- Jenny Smyth
image bearers in Uganda
Seeing the image of God
It was a long and arduous journey to a small ill kept village home. Nankya saw the battered pickup approaching and as it halted, watched Jajja Nightingale manoeuvre herself out of the vehicle and make her way slowly up the muddy path. Nankya, despite her cerebral palsy, beamed and, squealing, flung herself chaotically down the path towards her friend. I watched, wondering. Nankya, in a filthy, ragged dress was covered in dirt and flies.
Her spasticity, poor coordination and delayed development hindered her every movement, her speech, self-care, continence and her ability to learn. Jajja Nightingale held out her arms and embraced Nankya. Giggling they moved up the path together. Would I have looked beyond the filth and smell, the fear of contamination, of disease, and welcomed this child of God with such an embrace?
‘Then God said ‘Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness... So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.’ Gen 1:26,27
Jajja Nightingale, with great intentionality, sought out Nankya. She understood that each person is of unique value because they are created in the image of God, that God has displayed something of himself in each of his creatures and that, as we refuse to look away, we will discover something more of our creator even in the most unlikely people.
Being the image of God
In the northwest of Uganda, there is a dusty border town. Koboko is where loaded lorries stop on their way to South Sudan. It is also a multi-ethnic place where many folk have found a temporary home because they have been forced to flee from conflict in DR Congo and South Sudan. Family structures have been disrupted and community bonds broken. Lots of the young people are struggling with issues of insecurity, cultural identity and loss. An unlikely young man has sensed a call from God to minister in this complex, fractured space. Familiar himself with loss of home, family and country, with the struggle to gain an education in a land fraught by war, he testifies to the power of prayer and to the love of his Father God. Visiting the small, rented office of Save Life Ministries and hearing about the wide range of outreach activities, skills training programmes, radio broadcasts and home visits, it is surprising to find that such an unassuming, quiet young man is responsible for all these well organised, impressive and effective missional activities. It is clear that God is at work, that God’s Image is shining through him.
‘In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven’ Matthew 5:16
Speaking the image of God
Involvement in dark places is risky, challenging and often costly. It is hard to predict where involvement might lead; hard to know what might be required, for how long and how much. It is easier to walk away. A surprising opportunity presented itself to Bishop Ivan. Quite unexpectedly he was invited to represent the Ugandan church leaders in giving a 10-minute talk to explain the church position on the death penalty. The Ugandan government has prepared a bill to abolish the death penalty, but it awaits the presidential signature.
Bishop Ivan’s task was a tricky one. He was to present the talk to a delegation of local and international human rights representatives, government ministers and prison authorities; to people of other faiths and of none. The talk was to take place inside the maximum-security wing of Luzira Prison, in the presence of around 270 inmates on death row. A challenging assignment but a golden opportunity for the gospel in a very dark place. He started his talk by recognising that in 1994 the World Council of Churches declared its support to abolish of the death penalty. He went on to explain that in God’s word we read that everyone has done things that they should not have done, that everyone has regrets - whether we are in Luzira or walking around outside – but also that we are all created in God’s image whatever our current state. He spoke of a God of love who longs for people to be reconciled to one another and to himself, and that it is God who is the final judge. A just and merciful judge. In this unexpected opportunity Bishop Ivan shone Christ’s light into a very dark corner to bring enlightenment both to people who had little hope and to those who rarely hear the Christian message.
As members of the church we have an extraordinary responsibility, a responsibility to display the image of Christ in our attitudes and in all we say and do. As followers of Christ we also have an extraordinary calling, a calling to go out to those who appear besmirched and broken and to find the image of Christ in them too.
‘Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven’ 1 Cor 15:49