Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Holy Spirit Lives in Gulu

Gulu, Uganda. Sunday:

Hannah is going out on a wild motorbike ride through IDP camps with some people from UNHCR today. My frame is too large to ride on the back of a such a bike, while swerving through narrow and muddy roads. So I spend the day searching for the church of Severino Lukwoya.

Severino Lukwoya is the father of Alice Auma, the founder of the Holy Spirit Movement, a paramilitary group that brought together numerous militias with strong ethnic Acholi membership, after President Yoweri Museveni led the National Resistance Army to victory in 1986. She is otherwise known as Alice Lakwena (Lakwena means "messenger" in Luo), because she believed that spirits spoke through her and told her to eradicate the "sin" of her society. When she went into exile in Kenya in the late '80s, her father took over HSM. Meanwhile, Joseph Kony, who claimed to be Alice Lakwena's cousin, led a small rival movement. But it grew, eventually, it developed into the Lord's Resistance Army, a force of children who were abducted and ordered to maim and kill, supposedly to institute a government guided by the Ten Commandments.

I find the New Jerusalem Temple, Lukwoya's church, near Gulu's used-clothes market, off a dirt road and behind some houses. It is a modest church-house made of brick, with a smooth concrete floor and a roof made of corrugated-iron. Near the door, there is a twin bed adorned with a blue mosquito net. At the front of the room, a frilly banner made of tinsel reading "Happy Birthday" is strung across the ceiling - over a simple wooden pulpit and a table covered in a white lace cloth. The back wall is painted teal, but shapes are left in a background of stone: a cross with a sun on top, four stars, a moon; a shield with spears run through it; a triangular mountain, with a tree and a human figure sticking out the sides. Covering the mountain is a square painted in lush blue, making water.

Two men are plucking out a trance-like melody on adungus, stringed insturments that vaguely resemble boats. A woman is fluently working a flat, metal shaker imprinted with a red, white and blue "USA" logo. Another woman is tapping out a simple rhythm on a drum. They all sway back and forth, their heads tipped down, and sing in murmurs.

A dozen barefoot people are sitting and looking forward, while some oblivious children stand around. A few women sit on a bamboo mat to the left. The rest sit in short benches to the right. They finger small prayer-books.

And there Severino Lukwoya sits, over in the far right corner, at a small table with a white table-cloth on it. An ornate cross decorated with stars and a moon, and with the shape of a sun atop it, sits in front of him, along with a green bottle of holy water and a cellular phone. He is sunk into his chair and he looks lost in thought. He is a very old man, with deep wrinkles in his thick and charcoal skin. He has mangled and missing teeth. The puffy white hair on his crown is somehow imprinted with a cross shape. I find out later that his dark, penetrating eyes glow. That his voice silences the church-house.

I am still standing at the door when the young priest, Acaye Isaac, a man with a soft voice and gentle handshake, walks up to me. He invites me to remove my shoes and sit. He seems to know exactly why I am here. I sit at an empty bench as the day's mass continues.

Acaye Isaac and one of the adungu players take turns reading from their small prayer-books and delivering sermons. After each turn, the band starts up another swaying song. The congregation sings along. Everything is done in Luo, so I understand the amens and not much else. I think the day's services are nearly over when Isaac delivers a long sermon, standing at the pulpit and speaking soberly and seriously.

An adungu player plucks almost inaudibly as Isaac speaks. Heads hang down or look forward. Then Isaac finishes and there is a song. In the few moments of silence afterwards, an eerie metallic pattering begins on the roof of the church. They are sprinkles of rain. But when I turn around and look outside, I see no rain falling.

The service continues. There are more readings. There are more songs. There are more sermons. There are more songs. Because I understand basically nothing, I have time to think.

Then there is communion. Isaac pulls away the white cloth on the table next to the pulpit, to expose a bowl of some kind of paste and altar wine. The children line up first, then the adults. Isaac dabs a spoonful of paste in each of their hands, then presents them with wine from a goblet. The congregation finish the communion with a song.

Finally, Severino Lukwoya stands up to speak. I am urged to sit at the front of the church. Obina Hallan, a man in a suit and a tie printed with the American flag, sits next to me to translate.

It is not Lukwoya who speaks to me, he says, but the Holy Spirit. I am welcomed. I am urged to spread the word of the spirit across the word. "I know your father Abraham. I also know Jacob. I changed my name from Jacob to Israel. I am in Africa because I am the son of Cain. Now I work with the black people. I changed my name from Israel to Melta, which means Rock." He gestures to the stars, the moon, the mountain, the shield, on the far wall of the church. "I am the rock. I am all of this."

"The whole world is killing each other without getting tired. That's why the soldiers of God come down, to ask people to stop sinning," he continues. "And they stopped sinning."

Lukwoya gestures at Isaac, sitting in a chair behind the pulpit. "Look at his body. He is doing the will of the Father."

"Very many people poured their blood," Lukwoya says. "This shows that the lamb died. And they are saved with the blood of the sheep." I did not take communion with the church. He says that the holy water is still there for me to take. "It has the spirit and seeds of all these stars." There is a brief pause and I do not take the holy water.

