A decades-long conflict between Joseph Kony’s guerrilla group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and the Ugandan government left horrifying devastation in its wake: the forced displacement of millions of people, mass looting of property, the abduction of boys to become child soldiers, the abduction of girls to become sex slaves and the deaths of close to 200,000 people.
Hardly anyone was spared from the impact. Pastor Apollo and Pastor Washington of Victory Outreach Church in Lira, Uganda, both lost multiple family members to the violence. “I lost three of my seven brothers and three in-laws. Not only that, they killed my former teacher when he went to get food outside the refugee camp,” Pastor Washington says. All of Pastor Apollo’s 300 animals were killed, along with his brother. His father never recovered from the violence he witnessed, suffering from a mental illness until his death several years later.
A ceasefire in 2006 served as a turning point. Losing ground, the LRA retreated into the forest—though Kony still remains at large. Internally displaced persons returned to their abandoned villages—but these places were now characterized by dilapidated infrastructure, famine, disease and mass graves.
There was conflict over communal lands. Orphaned children roamed the streets begging for food. Men and women had no work to do. And there was fear that the rebels would return.
Every villager had been adversely affected. Survivors were left with physical, spiritual and mental scars. It would take concerted efforts to bring healing after the wanton destruction.
Although war had come to an end, the work of the church had really just begun.
In the aftermath of all this violence, Victory Outreach Church sprang into action.
The church established the Victory Outreach Ministries Agricultural Program (VOMAP) to help small-scale farmers. Farmers were equipped with basic tools and seeds and taught sustainable ways to increase their output and efficiency. They also offered families small-scale savings and loan groups so that families could raise their purchasing power.
The church also led water and sanitation projects, as significant water sources had been destroyed in the war, and villagers were suffering from water- and mosquito-borne diseases as a result.
But it is the spread of HIV/AIDS that has taken the biggest toll in the community. “Life at the camp was tough, and many people were forced into prostitution. The soldiers in the camp took advantage of the desperate girls and women,” says Sani*, a father of a Compassion child that Victory Outreach Church serves.
Victory Outreach Church partnered with Compassion in 2007. At this time, the severity of the HIV/AIDS pandemic was becoming increasingly clear. “My wife learned that she had been infected. When she told me, I was so heartbroken. I thought I would die the next day,” Sani recalls.
This was the case in home after home, and the stigma of HIV/AIDS was rife. Currently, over 75 per cent of parents and guardians of children registered in the Compassion program at the church are living with HIV/AIDS. They receive consistent love and care from the church.
“I had given up on hope, but after meeting other people like me and going through counselling, I felt like I could live another day. The church has made it possible to access healthcare from major hospitals. We also receive food such as millet, eggs and fish which helps us stay healthy. Additionally, we received start-up capital for my pork barbecue business. My wife bakes bread and together we run a shop.”
Victory Outreach Church has reached over 8,000 people living with HIV. They have also established several other churches within Lira that minister to thousands of people every week through a practical approach to the gospel.
The leaders of the church are thankful for their partnership with Compassion, which gives them an increased capacity for ministry. “Working with Compassion has strengthened our work by increasing our scope of operation. We are able to reach the most vulnerable,” says Pastor Apollo.
“Compassion has helped us to organize ourselves through various approaches,” says Angelina, the Director of the child development centre at the church. “[We are able] to reach many families through skills training for young people, income generating activities, psychosocial support and disease management.”
The church also benefitted from Compassion’s Complementary Interventions when a borehole was constructed to give the community a clean and reliable source of water. Incidences of waterborne diseases are reduced and families save on time spent walking long distances for water.
The lasting impact of the church is being felt all across the community—even the local government has taken notice. The church received a grant from the local government worth 60 million Ugandan shillings [the equivalent of about US$16,000] for training and upgrading their programs.
Victory Outreach Church is determined to continue reaching the unreached and bringing peace to a deeply scarred community. Led by a team of people who know first-hand the devastating effects of war, there is a raw determination to bring lasting change in this region and beyond.
*Some names have been changed to protect their identity
Story and Photos by Silas Irungu