. In that way people come together. All you need to be able to do is let yourself be touched. Then you will find real joy, joy from God!”

    This is not an easy road. Just like skipping lunch isn’t easy. “But it has changed me. It taught me compassion. This is also the way of Jesus. He took part in our suffering, in order to break injustice. The cross is the ultimate laying down of every power, of every privilege.”

    As he spoke, I thought: but after this suffering, we should take action, obviously. We have to use our privileged position, our brains, and our money to help poor people – right? Niringiye shook his head with a sad face. “How condescending,” he said. “Help poor people? Who is the one who needs help here? It’s you. Poverty is not the problem. Greed is the problem. People don’t need projects. They need you. A human, choosing their side, taking their place. If you’re not willing to do that, you’re not credible.” The bishop laughed. “Jesus came among us. He is God with us! Not a remote God transferring money to us.”

    It remains difficult for rich people, Niringiye said with a sigh. “You are used to your money, to your computers. You too need liberation. And this you will only find where rich and poor meet – in the Spirit. In fact, poor people don’t need you,” he said, with a grin on his face. “You need the poor!”

    Which doesn’t mean that everything is well in his country. On the contrary. “Dark times are looming for Uganda. The dictatorship of the president and his family is getting stronger.” But Bishop Niringiye remains hopeful. “God always shows himself again in history,” he said as we parted. “He has a plan. And we can participate in this plan. It is a realm of justice, peace, and joy” – that infectious smile again – “in the Holy Spirit!”

    Contributed By a portrait of Frank Mulder Frank Mulder

    Frank Mulder is a freelance journalist in the Netherlands. He lives with his wife and children in a community with refugees in a poor neighborhood.

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