In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says that blessed are those who are reviled and persecuted on His account. A Distant Grief by F. Kefa Sempangi displays the persecution of the author and many others at the hands of one of history’s most notorious men. This book provides meaningful insight into the history of Uganda, which is where I currently reside. It shares a gospel light which shone during one of the darkest times in Uganda’s history. With gruesome detail, the author tells his harrowing story of living under the evil regime of Idi Amin.
Kefa’s story is one of rags to riches to pastor to persecuted. The book begins with him returning to Uganda from Europe. He had been in England where he earned a graduate degree in Art History. International degrees for Ugandans are uncommon today, yet alone 50 years ago. This is especially a wonderful feat as the author’s parents couldn’t afford to send him to school until he was 12.
Not long before coming back to Uganda in 1971, Sempangi heard that Idi Amin had kicked the oppressive president Milton Obote out of power. Ugandans were happy and championed Amin as “the champion of liberty” (p 16-17).
Kefa began his work as a teacher at Makerere University in Kampala. The university is known as the “Harvard of Africa.” While there, he encountered some orphans and poor women who he felt needed love. This led him to start an orphanage as well as a church. His church would grow to 14,000 congregants. Soon after they had to begin meeting secretly because of Amin.
As the terror of Amin became more known to the citizens of Uganda, Sempangi began working more in his pastoral role. It was at this time that a witch doctor came up to him while he was preaching and asked for the power he had. The witch doctor knew of Kefa giving a general blessing the previous Sunday. Immediately after the blessing, a boy was healed, unbeknownst to Kefa. The witch doctor had tried for years to heal the boy but to no avail. Kefa then lead the witch doctor to trust in Jesus for salvation.
That very week the witch doctor returned to burn her hundreds of relics and idols with the support of Kefa and the elders. The artifacts were piled up and the matches were handed to Kefa. He quietly passed them to the next person. They were passed all the way around until they were passed back to Kefa. The people present were all brought up to fear this stuff and so the thought of directly confronting it was terrifying. But Kefa was able to light the match and start the fire to burn the evil relics of the witch doctor. The witch doctor sang for joy when the pile was reduced to ashes.
On Easter 1973, there was an especially large service at Kefa’s church. They had a normal length service. When it was over the people asked Kefa to continue preaching. They told him to go rest and come back when he was ready. He did so and then preached for 3 more hours. When it was over every one went home and Kefa went into the vestry of the church building.
Immediately, 5 Nubian assassins had guns pointed at his head. They said they were there to kill him. He told them, “I am a dead man already. My life is dead and hidden in Christ. It is your lives that are in danger, you are dead in your sins. I will pray to God that after you have killed me, He will spare you from eternal destruction” (p 119).
This turned the leader’s hatred into curiosity. The leader asked Kefa to pray for them. Kefa prayed and they bowed their heads. When the short prayer was over something had “changed in their faces” (p 120). They told him they showed up at the beginning of the service to kill him publicly. But the leader told Kefa that he saw widows and orphans, the very ones he made widows and orphans, praising God with joy and asked himself, “Why are they happy when death is so near” (p 121).
While this new believer would help protect Sempangi, the book ends with him on the run from Amin’s henchmen and attending seminary in America. He would return to Uganda after Amin was ousted and start planting churches and a denomination – the Presbyterian Church in Uganda (PCU). This is a sister denomination to the one I am ordained – the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). This must be the subject of his follow up book From the Dust.
The book really is a rollercoaster of a ride. It has wonderful stories of triumphs but also has grueling and disheartening stories. The author is open and transparent about his doubts and flaws. He does not mince words. Despite some of the grimmer stories, the book is quite encouraging. It’s stated purpose of witnessing “to God’s answer to the suffering and terror taking place in one small country” is certainly achieved.
I recommend the book to anyone wanting to read about how God can sustain in times of terror. It might also give insight to the slaughtering of Christians going on today in places like Syria. It is a must read for anyone working in Uganda. Surely the author is blessed by Jesus for all the persecution he endured.