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February 24, 2010
Local group strives to support catechists in Uganda
By Julie Filby
A local ministry is helping communities in Africa recover from the aftermath of a brutal war that lasted 23 years.
Thousands of innocent men, women and children have been killed in northern Uganda since 1986 when rebels waged war against the government. Boys and girls, as young as 7, were forced to serve as soldiers and “wives.” Thousands more suffered from starvation, homelessness, disease, overcrowding, sexual abuse and extreme acts of violence.
While the country has been in a state of relative peace in recent months, it is estimated that 1 million people remain displaced—unable or too afraid to return to their homes due to instability and intimidation.
As Ugandans heal from the emotional, social and economic challenges caused by violence and displacement, catechists bring faith, reconciliation, forgiveness and hope to the predominantly Christian country.
Team Africa: Ties That Bind, a Denver-based Catholic ministry, has been helping the people of Uganda since 2002 by training and supporting catechists. The ministry was inspired after a group of parishioners from St. Ignatius Loyola Parish attended the 2000 National Black Catholic Congress IX in Chicago.
“One of the calls to action was to build solidarity with parishes and Catholics in Africa,” said Marcellina Otii, a founder and mission trip leader of Team Africa—along with her husband Albert. “That moved me to initiate a mission trip to focus on the state of the catechists of the Archdiocese of Gulu in northern Uganda.”
The Otiis, originally from Uganda, felt that God’s timing to start Team Africa was “indeed perfect” as they were well aware of the overwhelming challenges faith communities faced. They had left Uganda—then ruled by abusive military dictator Idi Amin—in the late 1970s and moved to Denver.
In June 2004, they organized a team of five for their inaugural mission trip to support the 600 catechists serving the 25 parishes in the Gulu Archdiocese.
“By this time, the ravaging impact of two decades of war had displaced 1.5 million people,” Otii said. “It was clear the Church was central in seeking social justice and peace in this region.”
Catechists travel throughout a specific geographic zone, guiding people in their faith journey by leading liturgies and prayer groups, providing counseling and pastoral care, and attending to the sick and orphaned.
“It is the catechists who live with the suffering people in Uganda,” Otii said. “They (the catechists) have the potential to communicate the good news to the majority of Catholics in their zone.”
Catechists are seen as leaders in the community. They must be married, have a high school education and be Christians in good standing. Upon meeting initial requirements, each receives between six months to two years of training.
In 2007 Team Africa organized a second mission trip where they presented seminars focused on increasing trauma awareness. In addition they organized a Peace Jam concert for more than 2,000 youths, co-sponsored by the Sisters of Loretto. Following the 2007 visit, the ministry focused their efforts on raising funds to pay school tuition for the children of catechists.
“This support frees some of the catechists to volunteer more hours to accomplish the local church goals,” Otii said.
Team Africa is currently supporting nearly 50 students—they receive so many requests they have to turn some children away. The school fees program is managed by Sister Marion Weinzapfel, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet who formerly served in the Denver Archdiocese. Sister Weinzapfel and two additional Sisters of St. Joseph are serving in Uganda for three years.
Team Africa made their third trip last June. On this visit, with Gulu Archbishop John Baptist Odama, they honored catechists who had served from 20 years to more than 50. They also provided parishes with bicycles to help ease the hardship of traveling to remote areas on foot.
Team Africa is planning their next mission trip for 2011. In addition to asking for prayers, they offered the following ways Denver’s faithful can help their ministry serve Catholics in northern Uganda.
Invite: Team members are available to do presentations at parishes to explain their ministry and how to adopt a parish in the Gulu Archdiocese.
Donate: Donations are accepted through the team’s home parish: St. Ignatius Loyola, 2301 York St., Denver, Colo. 80205. A donation of $300 will keep a child enrolled in a rural secondary school for a year.
Sponsor: Individuals or groups can sponsor a child based on their unique situation. For example, a sponsor may choose to support a child of a catechist killed while doing God’s work.
Serve: Team Africa invites people to consider joining them on their 2011 trip.
Team Africa recently held two events to increase awareness.
“The more we know,” Otii said. “The more we can stand in solidarity with others.”
For more information or to schedule a presentation, contact Marcellina Otii at 303-321-0274.