To an outsider used to the ‘mega churches’ associated with the Pentecostal movement in Kampala and the world over, Omodoi Pentecostal Assemblies of God (PAG) will take your breath away.
In a good way, hopefully, although the Christians worshipping there may disagree. Built in 1965, the grass- thatched Omodoi church is a magnificent structure against all odds, reminding many who have been in the Pentecostal faith for that long, how far it has come – from mud- and-wattle structures to biwempe (papyrus) walls and mabaati (roofing sheets), before modern structures eventually take root.
Yet these Kaberamaido-based Christians have clung to the grass-thatched and very rudimentary architecture all these decades. Inside the church, about seven long benches stretch wall-to-wall. The dusty floor is kept smooth and free of jiggers by smearing it with cow dung.
When I visited, a few youths were in choir practice, but I was told they minister on Sunday without uniforms or gowns. The church has no electricity and there are no actual windows, either; just gaping holes that don’t close, but I was told rain is not their problem since the church is so heavily stacked with grass.
There are no leakages during downpours and the low-dipping sides ensure that even driving storms do not soak believers in the middle of a sermon.
And what the church lacks in modernity, it makes up for in serenity and natural beauty surrounding it in form of trees and lush green. Many churches, including much older Catholic and Anglican cathedrals such as Namirembe, started in grass-thatched structures such as Omodoi’s, but due to the hazards associated with the architecture, none stick to it for long.
For example, St Paul’s cathedral Namirembe moved away from their grass-thatched structure in 1910 after lightning struck and set the more than 3,000-seater church on fire, forcing the congregation to move to its current architecture and roof in 1915, according to literature on the church’s history.
Omodoi has so far burnt down thrice, but believers reconstruct this modest structure from the rubble, each time. According to a member of the church, Joseph Amuli, the church burnt down when bush fires engulfed it.
“During the dry season, sometimes the farmers burn the bushes in preparation of their gardens and our church catches fire in the process,” Amuli told The Observer on a recent visit.
Located in Kaberamaido, Omodoi church is about 2km away from Kaberamaido town. Omodoi church is said to be the first of all the PAG churches in the country, reportedly started by two men from Soroti district – Stanley Etieku and Gideon Okakale (both deceased).
The PAG website does not confirm whether Omodoi was their first church planted in Uganda, but says there are currently 7,000 branches in the country.
Amuli says the PAG church was first introduced in 1964, at the home of one of the first coverts only identified as Asina in Olelai, near Kaberamaido town, before constructing a grass- thatched church, now the Omodoi PAG.
“At first we knew Catholicism, Anglicans and Islam, but when those two pastors [Etieku and Okakale] prayed for Asina, we saw a miracle because Asina was a terrible thief and he dropped the habit. Other converts were healed of asthma, TB, mental illnesses and demons were cast out of them,” Amuli said.
Another PAG church member is Kaberamaido district service commission’s George Williams Egweu, who says he was in P3 back then in 1965, when his father Milton Obote [RIP, and no relation to the former president] was cured of asthma. Although the church was several kilometres away from their home, the family kept praying in Omodoi church.
“When people in Alwa sub-county and Lango heard of the miracles in Omodoi, they started flocking to the church which accommodates about 100 people. And because of the so many people and long distance, the church expanded, giving birth to Alwa PAG church in Romo village, Alwa sub-county, in 1968. Alwa PAG church is at the border with Dokolo district in Lango,” Egweu said.
“People would flock to Alwa to witness miracles. Numbers grew bigger and due to long distances again, a PAG church was started in Swagere, Kwera sub-county in present- day Dokolo district under Evangelist Peter Erisu, in 1969/70. But Peter [Erisu] frequently went to Omodoi. From Dokolo, Erisu’s team and that of Soroti teamed with Omodoi and were preaching from church to church to strengthen believers’ faith.”
According to the believers, the church expanded in the 1970s, spreading to the Lake Kyoga side, Kalaki and to Kamuli district, Apac, Kotido, Gulu, Kitgum, West Nile, Masindi, Hoima and beyond.
From West Nile, Egweu said, the PAG church even spread to South Sudan and later eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Dream to shift from grass to modern church
Omodoi church pastor John Ecelu said he once dreamt that his church had turned into a big school and after keeping his dream secret for a year, decided to share it with church leaders who then called a meeting.
“In my dream I saw white people [walking] around that church. As I watched them, they started marking the church and were saying that Omodoi church was a historical church which had to be expanded with a pastors’ school [Bible college],” Ecelu said.
“After one year, I decided to tell my dream to Martin Ekamu, our Kaberamaido bishop. It was haunting me too much and I imagined many things. Why was this church still [grass- thatched]? You know when I was born, I found the church there and elders were telling me that this is where the Pentecostal faith started before spreading to other places. All the other churches are modern, including the one in [Kaberamaido] town.”
It was from Ecelu’s revelation that PAG church leaders started thinking about turning the current grass-thatched structure into a modern one. The new structure will also have a vocational training school, Bible college and nursery school, among other facilities.
Egweu, now the fundraising and organizing committee chairperson, said the church leaders met and realized the only way to have Ecelu’s dream come true was through fundraising and they have since launched a scheme whose major climax is expected on the April 23.
The fundraising drive will be presided over by President Yoweri Museveni, as the chief guest, according to Egweu. There are 181 PAG churches in Kaberamaido district alone. The leaders argue that the existence of the PAG church in Kaberamaido has contributed to crime reduction.
Kaberamaido resident district commissioner Jimmy Ebil Ssegawa agrees religious leaders and institutions have contributed to crime reduction, but stressed that “government through the police, the office of the RDC and others have also contributed highly in the reduction of crime”.
Museveni for the big do
Kaberamaido MP Veronica Isala Eragu Bichetero said preparations for the groundbreaking ceremony of the proposed multi-million shillings complex is in high gear with President Museveni expected to officiate at the occasion.
“I have confirmation that His Excellency the President will preside over the groundbreaking ceremony of Omodoi PAG church complex. I have not got any message contrary from the president’s agreement to preside over the golden jubilee celebrations and we still pray nothing stands in his way as planned,” Bichetero said.
The golden jubilee celebrations were initially scheduled for December 2016, but due to the general elections, were called off and the leaders have now set the date to April 23, 2017.
As I stood in the dark church (the lighting was too poor for photographs), I imagined believers trickling down the dirt walkway, many carrying their own wooden folding chairs and mats for the children – as I was told is the practice.
I looked up to the ceiling – or where one would be – and seeing just more grass, I imagined the believers ducking under the low-dipping roof at the entrance to enter into the sanctuary, where praise and worship ring out to the Lord, before the pastor delivers his sermon from behind the ordinary desk set on the raised platform.