‘What Does This Mean For My Mother?’
Emmanuel Katongole’s Constant Journey

By Chris Rice D’04

Photo courtesy of Duke Center for Reconciliation
Emmanuel Katongole and his mother, Magdalene Namatovu. Behind them is the Anglican cathedral of Namirembe outside Kampala.

Watching Emmanuel Katongole in his native land of Uganda last November, the first description that came to mind about the Catholic priest and Duke theologian and professor was not “resident alien of global Christianity.” But as fellow co-director of the Duke Center for Reconciliation, I knew that for Emmanuel it was exactly that strange sense of identity that offered unique gifts to the conversation we convened with Christian leaders who had gathered from the surrounding conflict-torn region.

On the plane back to the United States a few days later, a conversation with a flight attendant, an American like me, spoke to the need on the other side of the Atlantic.

He asked where I had just been.

“Uganda,” I said.

He looked puzzled. “Were you there doing mission work?”

“Ah … no,” I said. After all we had experienced, it definitely didn’t feel like the right word, too much about me changing them.

“Did you have bodyguards?”

“Oh, no,” I said with a chuckle.

“The land of Idi Amin, huh?” The movie The Last King of Scotland had just been released, portraying the infamous Ugandan dictator-president who ruled the country in the 1970s.

“Actually,” I said, “Uganda is a place of incredible beauty and hospitality. You definitely should go sometime.”

One brief conversation, three prevailing stories of Africa: a continent for Americans to save; a continent not of gifts but only to fear; a continent of impoverished leadership.

The need to disrupt standard visions of Africa seems all the more important given the enormous attention the continent draws these days. From Bono’s humanitarian pleas to booming Christian mission on the continent, from celebrity adoptions and Oscar-nominated movies like Blood Diamond, Babel and The Last King of Scotland to the shift of Christianity’s vitality from North to South, all roads seem to lead to Africa.

If Emmanuel was right about the dangers of a “sentimental humanitarianism” in all this, the journey with him from Duke to Uganda and back offered a profound contrast of story-telling and conversations. Here was a Catholic within a Methodist setting, an African living in the United States, a village-born-and-bred son of Uganda teaching in a wealthy research university, going “home” and back again and again in the name of a “fresh conversation about Africa” and “interrupting dialogue.” Something embodied in his own “strange situation” or “pilgrim identity” as he called it, was what was required for the church to shape a more hopeful future on the African continent.

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.

Photo by Chris Hildreth/Duke University Photography
Katongole and the author, co-director Chris Rice, co-teaching a course on the journey of reconciliation during spring semester 2006.

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.

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.

“Constantly crossing borders and boundaries between countries, disciplines and spheres of influence,” and the kind of “pilgrim existence” this creates, says Emmanuel, points to the transformation that happens not simply from textbook learning, but through journeys. “Belonging to more than one ‘home’ but never fully assuming any as the real ‘home’ offers new possibilities for the creation of new forms of knowledge about Africa, the world, and the church as the sign and sacrament of God’s new future in the world.”

Over the course of Emmanuel’s six years in Durham, many more “Dukies” have engaged such a journey of transformation. Six Divinity School students have spent their summers working with Emmanuel’s brother Joseph in field education placements. A group of 30 (including Dean L. Gregory Jones and his and my families) were guided by Emmanuel on a two-week Rwanda/Uganda “Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope” in 2005. One of his former students, Brooke Burris, is teaching at Uganda Christian University in Mukono. And the constant exchange of gifts both ways is crucial. This summer, Ugandan Catholic Cardinal Emmanuel Wamala visits Durham and Duke, and in the fall, Ugandan Father Peter Claver, a former student of Emmanuel’s, begins a two-year master of theological studies course at Duke.

In his zest for journeys from sites of pain and hope in Rwanda to the inner cities of Baltimore, Jackson, and Chicago, Emmanuel sees a bigger journey at stake, “a quest toward ‘new creation’ … not the church of current denominations, not the church caught up in violence, but the church as it can be, the bride of Christ, drawn from nations, tongues, tribes, and denominations.”

The bottom line for Emmanuel, as he has written, “is the quest and fostering of [this journey toward new creation] that energizes and drives my work and keeps me going in the strange place called Duke and in a strange country called America. It is because I have been set on a journey toward that new creation, and have come to realize that being set on that journey involves living and working at different locations, using whatever gifts are at hand; constantly on a journey, grounded in the present, but ever straining to see and live into a new future, a different world right here.”

When we visited with Cardinal Wamala during the 2005 Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope, he spoke as Emmanuel’s spiritual mentor. After joking with Dean Jones that Duke should be canonized for putting up with Emmanuel for these years, he offered striking words: “No, you have not made him more Catholic. You have made him more Christian.”

I doubt Emmanuel—scholar, teacher, priest, and pilgrim, African in America, Catholic at Duke, constantly bridging diverse worlds—could envision a more desirable outcome of his vocation and hope for the church: that somehow, in faithful exchange between strangers, signs of “new creation” erupt.

Chris Rice D'04 is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School and the author of More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel and Grace Matters.