By Patty Huston-Holm with Muduku Derrick Brian and Jimmy Siyasa
First, there were five. Then 10. And on a spring day and under a white tent shelter below darkening skies, there were 50. On the Ides of March 2022, half of the 100 blue plastic chairs in the pavilion were filled by Uganda Christian University’s (UCU) School of Medicine (SoM) doctor hopefuls.
“I pray, Jesus, that you will cleanse our hearts,” a young woman began before bowed heads, concluding, “Father, we pray that you bring your spirit in this place.”
According to the Rev. Ocen Walter Onen, the 28-year-old UCU-Mukono chaplaincy priest assigned to the medical school, participation in community worship at the Mengo hospital location has been growing, albeit slowly, in the past five months. Spirituality for UCU’s future doctors became a priority following a discussion among the university’s theology and divinity leaders in the fall of 2021.
Previous to Rev. Walter’s assignment, the Rev. Alex Kamoga was straddling responsibilities at the UCU Kampala campus with the SoM location, but he was often stuck in traffic jams, delaying the service. At that, Rev. Alex had little time for one-on-one counseling.
“We realized we had a population of students not receiving the Christian services that those in other programs did,” Rev. Walter said. “Medical courses are full of stress and these students have the same frustrations and temptations that others do.”
The Rev. Eng. Paul Wasswa, UCU’s chaplain, initiated the discussion among the clergy. Coming out of Uganda’s Covid lockdown, he expressed his concern about the need for added spiritual infusion for the current 230 students who would someday become pediatricians, surgeons, dentists and other medical professionals.
“The work of the chaplaincy is more than coordination; it includes teaching, but most importantly, it includes discipleship and pastoral care,” he said. “Effectiveness in chaplaincy work requires consistent presence on every campus.”
According to Rev. Wasswa, community worship exists for teaching, reinforcing a sense of Christian community and a reminder of God’s presence. When it comes to addressing student problems, the UCU chaplaincy “does not work in isolation,” but engages the counseling staff, he said.
The five-year SoM program began in 2018 with the vision of adding to Uganda’s health care system more physicians that were not only highly skilled but also encompassing Christian values and practices. SoM planners were aware that some professionals mentoring and teaching students would not be believers in Jesus Christ. They were, likewise, aware of the science vs. religion debate that continues today, globally.
“Science and theology are complementary in wisdom, but God is the ultimate creator of that knowledge and wisdom,” Rev. Walter said. “Without our Lord and Savior, the work within the medical discipline would not exist…when you go to a hospital, you ask Jesus to treat you through a doctor.”
At the UCU main campus in Mukono, as well as at Kampala, students have easier access to clergy guidance. Additionally, the Mukono UCU students engage in sports, student leadership groups and other activities to relieve stress and youth pressures related to drugs, alcohol and sexual activity that can lead to pregnancy out of wedlock.
“I tell them that I am single, too, and have the same pressures that I overcome through my faith and understanding of scriptures,” Rev. Walter said. “Romans 12 addresses that we need to be a living sacrifice.”
In Apostle Paul’s Romans 12:1, sacrifice references service or offering to God.
“God has a plan for all of us,” Rev. Walter said. “If you partner with God, you are headed for prosperity.”
In this day’s message and as mid-day Islam chants echoed in the background, Rev. Walter referenced Luke 11:1-4 and the Lord’s prayer, reminding students that “our Father is in heaven” but that “He also is everywhere.”
Such is among the messages that Rev. Walter delivers to the 3-5 students, mostly female, who come to him privately, with problems and questions at the SoM campus. His messages are about faith, strength to have it, forgiveness and understanding. One lesson he repeats is the importance of Christian character in a world where “beauty can fade.”
On this particular day, he closed his message with a story about a man who borrowed a spear from his brother with the intent of using the weapon to stop an elephant from destructive behavior. When the elephant took off with the spear, the lending brother was angry and not forgiving.
“There is power in forgiveness,” Rev. Walter said. “There is power in the Word.”