All Saints’ Cathedral, Kampala, recently installed Can. Rebecca Nyegenye as its provost, becoming the first woman to occupy the office in Uganda. But before assuming the office, she served as a chaplain at Uganda Christian University (UCU) for nearly 20 years. The Standard’s Benezeri Wanjala talked to Can. Nyegenye about her life and work:
What role do you think God has put you in this position to play?
Some of the things will be unveiled as I continue. I asked myself the very question. There is a job description availed to you, of course. This includes chief administrator of the cathedral, chief financial controller, being in charge of the ministries and the priests; all that is there. But there is this uniqueness of a role that God himself knows. So I’m still praying and asking God for a clear direction of that role he wants me to do.
But as for now, my desire is that, as a church in the city, how can we position ourselves to do mission? To me, that’s the cry of my heart. To make sure that the cathedral thrives in being a missionary church so that we can reach out to the ends of the city, and eventually the country with the gospel.
How did your father influence your desire to dedicate your life to Christ?
My father was consistent, the same today and tomorrow, in his lifestyle. He was also a peacemaker. You wouldn’t want to leave home. He loved God with all his heart. God was his consultant. He was a loving father, loving us equally. I wanted to be like him. He died two years ago, but when I look around (at other people) I don’t see any comparison with daddy.
What are some of your fondest childhood memories?
We grew up around the church because of daddy and we would run around, cleaning the church and beating the drums on Christmas. We also did business, selling sugarcane, pancakes and groundnuts at school. I didn’t even calculate profits. The needs weren’t so great. If you have a blanket, you don’t even think of a bedsheet.
At what point did you decide you’d be a priest?
I initially wanted to be a priest. It wasn’t an afterthought. It’s just others that discouraged me saying I can’t be a lady that’s a priest. I decided at nine; I told my dad and he prayed for me. He had his fears but I think it was God’s calling on my life. I’ve never regretted it.
And at what point did you go to school to train to become a priest?
I went after S4. I went for training, basically did all the basic training and I came out. My father didn’t have money so he educated all seven of us up to S4. He promised each of us a basic education, and he delivered. My two followers and I weren’t able to go to high school immediately but eventually, we went. Then I went to Bishop Usher Wilson College, Buwalasi, in Mbale. Most bishops went there. It’s now been merged with UCU Mbale Campus.
You are now a doctor, who inspired you to venture into academics?
Dr Olivia Banja. She’s the director of teaching and learning at UCU. We had met at a clergy meeting for women at Makerere. The second time, we were at UCU, and I was serving at Busia Parish. So I met her and she was teaching at UCU. She said that I should go for further studies. So I left the parish and she guided me through the steps I needed to do further studies in theological education.
Two months later, I joined UCU, one year after it began. I did a diploma; she taught me. After that, I realised I can do better. So, I switched to a degree through the Mature Age Entrance Programme, after my first year. So the second year, I started a Bachelor of Divinity.
From then on, I was encouraged that I had potential. I had Bishop Eliphaz Maari, Canon Lusaniya Kasamba, and Dr Edward Kalengyo.
All these inspired me to go for further studies. They opened up opportunities for further studies.
At UCU, I worked under Dr Senyonyi and he persuaded me to do a full master’s degree instead of the postgraduate degree that I was planning to do. Of course, I can’t forget Prof. Stephen Noll, the former vice-chancellor of UCU. He wrote and gave me all the recommendations I needed for scholarships and I was able to get them.
How did you get the Master’s scholarship?
Two years after, there was a scholarship named after Bishop Stanway at Trinity School for Ministry. A committee for scholarships sat and I was chosen. I have not struggled to get scholarships. That’s one thing I must tell you. God has been faithful. Prof. Noll worked out all the paperwork.
I went to the USA and studied for one year and then I returned to UCU, where I wrote my dissertation and graduated. UCU gave me a partial scholarship for my PhD. Dr Kalengyo had just returned from South Africa and he helped me get another partial scholarship from the World Council of Churches. I went to South Africa and Prof. Noll had recommended me for the Langham scholarship from John Stott Ministries. So for both master’s and PhD, I didn’t struggle financially. I did them two years apart. I graduated with a master’s in 2006 and started on my PhD in 2009.
What will you miss about UCU?
