THE HISTORY OF UGANDA MARTYRS CHURCH OF CANADA
BY Rev. Dr. Isaac Kawuki-Mukasa
A small community of Ugandans was beginning to emerge in the GTA around the mid-1980s – really a handful of families beginning to find one another. Being so far away from home, they were keen to get to know one another and for opportunities of mutual support.
About the same time, a Ugandan-born Anglican clergyman by the name of Alex Kasirye-Musoke arrived in Toronto with his family. He was canonically resident in the Diocese of Nairobi, Kenya and had come to pursue a doctoral program at Wycliffe College T.S.T. In the meantime, the Anglican bishop of Toronto licensed him to do ministry at St. Nicholas Anglican Church in Scarborough.
In due course, Rev. Alex had a steady pastoral ministry among the small but growing community of Ugandans in this area. Whenever a pastoral concern arose in the community: the loss of a relative back home; family members needing a pastoral visit for one reason or another; even moments of joy like the birth of a child or the betrothal of a couple; whenever any of such pastoral concerns arose, Rev. Alex would be invited to say a prayer, lead a service or otherwise provide pastoral presence in the culture and sometimes language of the community. Eventually, regular community services would be held once every two or three months celebrating anniversaries, honouring memories and giving thanks for God’s blessings in people’s lives.
On Sunday October 6th 1991, a service of this kind was held at Wycliffe College to celebrate the 29th anniversary of Uganda’s Independence. I had the privilege of being asked to preach at this service. At least one hundred people gathered that day, some coming as far away as London Ontario. At the end of the service Rev. Alex conducted a meeting at which the group discussed the possibility and plausibility of forming a regular congregation. After considerable debate the decision was made to do so. The name Uganda Martyrs’ Church (contributed by one Vincent Kiwanuka) was tentatively accepted and subsequently confirmed. From thereon the community began the difficult task of setting the congregation on its feet.
The history of this church may be divided into three distinct phases covering roughly the periods 1991 to 98; 1998 to 2005 and 2005 to the present. The period between 1991 and 1998 is what I would like to call (with a little bias of course) the golden moment of the congregation. The kind of energy, commitment and original thinking coming out of the community during this time was quite remarkable. Members not only demonstrated an incredible capacity to apply gifts in transformative ways but the volunteer base was extraordinarily large. Every member wanted to offer something, do something, give something; and they did so with a level of commitment that is rarely seen in any congregation of any kind in this country.
The mission of the Uganda Martyrs’ Church over this period followed at least three trajectories. There was a vibrant family ministry, consisting of children’s ministry as well as men’s and women’s fellowships. The annual family camp was part of this ministry as well. For a growing immigrant community that was attempting to settle into a new environment, the family ministry laid a firm foundation for the community that continues to bare fruit today. A second trajectory involved lay leadership development. The church had no paid staff at the time and relied exclusively on the commitment of volunteers. While this is never an ideal situation in the long run (as I will show), in the face of a highly committed and motivated membership, it had the benefit of sharpening the skills and gifts of volunteers for ministry that reached beyond the worshiping community of the church.
Pastoral care was the third trajectory of the Uganda Martyrs Church mission. It was at this time that this church became the place of refuge for Canadians of Ugandan descent in the GTA – a reputation it continues to enjoy today. Whenever there was a death in the community, for example, members rallied around the bereaved with incredible support, love and care. I can give testimony to this particular gift of the church community following my own personal loss.
So, I would say that these early years of the Church’s life were a time of great vitality, health and creativity. It was a time of great blessings in energy, commitment and generosity and indeed some of the legacies of those blessings have lingered on to the present day.
Between 1998 and 2005 the Uganda Martyrs Church (unfortunately) entered a period of stagnation and decline. There were multiple causes for this development but here I will point to only two: Leadership fatigue (or what some people would call burn-out) and a shift in the structure and needs of the now much larger community of Ugandans in the city.
The volunteer base of Uganda Martyrs Church began to shrink from about 1997. The novelty of building a congregation of our own was beginning to wear off; people were taking on more responsibilities; kids were growing older and demanding more time from their parents. By the turn of the century the onerous task of running the congregation fell on fewer and fewer shoulders. Those shoulders too were beginning to show signs of strain. Appetite for ministry plummeted and the congregation shrunk down to an average attendance of about twenty to twenty-five.
Meanwhile the Ugandan community itself continued to grow. From about 2002 there was a steady flow of new, younger immigrants settling in the city. Their needs were beyond the capacity of the Uganda Martyrs Church mission to satisfy. The church, as I mentioned earlier, was anchored in family ministry. The new immigrants, on the other hand, were largely young and single – although some would subsequently begin to start families of their own. These challenges combined with the waning energy on the part of the leadership, made it difficult for the church to adapt its mission-strategy to the changing circumstances of the community.
Let me also just mention in passing that it was in this period that the Uganda Martyrs Church established a link with the United Church of Canada. The conversation began in the late 1990s through the Ethnic Ministries Council. By the turn of the century the congregation was already a United Church Mission under the oversight of Toronto West Presbytery. But for the reasons that I have just outlined, there was simply not enough energy to develop that relationship.
The period between 2005 and the present has been a time of renewal and growth in a variety of directions. A key development that enabled this to happen was the successful transition from the founding to a new generation of leaders. By the year 2008 the congregation was fully in the hands of new leadership with greater energy, new ideas and new gifts. Under this new leadership the church has managed to adapt to the changing circumstances of its mission-field; successfully tapping into the needs of both the older and younger generations of families. The leadership has also worked hard to streamline the structures of the church so that it may function as a regular mainstream congregation. And it is that effort that has led us down this path, to celebrate the congregation’s inauguration today as a full Pastoral Charge of the United Church of Canada.
Let me concluding with a couple of observations about what I see as the challenges and opportunities in the congregation’s immediate future. First, there will be the challenge and opportunity of transitioning into yet another generation of leadership. The time is about now that the congregation will need to be intentional about shepherding itself into that transition, in order to save the current leadership from the kind of fatigue or burn-out that the founding generation had to suffer. Secondly, the congregation needs to discern more precisely God’s mission and calling in this ever changing mission field. We need to always keep in focus the question: What is God calling us to do and where is God calling us to go at this point in time and in this place?
May God continue to equip this community with the skills and gifts required to fulfill its mission to the best of our ability.