The story of the first Pentecostal church in Uganda

Sunday September 23 2012

Right:The first tent pitched for worship at Makerere when the congregation moved from Naguru. Left: present day Makerere Full Gospel Church.

Right:The first tent pitched for worship at Makerere when the congregation moved from Naguru. Left: present day Makerere Full Gospel Church. 

By Brian Mutebi

Given the numerous Pentecostal churches in Uganda, locating the first ever church is no easy job. Perhaps those born in 1950s and 60s would know. But even with them, one would need to double check sources as many give contradicting accounts. But after a dedicated search, I rise over the hassles and huddles. “The first church building is at Naguru-Katale,” revealed Apostle Dr Alex Mitala, General Overseer of the National Fellowship of Born Again Pentecostal Churches in Uganda.

Driving passed the Lugogo Mall on Jinja Road, adjacent the KCCA football pitch, eyes glancing at the recently opened multimillion dollar China-Uganda Friendship hospital, a feeling of upscale Kampala is all over. True. I can see Regency Apartments across the valley giving a pleasant view of Naguru hill. I did not come to enjoy the hill’s scenery though, but find the first Pentecostal church in Uganda. And right towards the top of the hill, a small faded signpost rests my curiosity; “Welcome to Naguru Full Gospel church,” it reads.

It is located at a V-shaped junction of two minor roadways connecting the major road from Lugogo Mall. The church was built with sand-made blocks. Despite the recent painting on the walls, you can still see it is not a new building. The 1960 layer of cement is peeling off the veranda.

On the walls, is some algae and black smoke-like coating in the ventilators and iron sheets. Today, some buildings collapse before they are commissioned, but not a single crack exists in the walls of this 52-year-old building. It is thus not an overestimation to suggest that the great grandchildren of the 150 people who come for Sunday services here can use the same church building – 50 or more years later.

Vision from Vancouver
But more than 50 years ago, the journey to the founding of this church commenced, in Vancouver, Canada. “The year was 1956 at Glad Tiding Missionary Society Church,” says Ps Jotham Mutebi, retired chairman of Full Gospel Churches of Uganda. “During a prayer session, a young lady in the church; Maureen Maglardi saw in a vision the word “Uganda” in neon lights. She felt that this vision constituted a divine call to her church to take the gospel to Uganda.”

“But no one in the congregation knew where Uganda was located if at all it existed,” recalls Ps Hugh Reg Layzell, Senior Pastor and leader of the Full Gospel Mission to Uganda, the first Pentecostal gospel mission in the country. “We checked on the world map.”

Layzell wrote to the British governor in Uganda seeking permission to begin missionary work in Uganda. He was referred to the Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Uganda who advised against granting permission to a Pentecostal church missionary society. “We learnt that the archbishop was dissuaded by leaders of the mainstream churches from giving us permission because they had witnessed the Pentecostal wave in India and did not want the same to happen here saying we would take away their believers,” said Layzell.

Later they were to connect with the Elim Missionary Assemblies of Lima, New York under Rev I.Q Spenser already operating in Kenya with whom they secured audience with then Acting governor to Uganda, Sir Charles Hartwell. In April 1960, permission was granted and on May 1, 1960, the group arrived in Kampala.

Crusade under a mango tree
Their mission was clear – to preach the gospel. With the help of translators like renowned evangelist Dr Joe Kayo, they held open-air crusades at Nakawa, Kibuli, Naguru and Mengo. The Mengo crusade held under a mango tree was landmark.

“One Congolese man whose wife had been dumb for four years had her tongue loose and she could talk again,” recalls Mutebi. This and many other miracles pulled crowds not sparing the princesses in the palaces. Watching from the balcony of her house in Mengo palace, Princess Muggale; sister to Ssekabaka Sir Edward Muteesa is said to have witnessed the miraculous and power-packed gospel preached.

She later became a believer. Many did. Thousands were later baptised in the Kabaka’s lake at Mengo. At Naguru, a building was erected for the meetings in 1960 becoming the first Pentecostal church building to be built in Uganda. This is what Ps Sam Muyinda, the church’s current pastor refers to as “the gatehouse of Pentecostalism in Uganda”.

A new life at Makerere
Naguru Full Gospel Church however remains a small little known church perhaps because the Full Gospel Mission to Uganda chose to establish its headquarters at Makerere. At the same time, a church was erected at Naguru, a huge tent was pitched at Makerere where present day Makerere College girls’ hostel is located.

Land was then bought where the present day 2000-seater Makerere Full Gospel Church is located. The tent was replaced by the church. If you went to Makerere Full Gospel Church today and saw a big writing on the wall “The glory of the latter house shall be greater than then former” now you know why. Makerere became the centre of all the Mission’s activities. That is where they built a Bible school; Glad Tidings Bible College.

Surviving a harsh regime
The early converts sung “Ggugudde, Ggugudde” (fallen is the baggage of sin) and to many in the 60s and 70s Makerere Full Gospel Church was known as Ggugudde church. From here other churches were planted. Then disaster struck in the 1970s when then President Idi Amin Dada banned Pentecostals.

They ignored the ban. Amin ordered attack on the church. “It was a Wednesday in April 1978 at about 5.30pm,” recalls Ps Mutebi. “I was at the pulpit preaching when the army invaded us, they started firing at the roof and the pulpit where I was standing.” Ps Fred Wantaate, then a student at Makerere University was at the university sports field. “We saw smoke all over. We thought there was nobody still alive in the church,” he recounts.

