May 18, 2018

Uganda interfaith peace tour honors a lasting Christian-Muslim friendship

Written by  Emily Jones
Badru Kateregga and David Shenk appear together in Jinja, Uganda, on April 19, 2018, during a tour promoting Christian-Muslim dialogue. The men, who co-authored the book “A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue” in 1980, toured Uganda to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of their book — and their even longer interfaith friendship. Photos provided by Kampala University. Badru Kateregga and David Shenk appear together in Jinja, Uganda, on April 19, 2018, during a tour promoting Christian-Muslim dialogue. The men, who co-authored the book “A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue” in 1980, toured Uganda to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of their book — and their even longer interfaith friendship. Photos provided by Kampala University.

EMM worker Peter Sensenig has served in East Africa as a peacebuilder and interfaith consultant since 2015. Sensenig has a PhD in theology, with a concentration in Christian ethics.

Of the tour in Uganda, Sensenig said, “‘A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue’ was a useful label and rationale for the various forums. But behind the existence of the book, and more compelling than the book, was the striking 40-year friendship between a Ugandan Muslim and a U.S. American Christian. This, more than anything that was spoken, served as an inspiration to those in attendance to challenge the notions of what is possible in peacemaking.”

Sensenig was struck by the peacemaking qualities in Uganda’s young people. “The quality of the students of Kampala University fills me with hope. They had so fully imbibed the spirit of the dialogue that they were living it out in a way that felt natural and authentic.”

“What I have seen here in Uganda is that university students are the future of peacemaking, of dialogue, of true friendship across faiths,” he continued.

Jonathan Shenk, the son of lifelong EMM worker David Shenk, grew up in East Africa until age 12. He was formerly a parish minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and currently owns Greenleaf Painters, a house-painting company in Princeton, N.J.

Shenk shared what the tour in Uganda taught him about the country’s experiences with religious strife. “Our first day included a sobering visit to three sites of martyrs — Anglican, Catholic, and
Muslim,” he said. “Each faith community, at various times in Uganda’s history, has experienced persecution and death as a result of their faith.”

“This served as an important backdrop to our week’s events,” Shenk continued. “Clearly the people of Uganda were motivated to find ways to come together in peace so as not to repeat the suffering experienced in the past.”

Based on what Shenk saw during the tour in Uganda, today the country’s peacemaking efforts are blossoming. “Although we were sharing the valuable message of dialoguing across faiths, I was struck by how well that was already being modeled in the schools we visited,” he said. “I felt that the message I was sharing, of the importance of getting to know people of other faiths, was already a natural part of the lived experience in Uganda.”

KAMPALA, Uganda — “How many of you can say you have a friendship that has lasted 40 years?” For four days, professor, university founder, and former ambassador Badru Kateregga asked audiences this question as he toured Uganda with longtime friend and colleague David Shenk, an Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) worker.

For many years, Kateregga and Shenk have lived out the message of the groundbreaking book they co-authored in 1980, “A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue.” From April 16–19, 2018, Kateregga invited Shenk on a peacemaking tour of his home country, celebrating almost 40 years of the book — and an even longer friendship between a black African Sunni Muslim and a white North American Mennonite.

Although it was raining at Kampala University, about a thousand university students, faculty and staff, and community members, including many Muslim and Christian religious leaders, crowded under a large tent to hear Kateregga and Shenk. This was the first of four days of Christian-Muslim dialogue events that Kateregga had arranged in and near Kampala, the capital city of a country that is about 85 percent Christian and 12 percent Muslim as of 2009, according to the U.S. Department of State.

Kateregga, the founder and vice chancellor of the university, took the stage with Shenk to speak about their book “A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue” (which had recently had its official launch in Uganda through Kampala University Council Chairman Syed Abid), their friendship, and the transformative effects of respectful dialogue between faiths.

Stories included that of Indonesian Mennonite church leader Paulus Hartono, who has used the book in his peacemaking efforts between Islamic militia and Christians in Indonesia. Another story was the book’s significance in opening dialogue between Kosovan Christian and Muslim leaders in the wake of the 1998–99 war for independence.

