What is God up to in Younglife Uganda?

I sat there under a large umbrella sipping on my Stoney Tangawizi, aka the strongest ginger ale that will ever grace anyone’s taste buds. Sheltered from the hot Equatorial sun I waited 45 minutes for a man named Simon Peter, whom I had never met. But I was in no rush, I was chilling with some friends from Kampala Community Church. Just then I get a message on Whatsapp from Simon saying that he had arrived. I however was sitting in the parking lot and no one had slipped past me! So I call him and it turned out that Simon had gone to another “community church” and that he was no on his way to the right place.

About 10 minutes later a grey 14 passenger van pulls up to the church and out steps an older man with graying hair. He looks as though he has had plenty of life experience. He walks over and greets me, “Welcome to the motherland!” After some initial introductions I hop into the van and we make our way through Kampala’s rush hour. Coming from LA I know traffic, but this, this, is traffic! We make small talk for a while but the real

Simon Peter Okira and his wife Harriet

conversation began once we arrived at our destination: a recently built mall. I had been there before so I knew exactly where to go. There is a fantastic cafe called “Maision de Qualité: Cafesserie,” they make the best milkshakes. Simon orders a coffee and I get a banana milkshake and then we start chatting.

Simon had originally come from a part of Eastern Uganda called “Palissa.” Around 2003 Simon had caught the vision for relational evangelism. He believed that teenagers could be reached for Christ if only they were shown genuine and authentic love.  So he started a thing called “prayer groups.” For us it would seem as though “prayer groups” are for people who are commited Christians, people who have the spiritual fortitude to pray for an hour+ at a time. However these “prayer groups” weren’t for those who were following Christ, it was for those who had never decided to trust Jesus with their life. So Simon started these prayer groups among high schools. He began to see fruit, new prayer groups would pop up all over town at different schools. It was definetly helpful that Palissa was an educational hub, meaning that kids from all over the rural parts of East Africa would come to this town for their schooling. Around 2005 he met someone from Tanzania who had the same heart for a “new wave of revival” among African teenagers. They got together and started to recuirt new leaders and build a sustainable structure for this ministry. Eventually he met some people from YoungLife and they noticecd that what he was doing looked a lot like what Younglife was trying to do in Africa, except Simon had come up with it on his own! They invited him to Tanzania to see “club” and “camp” and Simon felt as though this was precisely the way that the “new wave of revival” would begin in Uganda.

Simon is passionate about multiplying leaders. He developed a thing called the “leadership tree” which is now used in Younglife all over Africa. Its essentially the 2 Timothy 2:2 model of discipleship. He tells me that this model works because, “you can only lead people to where you know.”

You can only lead people to where you know! – Ugandan Proverb

Younglife in Uganda, however, isn’t just stories of multiplication and success. They experience what so many Younglife areas all over the world experience: losing leaders. Some of these leaders lose their faith and step away from Christ. Other leaders stay grounded in their faith but as life presses against them the first thing to go is their service with Younglife. Most people in the States probably don’t get how difficult this really is. Sure we have pressing concerns that might lead us to step back from our commitments to serve, but things are different here in Africa. Simple things like where your next meal will come from, where you will rest your head at night aren’t certain for many leaders here. At times the choice is meet your own basic human needs or serve in Younglife. It’s a hard decision, but the reality is that it’s impossible to serve if your necessities aren’t met. Dead people aren’t good leaders. That’s just a fact. This harsh reality has led Simon to emphasize three things when leading leaders. He tells them that all leaders need three thigns: They need a sense of belonging, a sense of benefit, and a meaningful task. Without these three things in a proper balance leaders drop off. The benefit, for leaders, sometimes involves knowing that they have a spiritual family who will come alongside of them and meet their holistic needs. Simon tells me a story of one leader who as put in this hard position. The guy was a fantastic leader, he loved the kids and the kids really followed him, but he was going to have to step away from leading for a time in order to put food on his own table. So Simon and some of the other leaders came together and pitched in to buy him a computer. That computer was precisely what this leader needed to start his small business. The act of meeting this simple physical need showed the leader that he belonged and that he mattered. It also enabled him to keep leading.

Younglife in Africa has the same DNA as Younglife in the US or in Canada or in Ukraine. It’s DNA is global, but the ways in which that DNA is expressed can vary from context to context. One way that it differs is that some clubs aren’t affiliated with schools. In Africa they call these “neighborhoods.” They focus on teenagers who have dropped out of school or who don’t go to a boarding school. Another difference can be seen in how they need to develop creative ways to reach girls and raise up women leaders. Younglife tries to overcome a culture which can devalue girls and show that girls and women really matter. They have value and they can be leaders too. One of the challenges, especially in rural parts of the country is that families don’t want to let their girls go to club. They are afraid that if they let them go to club that is led by a man that the girls will be sexually assaulted. They also prevent their girls from going to club because they see it as a waste of time. Girls should learn to take care of the home, that is their duty. One way that Younglife has figured out how to reach these girls is by tweaking their concept of club. They are beginning to form special “girls clubs” in which women leaders teach the girls the home skills that their parents want them to learn. Simon tells me of one club in which club consists of learning traditional cooking and baking styles. These Younglife leaders are figuring out how to reach a segment of society that hasn’t been given much freedom and on top of that they are giving these girls valuable skills that will be useful in their communities.

I could probably go on and on about what is going on in Younglife Uganda, but I will save that for another day….

In the next few blog posts I will profile some of the area directors who work in the capital city of Kampala.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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