March 29, 2014

Ugandan's hard road leads him to Christianity, kids' ministry, and Modesto

Moses Ssebaggala grew up in a devout Muslim home in Uganda. His father had many wives and children. In his teens, a crisis of faith led him to Christianity, which forced him to leave home and resulted in years of poverty. Now he runs Children Safe Uganda to help other children “who have no hope.”

Moses Ssebaggala has a heart for children in his native Uganda. That’s why he runs Children Safe Uganda, which has an orphanage, helps poor communities to support education and address issues such as clean water, and helps find U.S. sponsors for needy children.

To get to his ministry today, he had to overcome a difficult childhood and a break with his Muslim father after he became a Christian.

He’s in Modesto to spread news of his work at the invitation of Shared Blessings, a Modesto-based nonprofit that supports three similar agencies in Uganda and one in India. Shared Blessings will hold a reception for Ssebaggala on April 11, with more information about his ministry.

“He had a very hard childhood himself, and when he sees children who are needy and wanting, he wants to help them,” said Audrey Foster, director of Shared Blessings. “One evening, he saw on the TV news these five little abandoned children who had been picked up by the police and were sleeping in the jail cells. And Ugandan jails are really bad.

“Moses couldn’t sleep that night, thinking about them. The next day, he and his teenage son took a long bus ride for hours and then walked for 5 miles to get to the police station. He told the police they would take the five little kids. ... Now these five little ones are in the orphanage he runs. There are so many stories like this. It’s why we love to help Moses.”

Ssebaggala, 45, lives in Gayaza, about 10 miles northeast of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

Seven years ago, he joined Children Safe Uganda and later became its director. The orphanage has 82 children, ages 2 through 18. The community development program helps find sponsors for the neediest children and connects churches, communities and parents to help prevent early marriages (many girls are pregnant at ages 12 to 14, he said), provide clean water, support schools and spread the importance of education.

In 2012, Ssebaggala asked Shared Blessings to work with his organization. The result has been 20 children who are sponsored, along with money for education, food, scholastic materials and the promotion of small businesses run by poor families.

“I hope people will sponsor a child to go to school,” he said. “An education helps prevent early marriages.” It also helps, he said, in communities where there is “no water, no electricity, no transport and uneducated parents. It helps (with improvements to) make that a desirable community.”

Foster said Ssebaggala is a “humble and dynamic man,” who puts his ministry before himself.

“One of the things he doesn’t really talk about much is that up to now, he hasn’t received a salary for the work he’s been doing, and it’s been difficult to maintain his own family,” she said. “In Uganda, you have to pay for your children to go to school. High school costs $600 a year, $900 with the uniforms and books and supplies, and a lot of people don’t make that much money a year.”

And unlike the United States, there is no government-provided money to care for orphans or foster children. So Ssebaggala has to find the money to care for all the children his agency supports, and sometimes children appear unexpectedly.

“One day, the local police dropped off 19 children and told him to take care of them,” Foster said. “They had been kidnapped and held in a pigsty. They were being held to be sold into prostitution, slavery or as sacrifices for their devil worship.”

It’s those kinds of things Ssebaggala is trying to prevent. “My biggest desire is to be upright with my creator and that the lives of children, especially African children, have a desirable life,” he said.

A better one than he had.

His father, a Muslim, had 11 wives, Ssebaggala said. His birth mother left when Ssebaggala was 11/2 years old.

“I don’t know why she left,” he said. “She was his fourth wife. I was told she was very young, only 17 years old. She may not have understood what life would be like with a man married to other wives.”

Growing up with 18 siblings from so many different mothers brought challenges. “There was definitely competition,” he said. Not all of the other mothers treated him well, but he remembers one stepmother who “was really kind.” He was the fifth child in the family and the fourth-oldest son.

He had a good relationship with his father, he said. “Even though my father had so many wives, he loved his children,” Ssebaggala said. “We used to play soccer games and ran in races. I used to enjoy singing a lot. I enjoyed drama in school. I was doing well with my father.”

In Uganda, schools usually are run by private organizations. Sometimes, Ssebaggala said, he was sent to a Christian school, where he heard about Jesus. He was a devout Muslim, praying five times a day and going to the mosque on Fridays, but when he was a teenager, he developed questions about his faith.

“My imam told us to pray for Mohammed so that on the day of judgment, God would forgive him for his sins,” Ssebaggala explained. “I asked, ‘What about Jesus?’ He said, ‘Jesus Christ never died. He went to eternal life (so he didn’t need our prayers).’ It made a lot of questions come to my mind.

“Because I loved Islam, I didn’t want to commit to Christianity. I didn’t know anyone who had done that. On Friday, I was going to the mosque, and on Sunday, I was going to church. It was total confusion.”

Then, he said, his school choir was invited to go to a church to sing and was asked to have someone give a sermon.

“No one else wanted to preach, so I said I’d preach,” Ssebaggala said. “Afterward, an old woman came up and said, ‘Thank you for your preaching, but do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ I said, ‘No, I am a Muslim.’ She told me it was good to be a church member, but I had to find my own Jesus. I told her if I became a Christian, I could never see God. She told me to go pray for myself, and she would pray for me. I did. I committed myself to God, but I kept it to myself and didn’t tell my parents.”

He stopped going to the mosque on Fridays, and when he was supposed to be saying his Muslim prayers five times a day, “I was praying to God instead,” he said. His new faith was ultimately revealed, however, and his father “talked to the leaders of the mosque” to get their advice. Ssebaggala said the leaders tied him up and beat him, and advised his father to kill him.

He said his father, who was also strong in his Muslim faith, knew his son was likewise devout. “Because he knew I was very committed, it was like a betrayal for him (that I had converted to Christianity),” Ssebaggala said.

He still remembers the day, Nov. 15, 1986, when his father tried to kill him for the third time: “My father chased me with an ax and threw it at me.” It’s the day he left home, afraid for his life. He was 15 years old.

He spent the next few years sleeping wherever he could, sometimes in churches. He often didn’t have enough to eat, but he didn’t tell anyone about his plight. Things began to improve after he started a gospel choir and was asked to be the music and drama coordinator for Food for the Hungry International. He worked for the organization for several years before returning to school at age 26.

“Younger people used to laugh at me,” he said. “But I knew what I wanted to do – something with children. I thought there might be children who were going through what I had gone through who needed a message of hope.”

He married his wife, Naomi, while he was still at school. They had four children and later adopted three others; their youngsters now are ages 4 to 18.

Ssebaggala said his father, who died in 1993 of AIDS, also became a Christian. “He remembered what I had said (after my conversion),” Ssebaggala explained. “At that time, he had three wives. He knew he could only have one wife as a Christian, so he stayed with his first wife and the other two had to go back to their families.”

Three sisters and a brother also became Christians.

And Ssebaggala, who once was threatened by the Muslim leaders in his village, now counts several Muslims among his close friends.

“I’m always now telling Muslims, ‘I’m praying for you. Someday you will come to Christ.’ ” he said with a chuckle.

Looking back on his life and challenges, Ssebaggala said, “Sometimes God allows us to go through things for a reason. Life was hard. I had nothing to eat. But it’s now my testimony. The problems have made me stronger and stronger in God. I know that my Lord lives.”

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