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Pastor brings church to vulnerable people

Children, many of them orphans, live in the Opit Camp for Displaced Persons in northern Uganda. UMNS photos by Kathy L. Gilbert.

By Kathy L. Gilbert*
April 1, 2008 | GULU, Uganda (UMNS)

The Rev. Titus Olaka ministers to camp residents.

Dust kicked up by the occasional passing car adds another gray layer on the babies' skin and turns everything the same dull color.

The Rev. Titus Olaka looks distinguished in his white shirt and tattered wool suit jacket, sweat beads glisten on his face. Bible in one hand, he welcomes visitors to his parish—the Opit Camp for Internally Displaced Persons in rural northern Uganda.

It is a hot, miserable place where thousands of people have been forced to live in mud huts crammed tightly together. Thatch roofs are fire hazards and many times a spark sets off a fire that destroys hundreds of homes before anyone can get to water to put out the flames.

Olaka has been pastor of the Opit United Methodist Church for about a year.

"When I came here, I found that everybody was almost destroyed," he says. "People are drinking a lot; some mothers are going without food, children they go without food, schooling, and their houses where they sleep are too poor."

People are often sick from insects like bed bugs, lice, mosquitoes and chiggers. Olaka says he is trying to improve the lives of those who have joined his church.

A young girl is one of more than 5,000 people living in the camp.

"We taught them how to look after the children—clean them even though there are no clothes, empower them to look for their own food. They can't move away from the camp even one mile; rebels will come and abduct you and kill you."

The Uganda government established the camps in an effort to keep civilians safe during the country’s 20-year civil war. Many people were killed in their villages by rebels, and the orphans were left behind to fend for themselves.

Four children saved

Four children have been saved from this harsh life by The United Methodist Church’s East Africa Annual Conference. Pamela, Sawiya, Gladys and Moses have clean clothes, food and shelter and will soon be going to the United States as part of the Hope for Africa Children’s Choir.

Teachers at the Hope for Children of Africa Academy say when the camp’s children first came to live with them they would often leave the school grounds to go look for food. They had to be taught that they did not have to gather their own food from the bush.

When the conference came to visit the camp looking for children for the choir, Olaka was happy to see those youngsters leave.

"Most of the children have no parents, or they have a single parent who is badly hurt. Most are staying with uncles, grandmothers. I identified a number of them (for the choir), but they could only take a few. Maybe in the future they can take more."

Horrible fate for teachers

There are more than 5,000 people living in this camp. There are no schools, but there would be no money to send the children if schools were located outside the camp.

There are no schools in the camp, and children often go without food.

Olaka has a chilling story to tell about why there are no teachers.

"In the past when the rebels were still here, when they would get a teacher at school they kill the teacher, cook the teacher and make the children eat the teacher. So most fear teaching within the village. They run away to town and are all teaching in town, so when you come here there is no education."

With no electricity, no close source of clean water and no jobs, the people living in the camps have nothing. Inside the small huts a family with a thatch mat and a pot to cook in is rich. HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases kill people every day.

Without access to medical care, Olaka says "when you are sick you just go to a tree like an animal in the bush."

Opit United Methodist Church is a hand-carved bench under some shade trees. Membership is hard to count.

"We have about 70 in the congregation," he explains. "But sometimes we only get 40, sometimes more than that. He explains that members often have to go in the bush to find food instead of attend church.

Abducted by rebels

Olaka experienced the terror of the rebels first hand a few years ago when he was abducted.

A sleeping baby is carried
on her mother's back.

He was with the rebels for four days. He had nothing to eat during the time and was forced to carry heavy sacks of beans for the rebels. Some abducted at the same time were killed, one man had his mouth sliced, and another had an ear cut off.

"On the last day they wanted to kill me, but one of the men said, ‘No, let this man go.’" The pastor said for three months after he was released he couldn’t move.

Olaka says he tries to give the people hope and empowers them with knowledge of God and the Bible.

"The people living here are most vulnerable people. The only way we can support them is with Bible knowledge. If they know about God, they have a future."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Video Clips

The Rev. Titus Olaka: "We try to empower them with Bible knowledge."

Performance at Opit Camp

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United Methodist Board of Global Ministries

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