Stained windows are nice but churches really need to throw in gyms and cafés

Thursday March 12 2020


By Daniel K. Kalinaki

On a recent morning, I walked about a dozen clicks through the neighbourhood. Apart from the dust (one of these days I promise to write something about the politics of dust), what struck me most was the number of places to pray (six churches and two mosques) and places to play: Zero.
This is not to say that children do not have anywhere or anything to play with: I saw a primary school with what its directors will argue is a playground, but which any school inspector worth their salt would correctly identify as a prison yard.
There were interesting observations to make about the places of worship. The ones belonging to the older established Christian denominations tended to sit on larger expanses of land and had grander structures, including some stained glass panels.

From a respectful distance, your columnist could see that members of the congregation wore serious faces and carried themselves with grace and humility. It wasn’t clear whether this was because it is advisable to appear humble during a weekly performance review with an omniscient authority, or feedback to the choir from whose throats escaped groaning sounds against which many silent prayers must have been directed.
The newer, mostly Pentecostal churches, were crammed on tiny pieces of land and in much simpler buildings. But they boasted imaginative, if superfluous, names and their congregants appeared more animated and joyous. They also seemed to have more bums on seats and I don’t recall seeing any choirs, although these might have been mercifully drowned out by the public address systems blaring recorded hymns.

There were also the ubiquitous sports betting shops, hair salons, speakeasy bars, hardware stores and mom-and-pop grocery shops. Of course, one couldn’t miss the roadside snack stalls selling refined-wheat chapattis enclosing anti-biotic fortified omelettes all lightly braised in electricity transformer oil and sprinkled with fresh organic dust.
While I admittedly deliberately went off the beaten path, I did not see a single public playground, swimming pool, basketball court, internet café, jobs centre, gym, laundry or coffee shop.

Part of the reason is that land around Kampala has become eye-wateringly expensive. A few smart entrepreneurs are investing in pay-as-you-play five-a-side outdoor pitches, but these are few, super tiny and often inconveniently located. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the solution to this problem has been with us for a long time, only covered in layers of dust.
See, the older churches have a lot of land because they got it mostly free from generous converts, but many are struggling to compete against the newer, funkier churches. Many have become empty white elephants sitting in the middle of vast open prime chunks of land.

What they have is a design problem. The old churches might look grand with their towering roofs and grand windows, but they are of limited use outside Sunday mass. The wooden pews are too heavy to be moved, the acoustics can be terrible and the large windows let in too much light for movies.
What we need is to redevelop these churches as multi-purpose community centres. Build a large auditorium, then smaller spaces that can be fitted out according to need. The auditorium can be used as a cinema, training room or space for public meetings, while the smaller rooms can be used as gyms, libraries, vocational training spaces, meeting rooms, crèches or cafes.

People who go to church on Sunday want to feed their souls, but many could also use a haircut, a coffee, borrow a book from a library or pick up the laundry. The reason shopping malls often kill small stand-alone stores is because they offer many services under one roof.
Now, I have heard that the Old Testament God is jealous and loves His grand temples, but I have also heard that in season two, the New Testament, He comes across as kinder, more willing to forgive and even die a little for His people. Surely, He wouldn’t begrudge us throwing back a double espresso before going in to face the choir, would He?


The different faiths or denominations could book when to use the auditorium for their services and start to compete on content rather than distribution. From a purely business point of view, this would reduce overheads, increase revenue, and the merchants would be on the periphery of the temple, not among the pews.
It would make religion more attractive to young people and religious leaders would save souls while shaping bodies and character. It would also rebuild our sense of community, which anyone walking through any neighbourhood will see, is sorely lacking.
Stained windows are great but if churches want their congregants to wake up and smell the coffee, they should throw in a café round the corner.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter.
Twitter: @Kalinaki.