We stopped to push the pump of a new well built by a North Carolina-based non-profit, Share the Blessings, which Emmanuel started with a number of parishioners from St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Cary after their visits to Uganda. Out flowed clean, life-giving water, some of the first in the area. Children gathered with jugs to fill and carry home. “A well here, a well there, it seems so little, perhaps,” said Emmanuel. “Yet you think about baptism, how a little water brings new life, making us children of God. Then we see how with even a little God can do so much.”

Photo by Chris Hildreth/Duke University Photography
A Catholic priest teaching theology in the Methodist setting of a wealthy research university and a village-born-and-bred son of Uganda, Emmanuel Katongole describes his “pilgrim identity” as crucial for shaping a more hopeful future for the African continent.

Finally, down a slope, through an opening in a hedge, we arrived at his childhood home, greeted by his 81-year-old mother. She embraced us like long-lost relatives and his family members lavished us with local bananas and roasted sweet potatoes, washed down with the universal Coca-Cola.

Emmanuel took us behind the house to the small abode which was his childhood home. Inside was the small room he shared with his brother Joseph, also a priest.

“We read by candlelight,” he said with a laugh, recalling wake-up calls at 5 a.m., chores in the garden, then running the two miles to school. Walking to his father’s grave, he spoke of his father coming from a poor family in Rwanda to Uganda, of raising seven children with his mother, of never being schooled himself yet becoming “head parent” and mobilizing children in the village to get an education. His father died when Emmanuel was 12; a brother of AIDS in 1993. Back in the house with his mother, we learned of civil war breaking out in 1980, her fleeing the house as the military demolished “every living thing,” walking to Kampala, and not returning until six years later.

Soon we were back in the car headed to the dedication of a new school built with the support of Share the Blessings under Emmanuel’s leadership. Stepping from the car, we heard singing. Lining the road ahead of us were scores of school children in their uniforms, celebrating our arrival. We passed through the gantlet of smiling faces to the tiny, thatch-roofed church where Emmanuel was baptized. “That’s where I first learned about Jesus,” he said.

The dedication ceremony was filled with dancing, drums, a celebration of Eucharist, and endless speeches. (Emmanuel joked later about some experiences being “too much of a good thing!”) Seated up front, Emmanuel was the subject of endless praise. Finally it was his turn to speak. He leapt up from his seat.

“The speeches have praised many people,” he said in a commanding voice. “But one group has not been addressed, and they are the most important ones among us today.” Then he ordered that all the children be brought forward. After they gathered, the Duke professor from their own little Malube stood before them and exhorted them to live out the lessons his father had taught him, challenging them to pursue those same three things: hard work, education, and faith in God.

“What does this theology mean for my mother?” It was theology never being disconnected from the challenges of real, local places, from digging wells, organizing education, planting trees, and priests making their homes among the people. It was about Emmanuel both being at Duke and at the same time never leaving Africa, nor Africa leaving him. And if Africa remained his home and the focal point of his research, scholarship and work, much was at stake in the journey and exchange between worlds.

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