I wasn’t prepared for the unfamiliar kind of theologian I first met in Emmanuel in 2001. As associate professor of theology and world Christianity, he had all the academic credentials, from national seminaries in Uganda, to Rome, and finally Belgium, where he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the American College at Louvain. His academic interests and course content were broad and provocative: poverty in Africa, African culture, the Rwanda genocide, AIDS in Africa, politics, violence, and the challenge all these things posed to the church.
Yet, after nearly 20 years of urban transformation work in the inner-city of Jackson, Miss., a big question had come with me when I entered Duke for mid-career graduate studies: Can this place with a towering Gothic church at its center, this place of power and knowledge, truly serve places of deep brokenness and, just as important, be transformed in the exchange?
Not long into the first course I took with him, “Dr. Katongole” posed a question that made the difference. At the end of a long classroom discussion, he said: “But what does this theology mean for my mother, in her village in Africa?”
The question itself was interruptive. In it, I sensed a deep restlessness, a fire within Emmanuel’s bones, pressing Christianity to the concreteness of life, America to Africa, the seminary to the streets. Throughout the semester, he posed the question over and over.
My first trip to Africa in 2004 revealed a deeper source for that question and the fresh conversations and disruptive dialogues which so transformed students in Emmanuel’s classes. By then Emmanuel and I had become colleagues on an international reconciliation project. After a week in Rwanda meeting with Christian leaders from divided countries, we traveled together to Uganda and met my wife, Donna, who had traveled from the United States.
Our first day, Emmanuel took the wheel and quickly shifted from Duke theology professor to Kampala driving mode—dodging cows, pedestrians, clouds of bus exhaust, and swerving motorcycle taxis in the city of 1.2 million with, as far as I could tell, only two working stoplights.
Wherever we stopped, it wasn’t long before Emmanuel met an old friend or parishioner from one of his Uganda congregations. Animated conversations began with a few sentences of local Luganda interrupted by sudden English expressions (“You’ve got to be kidding!”) punctuated by peals of laughter. Throughout the city Emmanuel was accosted by ordinary people greeting him, grabbing his hand, giving him an update on an ailing family member, soliciting his prayers. Another layer was added to that strange, pilgrim identity: In the hallways at Duke he was “Dr. Katongole”—professor, scholar, teacher. But in Uganda he was “Reverend Father” or, even more affectionately, “Father Emma”—first and foremost priest, pastor, intercessor.
The journey to Emmanuel’s home village of Malube added yet another rich layer. The two-hour drive north from Kampala took us through breathtaking scenery bustling with people walking by the road: vast tea fields, rich forests, and lush hills. The “pearl of Africa” Winston Churchill had dubbed this land.
We navigated the final two miles over dirt roads with potholes so enormous even Emmanuel kept saying, “Oh my!” His anecdotes about villagers we passed were interspersed with laments about deforestation and the need for a strong priest with practical skills to make his home among the people.