He says that he is black because of Cain. He wants to get God's blessing, to be like the whites. But he is content with his duty here, to drive away the evil spirits in Africa.

Then he sits. He has finished his sermon.

Isaac stands to deliver his own sermon. When he is done, the adungu player, a thin man with smooth cheek-bones, wearing a blue-striped button-up shirt and blue pants, stands to speak. He looks straight forward. "Very many people were killed, because they want leadership," he says. The New Jerusalem Temple is here, then, to cleanse the world of its evils.

"What we call sin is the struggle for leadership," he continues. "And that's why we call ourselves the descendents of Cain. Cain was the first killer for leadership."

"If your eyes look at good things as bad things, cut out your eyes," he says. "Our body is a temple of God. If you would like to kill your friend, it means you refuse Jesus and that you want to kill Jesus."

"If we live a bad life, animals rebel and also live a bad life," he says. "People who are going to live with God will live forever."

The adungu player is done and the entire congregation breaks into song. The hymn is slow. At the pulpit, he bobs back and forth in strange meditation. He gestures at Severino, the Father. "Here is truly the God," he says. "Our ancestors are here."

When he is done, he invites me to ask the Father questions. Severino is sitting at his small table, looking at me through the bottle of holy water, when I ask him when and how the spirit found him. Severino chuckles. "It is a long story," he says. "God has put me down as a promise."

Long ago, the Holy Spirit was born as a person. Then He became an animal. In 1928, Severino Lukwoya was born and the Holy Spirit went into Severino Lukwoya. In 1948, God made Severino's Bible catch aflame. A voice emanated from the book: "You are my worker."

Suddenly, rain comes pounding down against the iron roof. The deafening roar eats the church-house. Severino stops talking. I look around. Behind the pulpit, two congregants kneel down to pray. They face the wall, their eyes closed, hands together, and tilt back and forth, back and forth. Obina, my translator, asks me, "Are you scared?"

Obina Hallan is an economics and history professor at Gulu University, he says, and a volunteer for the local office of the World Food Programme. He says that the New Jerusalem Temple is an unpopular and controversial church among the Born Agains here. They do not agree with New Jerusalem's baptisms, but he asserts that this church is only following the word of the Bible. He smiles. "I don't know what God did," he says. "I just found myself here."

Thunder strikes. Several minutes pass and eventually the rain dies down. Severino, standing now, is talking to a little child. Eventually he turns to me. The interview resumes. I ask him what the stars, the moon, and all of the other rocks tell him.

"Their communication is all about peace," he says. "That is why I brought stars. I plant the stars into people. That is why I have the soil of rebirth, Melta... I have not come to talk like Abraham, to kill. I have come to give people peace. I am the God of life. I need life."

I ask him where the evil spirits come from. He points at his heart, then points at me. "It comes from inside you," he says. "It comes from the teaching of the whites." Their technology has created weapons. Their money has introduced the world to greed. "They possess all the evils."

"The Bible has been written with a lot of wisdom," he continues. And the world must heed the warning of his church: destroy all of the wisdom of weapons and greed. "Extend your network across the world," he tells me.

I ask him when his church began. He says that it ascended slowly, very slowly. "We are very few here," he says. "People go where there are riches."

When Americans come to other churches in Uganda, he says, they bring nothing but money. The priests use the money to fatten themselves. The congregants dance because they are getting richer. "They are doing all those evil things," he says. "They don't want the word of God."

If Severino Lukwoya is a charlatan, then he wants me to think that he is at least a very poor one. He says that he never accepts money from visitors. He goes about town with his pulpit, only to preach on the streets.

I ask him how there will be peace in Northern Uganda. Severino, speaking as the Father, says that people must convert to his word. "I heard people crying," he says. "That's why I descended down to help them."

The peace here at the moment, he says, resulted from his work: He went to Lake Victoria and removed the evils there. He removed a fire from the mountains. He convinced "the whites" to start the peace talks in Juba, South Sudan. "This is a country of peace," he says. "Everybody is at rest."

I have one more question, I say. I want to know about Joseph Kony. Do evil spirits speak to him?

"I do not communicate with him," he says. "I do not want to say anything about him."

He refers me to Luke, Chapter 10, verses 1-24, and Matthew, Chapter 10, verse 2, verses 12-22, 22-32, and 38-42. "If the people of Uganda do not want to repent," he says, "then there is suffering."

He says that Joseph Kony and Yoweri Museveni are the same and that they may both be the supervisor in the Garden of God. "All of them are doing the same work in the Garden of God. All of them have killed," he says. "If they are the Garden Supervisor, they have to repent."

I thank him for his time and exit the church, entering the damp afternoon day. As I walk back to the market, crowds of children flank me, screaming, taunting, laughing. I stare straight forward as I step across a rickety bridge over a small and muddy channel. A few blocks away, I reach my hotel.

Update, 5/2009: It may seem from this post that I believe that Severino Lukwoya is actually the Holy Spirit. I do not. That was not the purpose of this entry. In hindsight, I suppose that I could have discussed this controversial church more objectively.

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