Bishop Zac Niringiye offers a perspective from being both within and outside of the Wheaton College community. He is a Ugandan author and activist, a former Bishop turned justice worker. Yet when trying to uncover the key to having a successful “ministry,” he lovingly chastised me for using that word. In fact, he wants to demystify the word “ministry”: “It’s destructive to people’s lives because people don’t think they have a ministry.” What term would he use instead? “[I]f you have a ministry, but you don’t have a life, you are dead … so let’s talk about life. Do you mind?”
So the Record sat down with Niringiye for an exclusive interview to talk about his life. And as we got lost in stories, I stopped asking, “How do I find a ministry like Niringiye?” and instead, “How do I enjoy life like Niringiye?” The key: learning how to fail well.
This year, Niringiye has been asked by Dr. Ryken to be Wheaton’s commencement speaker. He graduated from Wheaton’s grad school in ‘87 and has spoken at graduation once before, in 2006, when he spoke on the topic of the gospel in the margins. Appropriate, for while the global church is largely centered in the Southeast, theological work is still often centered around the west. His work is a correlative check to the sort of “triumphalist” Christianity that is often still preached, the kind that causes us to think it is still the work of the West to send missionaries and aid to the African church instead of listening to the contributions they are bringing to the table, says his long-time colleague, and conversation partner, Bible and Theology professor Gene Green:
“Zac is one of the best friends that Wheaton College could have at this time…of post-Larycia Hawkins.” Specifically, he can speak to questions such as, “How do we function in a pluralist world … how do we position ourselves vis-a-vis the global church. I think that Zac, if we listen, can mentor us. He’s a son of this place who has a word for us in a way that others couldn’t. He can speak to us here pretty deeply.”
These thoughts were echoed by Dr. Laura Yoder of the HNGR department, who appreciates his ability to both deliver hard truths without sugarcoating, yet keep his words from becoming harsh. “[E]ven when it is extremely hard to hear his challenges, he somehow manages to end his comments with a memorable line and a contagious laugh!”
The story of his life
Niringiye’s parents were first generation Christians and evangelists to Ugandan villages. He described growing up with the church “in my veins.” He wandered away briefly as a teenager when he was fifteen-and-a-half, the exactitude reflecting the poignancy of the memory. “But thanks be to God who restored me when I was eighteen,” he followed. He’s been “with him” ever since. His family was excited for him to study in America as it was known as a place of great opportunity, which requires great stewardship, he added. He attended Wheaton from ‘85-’87 and graduated with a Master’s Degree in Bible and Theology.
He went on to complete his Ph.D. in Edinburgh, insisting, “Learning is about experience. Learning is about encountering different spaces.” He encourages Wheaton students to explore educational opportunities beyond our country’s borders because it is impossible to truly learn about a culture without living there long enough to rely on them for your basic needs. He extended this same advice to those who want to know how to further partner with the church in Africa. “If you really want to learn something about an African, go talk to them, eat their food, drink their water, suffer their diseases … If you’re seriously wanting to learn, suffer their diseases like I am suffering here eating too much sweet,” he laughed. “So absolutely incarnational.”
And he does turn a critical eye to Wheaton College. One issue that particularly bothered him was that when he studied at the college, no one talked about how Wheaton sits on land that was taken from Native Americans. It’s true, Wheaton does sit on land that was previously owned by the Potawatomi, and donated to the college by the Wheaton brothers who bought the land from the U.S. Government. While Niringiye doesn’t suggest the College change locations, he believes that it’s important “to admit that we are part of the brokenness that we live with.”
Retiring from the clerical position of Bishop — though he still retains the title — has given Niringiye the opportunity to do work that breaks his heart, working directly for justice. This work is a calling shared by his wife, Theodora, who is a marriage, family, HIV/Aids and trauma counselor. “[T]hat has really been our lives, our assignments are different but our passion is the same.”
Part of what makes their marriage work so well is this difference of assignment: “[W]hen I come to a situation of pain and suffering that I can’t handle, I ask questions. She’s remarkable, she answers it, and she seeks to be a healing presence. So we’re different in that sense. She’s a great listener.”