I miss my life with students. It was so interesting. I had really gotten used to my motherly role. Seeing students walk in, walking the talk with the students. Then seeing them graduate with a changed character and moral stability. But also, being there for 18 years, UCU had become my family. I miss the women fellowships.
What is the biggest setback you have encountered in your life?
I would mention two. One is someone I worked with when I had just joined ministry. My life was really tested. I didn’t know you could work with someone that would make life so difficult for you. You know there are times when someone can make your ministry so difficult. They will frustrate you, make allegations in public. They put you in a fix. He doesn’t care. I didn’t know that could happen in church. What helped me get through it was to remember that I wasn’t called by man, but by God. I eventually decided to release and forgive him. But that was after some time of prayer and telling God that I want to let this out of my heart. And indeed I did, I have no grudge against him. When we meet, we greet.
How did you escape from this situation?
Actually, when it was so tense, God gave me a breakthrough by opening a door for me to go and study. I learnt that when you are faithful to God, He will always provide a way to escape. He will not leave the situation to burn you for long.
The second is when I got sick between July 2014 and January 2015, when I was at UCU. So for that period, nothing was discovered but I was very sick. I knew one thing: that if I am going to live, the Lord will heal me. If I die, I’ll be with God in eternity. So that kept me going. Every day I was alive by God’s grace. I was so weak and in so much pain. The UCU community prayed and it seemed like God wasn’t answering fast enough. At the right moment, God healed me.
You said that you were ready to join God in eternity if it was His will?
Certainly, I couldn’t talk about the sort of death. But my husband being a medical person, trusted that one day my pain would pass. He took time off his work and moved with me to every doctor he thought would help me. He kept his hopes high. He even paid for me to go to Nairobi Hospital, where I spent two weeks, and he was there with me. The hospital did everything they could. They put me on medication for diabetes and hypertension, because they thought that’s what I had, but when God healed me, I was healed completely. Everything cleared and nothing returned.
Of course, my children worried because, for example, my daughter kept being asked by people “So, you’re going to be a mother to your siblings?” People kept looking at her and saying, “Sorry, sorry.” So she was gripped by fear and she came asking me whether there is some information I’m keeping from her.
How old was she at the time?
She was in law school at UCU. But she was on tension. My husband was working in Kampala. I was helpless. So she would dash from class, walk into the house, take me to the bathroom, do all the basic things, take me back to bed, ensure I’ve fed, help me lift my cup which I’d failed to. Then she would rush back to class. It was heavy on my children.
When I was at the hospital, I was surrounded by my siblings and husband. My son was in the second year in medical school. I remember one day I had serious heart palpitations and my son tried everything to help me out. There were times when the whole family was in tears; they didn’t know what to do or what the future held.
And still your faith never wavered?
My faith never wavered because I was in it. There was no way I could run from it. I was on medication. So, I looked to God. I spent time and prayed. I didn’t want to miss both. I didn’t want to miss life here, and also in heaven which is eternal. I kept my hopes high. Sometimes, I was overwhelmed by pain and breakdown. I’d ask God why He isn’t healing me. But in all, He was gracious.
Did those seven months change your outlook on life?
The difference is, I learnt to trust God more. I stopped taking things for granted. My zeal to serve the Lord increased. I lost all the fear I had. I cannot be easily threatened right now. I used to trust and put hope in people. But after getting through that it was a retreat for me to think about God in a fresh way.
Right now when I preach, I preach like tomorrow I’m going. My level of ministry went higher. I cannot compromise my faith for anything. I’m now more focused, more committed to God and more prayerful.
How were you disappointed by people during this trying time?
There are people that I got to know better for who they are. There are those I had to be careful about after. It was a learning experience for me and there is something that God wanted to teach me. And there is a level God wanted me to rise to. Actually, shortly after that, I became a Canon. There are things that God takes you through for a reason, and God unveiled his reason for me going through the sickness.
What are your three most important values?
Faithfulness to God. It is central. Secondly, I love people. Thirdly, passion for the gospel.
What will you remember about the outgoing Archbishop Ntagali?
I learned from the Archbishop that when you work together in the church, you are teammates. And I always tell people, that much as he is leaving, we must remain as a team. As the head of the team and as a team player, he has done very well. He has been able to understand people’s gifting and seasons. He acts when he is supposed to, of course with God’s guidance. He’s been close to us as individuals. There is no strange fear that there is no conversation with him. He has been a father and a parent.