ALER, Uganda (AP) – “Telephone to Jesus. Hello?” the children of Aler refugee camp sing, their bare feet thumping the ground as they dance wildly in their concrete chapel.
Most camp residents have never used a phone, but they are learning about Jesus. The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, smiled as he watched the children – members of a club run by Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian missionary organization he leads.
Christian evangelicals have been coming to Africa for centuries. Critics accuse them of taking advantage of vulnerable communities – forcing people to abandon traditional beliefs in exchange for desperately needed goods and medicine. Graham, though, says his group is meeting spiritual as well as physical needs, and he’s proud of what has been accomplished.
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“We want to bring these children to Christ,” Pastor George Purkweri told Graham.
“You have a pastor’s heart,” the American responded, slapping him on the back.
Purkweri said the war in northern Uganda has exposed children to many horrors. “This generation is our hope for the future,” he said. “They are seeing lots of bad things that divert them from Christ and can corrupt their hearts. We bring them back.”
Graham flew his private jet to East Africa last month with a 20-member delegation, including former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, to check on the work of Samaritan’s Purse.
Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Columbia University, said the influence of groups like Graham’s can be far-reaching.
“One of the most common criticisms of evangelicals is that they are looking for cultural conversions as well as spiritual ones,” he said. “They want to change the way people dress and behave.”
Graham, however, is adamant that his organization helps the world’s sick and suffering regardless of their religious beliefs. Humanitarian assistance only earns the Christians a hearing for the gospel they teach, he said.
As a minister, he said, “I want to help people physically, I want to help them with their hurt, with their pain, but I want to do that so I can tell them about God’s son, Jesus Christ. The conversion we do is through persuasion, through reasoning. … They will receive material help from us regardless.”
Samaritan’s Purse receives the vast majority of its considerable funding from private donations, which enables Graham to operate independently and quickly.
“Financially I’m not dependent on government, which is why I’m free to preach the Bible,” Graham said. “Our money comes from Christians. … An average gift would be under $100 dollars a year, but we have millions of people who support us. That gives us an advantage because when there is a crisis, I don’t have to wait and write a proposal.”
This dynamism helps make Samaritan’s Purse popular and powerful.
During his visit, Graham met with President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, President Salva Kiir of southern Sudan and President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, a Muslim. Graham has political connections in the United States too; he read the invocation at President Bush’s inauguration in 2001.
Nevertheless, he insists Samaritan’s Purse is apolitical.
“I’m not a politician, I’m not a military person, I’m a preacher,” Graham said.
Samaritan’s Purse runs six programs in northern Uganda, a region ravaged by a rebel group for the past 20 years. Two million people have fled their homes.
While Christian teaching and Bible distribution overarch all the group’s work, many of its programs are secular – such as helping the U.N. manage refugee camps.
In the blazing midday sun at Agweng, another northern Uganda camp, Graham witnessed the distribution of 600 tons of U.N. food aid to over 30,000 people.
Another Samaritan’s Purse program focuses on AIDS. The group gets some funding from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief; the Bush administration has been criticized for channeling money through religious groups who play down condom use in favor of abstinence.
In Uganda, Samaritan’s Purse has worked to make sure camp residents are tested for HIV. Staff members provide AIDS sufferers with blankets and food – and share their love of Jesus.
“You are the most important thing that has happened in my life,” Sipriano Ojok, an HIV-positive 54-year-old, told Graham. “I was too weak before your staff came to visit us. … I accepted Jesus Christ into my life and now I feel good.”
“One day you and I will be together in heaven worshipping God together,” Graham told Ojok before praying with him. “You will have a new body and be strong and healthy.”
Those infected with HIV here are normally shunned.
“It’s important to show people that we’re not afraid,” said Graham. “When a person has AIDS you can give medicine – many agencies do – but what hope do people have if you don’t show them love?”
In Yei, southern Sudan, Graham was visibly delighted to be greeted by a crowd of women dressed in immaculate white shifts, ululating, singing hymns and waving tree branches.
Yei was once an epicenter of the war between Sudan’s Muslim-dominated north and mainly Christian and animist south. Residents told of pastors being crucified, their churches destroyed and Christians enslaved. Evangelicals lobbied the U.S. government to get involved. A peace deal was reached in 2004.
Today, the people of Yei live in huts with no access to electricity and face a seven-mile walk to the nearest hospital.
Graham proudly inspected a large church built by his organization, its mahogany shutters and immaculate stonework looking markedly out of place. Though designed for worship, the building will double as a school.
“You go into these remote communities, and the church is the center of that community,” Graham said. “And when the church was destroyed, the people feared and became discouraged. Now the war is over and for the church to come back is a symbol … of hope, a symbol of independence.”
He noted that Samaritan’s Purse also built a hospital and drilled water wells.
Graham acknowledged that Christian evangelical organizations like his have detractors, but asked that Samaritan’s Purse be judged fairly.
“They may not agree with me. But do we feed people? Yes. Do we clothe people? Yes. Do we provide doctors and medicines? Yes. Do we have hospitals? Yes, we do,” he said. “If they want to look at the work I do, they can’t complain because the work is there.”