When I was in Uganda in 2009, I spent some time with several men on death row at the Luzira Maximum Security Prison inKampala, Uganda. The inmates are referred to as “condemned men”. As we went through all the security points and the long walks through various hallways and doors, we finally arrived to the waiting room outside the courtyard. Through the bars we could see the men – all dressed in white uniforms of shirts, shorts, and sandals. The all-white uniforms stood in stark contrast to brown skin.
They spotted us easily and were curious as to why five white women were preparing to enter the area where they freely roamed. As we talked among ourselves about our curiosity and fears about what was going to happen next, I wondered what they were talking about. It had one of those “first-day-of-camp” feelings where groups are sizing each other up, unsure of each other and what the experience will bring.
I soon learned that we were going to “fellowship” with them which means we were going to have a worship gathering together. I learned that worship together in Uganda was often referred to as “fellowship”. Sounded great.
We entered the secure courtyard and the sea of men parted like the Red Sea. We crossed through exchanging smiles and glances with the prisoners. It was strange to think that we were walking through the center of 60-70 condemned men with our two guides and one or two guards. Nothing like I would imagine death row to be in the states.
We entered a side courtyard where some men had already gathered and where the musical instruments were gathered – ready for fellowship – an accordion, some drums, and some shakers made from aerosol cans. We sang songs together for about twenty minutes and it was great to look out over the faces of about 30-40 men worshipping together. There were young men and old men. Some were light brown; others dark brown. Some were Ugandan. Others were not. Some were believers. Some were just curious about their visitors.
For twenty minutes we sang praises together. There was so much joy and warmth in that room. So much common ground as we worshipped God together – men and women who equally fail and who equally are offered grace. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1
After singing, we were each invited to introduce ourselves. Someone shared that I was a pastor and that “a word” would be expected.What do I share with 40 condemned Ugandan men? God brought to mind this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans (chapter 5):
16Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.17For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
18Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
20The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more,21so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I’m so grateful for the leading of the Spirit who reminded me of such a promise. A promise for these men who were condemned by law yet could be made righteous through grace. A promise for me as well – standing before them as once a condemned sister yet set free by the abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Glory be to God. And blessings and grace to my brothers in white in the Luzira Prison in Uganda.