Conflict-Ravaged Uganda to a Ph.D.
Doctoral Student Who Grew Up in Conflict-Ridden Uganda
By Shreya Shukla Thornton
“We saw death standing next to us. There was nowhere to run,” says Boniface Odong (SOD, ’22), who grew up in conflict-ravaged Uganda. His siblings and he were settling down to their meal when a grenade-carrying rebel stopped centimeters from Odong. The drill had always been to run into the bush and hide when you heard the rebels were coming. But on this occasion, it was too late.
Minutes ticked past as the rebel stood there, watching the children. But after what seemed like an eternity, he walked away. To Odong, this was the “biggest miracle.” He considers himself a “remnant,” realizing that he could have been reduced to a statistic that day.
Though his childhood was riddled with hardship, it was also covered by miracles, making him the person he is today. “I see that God was with me all the way,” says Odong. Through this journey, he has learned to rely on faith and to fight each fight on his knees.
God saved Odong and has made his dreams come true. Today, he is pursuing a Ph.D. in Renewal Theology at Regent University, aiming to be a pastor-theologian. His goal is to bring the church and academia closer, and to increase the spiritual temperature of the church.
One of 18 Siblings
Odong was born toward the end of the Ugandan Civil War, which was fought from 1980 to 1986 by the official Ugandan government and its armed wing, the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), against multiple rebel groups, including the National Resistance Army (NRA). In 1986, the NRA established a new government with Yoweri Museveni as president. However, anti-NRA rebel factions continued to be active. In Northern Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels terrorized civilians for over two decades (Raffaele, 2005).
Odong’s family lived in the rural parts of Northern Urganda’s Gulu district. He has 10 biological siblings, but his mother adopted eight more (that he knows of) – the children of struggling relatives or those killed during the war. She was also the sole breadwinner of the family, as Odong’s father had passed on when the children were young.
Sadly, when Odong was a teenager, his mother passed on too. With this began one of the harshest chapters of his life. Hunger was a frequent visitor. The children took turns walking 10 miles, one way, asking relatives for food.
Safety couldn’t be taken for granted either. When one of the boys they knew was abducted, he informed the rebels that there were many able-bodied boys at Odong’s house. Though the siblings managed to hide when the rebels came looking for them, their uncle was killed. He had denied their existence in a bid to protect them.
Before leaving, the rebels planted souvenirs around the community – grenades and landmines. Odong’s twin six-year-old foster siblings found one of these grenades and, not knowing what it was, began playing with it. It detonated as they played.
“Every year we lost someone at home,” says Odong. Some died of sickness, others were killed. And since the custom was to bury your dead on your own land, Odong’s backyard had multiple graves. “We almost ran out of space to bury people.”
Bullets and Church
Into this desperate situation, mission groups and evangelists brought a message of hope and life. Odong had grown up knowing about God but lacking a personal relationship with Him. In 2005, he found hope in the Lord Jesus.
“I did not come to salvation because I wanted to go to heaven,” he says. “I came because I wanted Him to change the circumstances that we were in.”
Desperate for the conflict to end, he and others joined together in prayer and worship. They clung to 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” It offered a way to freedom, even as soldiers regularly quieted church services so that they could listen for bullets whizzing past trees or asked people to leave because the rebels were close.
“Things did not change immediately, but it gave me hope, it gave me belonging, it gave me reason to live, something to look forward to. He is, like they say, a good, good Father,” says Odong.
“I see that God was with me all the way.”
Miracles, One by One
The same God who gave Odong hope has also granted the desires of his heart. With financial help from his church and a relative, he attended honors college at Uganda Christian University. And through an exchange student there, he and his friends were recommended for an internship with Urban Promise, a non-profit organization that works with children and young adults in Camden, NJ.
“While I was in college, I used to pray that one day I would be in America,” says Odong. He had watched the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America multiple times, he shares with a grin. In college, he noticed that a plane would fly past at 1 p.m. each Wednesday. So, he began standing under a tree during his lunch hour, waiting for it. As he waited, he would point to the sky and say, “One day I will be in America.” The Lord answered his prayer and in 2011 (11.11.11), he arrived in Philadelphia International Airport.
For Odong, the journey has been a testament of “God opening doors.” Seeking a deeper insight about community engagement, he pursued a master’s program in social work at Radford University after his internship. Again, God provided for this through a resident director’s position and a series of miracles.
The Road to Regent
When his temporary employment authorization (OPT) card did not arrive on time, Odong got ready to pack his bags and return to Uganda. He had mapped out a route to New Jersey to first say goodbye to church sponsors – Interstates 81-66-95, he tells you. “Then I heard this voice that said ‘No, I want you to reroute. I want you to go through 81-64, then 13, then 95.’” It was a route that passed by Regent University. When he saw the Regent University sign, he decided to stop.
Odong parked his car on campus at 1 p.m. By 3 p.m., he had a scholarship, a job as a resident director and his admission papers in hand, thanks to Dr. Jospeh Umidi, executive vice president for student life at Regent, who was the interim dean of the School of Divinity at the time. Odong wanted to join the School of Divinity because he felt it was in sync with his calling. “I quietly but deeply realized that I was in the presence of man whom God would promote somehow, and I wanted to be part of that story,” Umidi says.
At Regent, Odong earned a Master of Divinity degree and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Renewal Theology with a concentration in Biblical Studies. It is a dream, he says, that he never thought would come to pass. His research focus is leadership and how the shepherd motif in 1 Peter informs it.
Odong’s aim is to be a pastor-theologian who brings the church and academe closer – “to bring wh
at (he is) taught back to the people in a language they can easily understand and relate to.” As a pastor-theologian, he wants to extinguish complacency and to ignite a hunger for God in its stead.
“Let us go to the place that the falcon’s eyes have not seen, where eagles can’t fly. Because as Christians, we are called to live a higher purpose,” says Odong. It is a purpose he is being equipped to fulfill.
*This article was developed based on two interviews.
Raffaele, P. (2005). Uganda: The Horror. Smithsonian Magazine.