“When the firing intensified,” Mutebi narrates, “People stood up, raised their hands and prayed in tongues. The firing ceased. Soldiers moved nearer to the believers to listen to what the believers spoke.” Of course they could not understand anything.

Perhaps frightened by the strange language, the soldiers ordered them out of the building, beat them and the leaders, six of them taken to Nakasero State Research Bureau. Meanwhile, the soldiers looted all the church instruments.

At the State Research Bureau, they were asked whether they did not have radios to hear what the president said. They were charged with treason. Mutebi says a soldier sarcastically asked them whether they had ever read in their Bibles about the men who were thrown in the fire but were never burnt. He said he had a jerry can of petrol that he was going to pour on them, light a fire and see if they too would not burn.

“He was a ruthless and arrogant man who would do anything,” says Mutebi. “He then tried to open our cell but the key failed. I think that’s when God saved us.”

Amin had apparently killed the spirit of public meetings but not the spirit of devotion to God. “We operated underground,” says Ps Obedi Rubayiza. “Believers started meeting in their homes.” Rubayiza explains that when Amin was toppled in 1979, believers who met in homes then began holding open-air meetings everywhere. “These were what people referred to as mushrooming churches.”

After 24 days of incarceration, these prisoners of faith were “miraculously” released. “It was a miracle to escape death at the Nakasero dungeons,” says Mutebi. Mutebi, 68, retired last year. Ggugudde has since become brand name for the church’s 10-storied building complex. The church celebrated 50 years of existence in 2010.

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An unstoppable movement

Everywhere you go in Uganda, urban or rural, residential or commercial area you will see a church. Small or large, brick or glass furnished or wood patted, you will see a church – a Pentecostal church. From being branded Biwempe Churches with a handful of followers, today some of the Pentecostal churches boast of modern well built church auditoriums with tens of thousands of congregates locally known as Balokole. “We have grown so much so that in every family in Uganda today, you will find at least one person confessing to belong to the Pentecostal faith,” claims Susan, a Christian from Grace Pentecostal Church.

The Pentecostal faith has gained recognition from even government that it’s an independent variable under religious affiliation on formal government data collection forms. But how many Pentecostal Christians are in Uganda today?

While initiating the Born Again Christian Federation (BCF), one of the umbrella organisations of Pentecostal churches in the country, Pastor Dr Joseph Sserwanda, Senior Pastor of Victory Christian Church Ndeeba, recently estimated the number of Pentecostal Christians to at least 4 million people. Other Christians claim the number is 5 million.

Are Pentecostal Christians 4 or 5 million people, much more or much less?
With the country’s population census originally scheduled for this year but since postponed, no current statistics from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) are available. However, from the 2002 national Population and housing census, the population of persons who confessed to belong to the Pentecostal faith was 1,129,647, representing 4.6 per cent of the population. The Roman Catholic were 10,242,594 (41.9 per cent) and Anglicans 8,782821 (35.9 per cent). The population of Ugandans has since 2002 grown from 24 million people to an estimated 34 million Ugandans in 2012.

Without giving the exact numbers, Apostle Dr. Alex Mitala, the General Overseer of the National Fellowship of Born Again Pentecostal churches (NFBPC) in Uganda says the Pentecostal Christian faith is the rapidest growing Christian faith in the country. In Kampala alone according to Mitala, NFBPC has 137 “recognised” Pentecostal member churches; a number he says is higher than any from other denominations. Yet BCF has member churches too in addition to several none member indigenous Pentecostal churches.

Mitala says the Balokole mainly cut their share from the mainstream Christian faiths – Roman Catholic and Anglican. “We fish from them,” he claims. “Ask Born Again Christians and majority will tell you they once belonged to those mainstream churches,” he contends.

This view seems to be supported by the figures from UBOS. Between 1991 and 2002 when the recent population census was carried out, the population of Ugandans belonging to the Roman Catholic faith reduced from 44.5% to 41.9% despite the general increase of population of Ugandans while Anglicans reduced from 39.2% to 35.9 per cent. That translates into a combined loss of 5.9per cent (about 2 million people). In 1991, the Pentecostal faith had not been recognised by government so did not appear on the census forms.

Uganda has since witnessed several Pentecostal churches planted and the number of people attending these churches range from hundreds to thousands. The churches also pull crowds through outreach activities like open-air crusades and street preaching which are common today. So does this explain the rise in the numbers? “Not entirely,” says Mitala. “Instead,” he explains, “It’s the teaching of the core principles of the Bible that we have emphasised. People are taught and encouraged to read their Bibles and as a result, they ask questions, question the dogmas, seek the truth and will go where the truth is.”

The growth both in number and significance of the Pentecostal church witnessed today has its roots in the 1960s. This was a result of the Latter Rain revival movement that swept much of America in the 1940s that gave rise to evangelists like Oral Roberts and T.L Osborn.

It’s this that led to the coming of the first Pentecostal gospel mission to Uganda; the Full Gospel Mission to Uganda from Vancouver, Canada. This gospel mission team established the first Pentecostal church in Uganda; Naguru-Katale Full Gospel church in 1960. The agenda for Pentecostalism in Uganda had been set, literally. Today there are over 1200 Full Gospel churches across the country not to mention thousands of other indigenous churches.

Whereas numbers are important, Mitala rather prefers to focus the debate on the significance of the Church. “We don’t want to census ourselves. Even God disapproved that with David. That (carrying out census) is the work of government,” he says. “For us we know we are growing, everybody including government recognises that.” May be until government works on its responsibility, we may continue to see them grow but with no certainty as to how many they are.

- Brian Mutebi

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