Also traveling with Kateregga and Shenk were EMM worker Peter Sensenig and Shenk’s son Jonathan Shenk, a spiritual director and business owner. Sensenig, a peacebuilding expert, spoke on how receiving immigrants and refugees is a key interfaith issue of modern times. Jonathan Shenk presented five spiritual principles for building a successful business.

The next day, the four men were interviewed on local radio and television programs. In an interview at Radio Bilal, Kampala’s major Islamic radio station, Kateregga and Shenk were invited to share about the purpose and practice of Christian-Muslim dialogue and about their deep and lasting friendship. Jonathan Shenk, who spent his early years in East Africa because of his parents’ mission work, described how those experiences shaped him. Sensenig encouraged listeners, especially students, to see themselves as peacemakers.

The group was also interviewed by the Kampala Film School to discuss the origins of “A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue,” the challenges of diversity of thought within the Christian faith, and what message could be offered to Muslim and Christians who want to make peace.

A public dialogue was supposed to happen that afternoon at Makerere University, Uganda’s largest university, but student demonstrations unrelated to Kateregga and Shenk’s tour prevented this. Instead, the friends toured some of the major religious centers in Kampala. The next day, they finished their tour with a public dialogue in Jinja, Uganda.

Throughout the tour, Kateregga and his team found ways to reach out to their Christian guests with warm gestures of interfaith peace.

“Dr. Kateregga and his team went out of their way to find a local Mennonite congregation and a local Presbyterian congregation for us to worship in so that both my dad, a Mennonite, and I, a Presbyterian, could feel at home,” said Jonathan Shenk. “I was struck by this incredible example of hospitality, whereby our Muslim host was joining us in a Christian service to ensure our welcome.”

Looking back on the four days of events, David Shenk felt that what people found most compelling was the simple fact of the enduring friendship between two people with such striking differences.

Kateregga and Shenk’s friendship has remained strong even as the men have taken very different paths. Kateregga is a prominent figure in the Muslim world: besides founding Kampala University, he also founded the East African Universities of Kenya and Rwanda; served as Ambassador of Uganda to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Iraq, and Palestine; and has chaired or served on the boards of many organizations ranging from the International Union of Muslim Scouts to the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda.

Shenk, on the other hand, has spent his life working to share a Christian witness. He has served with Eastern Mennonite Missions virtually all his adult life, both as a missionary and on staff. With a PhD in Religious Studies Education, Shenk has authored or co-authored over a dozen books related to theology, missions, and peace between faiths.

Despite their differences, both men share one conviction that makes their friendship possible: they are dedicated peacemakers. Their belief in the power of dialogue and mutual respect drew them together when they first met in the 1970s as religion professors at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. When Shenk invited Kateregga to join him in creating “A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue,” they were able to share the key to their unlikely friendship with the world.

Although Kateregga and Shenk both believe in the importance of building relationships across faiths, they freely admit that their own interfaith friendship is “touched with some pain.” Shenk remembered that at a student forum in Hargeisa, Somaliland, years ago, one student asked about the most difficult part of their relationship.

Both men expressed sorrow that despite their wish for unity, they still experienced division in their most central beliefs such as the need for a redeemer or the authority of the Quran.

Shenk saw more of their differences on display during the events in Uganda. In public dialogues as well as private conversations, those four days showed how he and Kateregga have different ideas about where the path of peacemaking should ultimately lead.

“Kateregga was eloquent in professing that tolerance was the essence of civil society. Civil society was the mantra of the whole conference,” said Shenk. “If you think that tolerance is the name of the game, this was the place to be!”

But for Shenk, that view leaves out the most important element. “Yes, I believe we do need to have a pluralist society which respects diversity,” he said. “But that’s not the end of the story.”

“These events provided a forum for me to raise questions,” Shenk continued. “Is dialogue really the way for ensuring interfaith peace, or is there this other voice saying ‘Come and follow me’? Is there in the eaves this figure present called Jesus?”

These differences in worldview led to dialogues which Shenk described as “rambunctious.” But it was all said with love and respect.

“In the midst of it all, we are friends. We hugely enjoy working together,” said Shenk. “You can be candid when you trust each other. I know that Kateregga would not say any unkind word about me.”