Asking the right questions
For Niringiye, asking questions is key to what it means to live life with Jesus, as he’d say. He doesn’t couch his faith in “spiritual language” (in fact, he might like the word “spiritual” less than the word “ministry”). For him, labeling something as “spiritual” implies that there are aspects of life that are not. As if there is a place where God cannot be. He presents the same challenge to those labeling their school “Christian,” cautioning us against falsely perceiving that we have somehow cornered the spiritual market.
He finds these phrases largely Western. Green explained that while much of theology is still taught from a Western vantage point, Niringiye’s mentor at Edinburgh University encouraged him to minister to Africans in the African vernacular. Perhaps some of this resistance to cultural Christian terminology is due to the lasting impact that colonialism, in the name of Christianity, brought to Africa. “The problem is we have too many people preoccupied with ministry and they are miserable, they are boring because they treat you as objects of their ministry.”
Resisting these labels, he tries to bring authenticity into each of his relationships. Therefore, much of his faith has been occupied by honest questioning, not only of power structures like political bodies and Cultural Christianity, but of God. A defining question of his life has been grappling with the amount of wasted lives he sees around him, in South Sudan, Congo, the Rwandan Genocide and Northern Uganda, just to name a few. Last week he saw a video of a young girl being battered by her “employers.” Her story is unfortunately similar to many like her in Uganda who can’t find work in their country and go to the Arab Emirates, where they often become domestic workers or sex slaves. “I am shaken by those experiences … Trauma. That’s tough. That’s trying for me.”
When faced with the callousness of the human heart and the trauma it so often causes, he was brought to the question, “God, where are you?” He says this is a good question of faith and hopes that he can continue to ask that question so that he may continue to find God. But he has not always been able to do so.
During a particularly difficult time wrestling with this question, God brought him to the image of Jesus on the cross. Niringiye went on to quote Matthew chapter 25: Whatever you did to the least of these you did to me. “He said, there, that little girl battered, harassed, that’s me. I am there. You know? So I am drawn to those places because I know I need to be there not because I can necessarily make a difference. I want to make a difference, don’t get me wrong, but I also know that I need to be able to be there to meet God.”
He acknowledges that for some, this experience of encountering doubt may cause them to lose their faith. But nonetheless he encourages this questioning, “[I]f your faith can’t stand those situations, lose it. If your faith can’t stand any situation, lose it … it’s not faith in God. It’s faith in something other-than.” Faith is not mental affirmation of facts, he argues, but a relationship with a living God who is present everywhere, from Wheaton College, to a state school; from the suburbs to the slums; with the atheist and with the battered Ugandan child. It’s the antidote to fear of failure, because you are not proclaiming what you will do for God, but asking how you may join in the work he is already doing, in places where he will continue to be present long after you are gone.
What gives him hope
Niringiye finds hope in the future, not in people with the most successful ministries but in those who have learned that trials produce perseverance. “[P]eople who grew up in adversity, and God raises them and he gives them positions of honor … those people amaze me because they are aware that honor is a stewardship. Those people amaze me because they are aware, unlike those of us who grow up with it.”
When I asked him if he had a prophetic word for Wheaton students, he echoed this idea, saying that Wheaton is in a unique position to be stewards in a culture that tells us to focus on ourselves: “Thriving is not found in the comforts of this culture.” Rather, as in chapel, he encouraged Wheaton students, faculty, and staff to be bridge-builders in a culture of walls. Of course, he said, this involves an openness to people of other ethnicities, but it should not be limited to that. It should involve an openness to other schools and a pooling of resources, particularly the immense gift of knowledge in our Bible and Theology department. He hopes the sharing of this resource doesn’t end in classes. “Class is a great way of sharing it, don’t get me wrong. It’s wonderful, but you can do more.”
By his willingness to share his own stories of failure, Niringiye attempts to embody this idea: hope is not found in the victors, but in the strugglers. “When I meet students here at college who … admit, ‘I have doubt,’ they give me hope. Because in those people, Jesus is hope, they seek Jesus. They ask those questions because they do. They haven’t arrived, they are seeking.”
With the understanding that life will be a continual seeking, failure is cast in a different light. Once one accepts failure and can swallow the shame it brings, he is free to enjoy life. “Sometimes let me be honest with you, I just think, life is too much struggling. Isn’t there a moment when …” He bursts into laughter leaving the statement unfinished. “But that is why I’m going to go play table tennis before I go.”