Cover Story

Men of the hard cloth

"Men of the hard cloth" Continued...

Issue: "2006 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 16, 2006

Martyn Minns, rector at Virginia's Truro Church, is at the center of the tilting power structures. In August he became missionary bishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, established by the church of Nigeria to provide oversight sought by Truro and other churches. Minns has known Akinola since seminary days. "In a real sense we are learning what it means to be a global community, learning from folks we've been thinking need our church. What God is doing is getting our attention and moving us out of our narrow parochialism and cultural ghetto."

If the labors for the worldwide church are pressing, Akinola and Orombi face burdens of ministry at home both ponderous and persistent. Orombi describes them in terms of a recent trip to northern Uganda, which has suffered under nearly 20 years of attacks from the vagrant Lord's Resistance Army. Fighting ended under a temporary agreement signed last August, but over half a million people live in camps for the displaced. When Orombi arrived at one village in October, a mother rushed to ask him to baptize her newborn twins. At the same moment, as he looked ahead, he could see several huts had caught fire and the blazes were spreading. "We have blessings and cursings together all the time," he said, "and we take them both as from the Lord."

Orombi learned on the eve of the trip that his sister had died, but he followed through on the 10-day program anyway: "People sympathized with me, but they had been preparing for months for this trip. . . . The north is going through a very hard time and it is important for me to go and identify with them, to bring a message of hope in the place of struggle. . . . But the most important thing is that not to go would give the devil a chance."

Orombi did not go to high school because he wanted to be a mechanic. "I didn't make it," he says simply of the apprenticeship, and his father insisted on enrolling him in a teacher's college. There, he says, he met Christ, "and that changed the whole perspective of the future," opening up a lifelong love for children and youth ministry and for becoming an ordained clergyman. He studied theology at a seminary outside Kampala and for three years in London.

By 1993 church leaders named him the first bishop of a new diocese in southwestern Uganda. A decade after beginning with almost nothing, Orombi had a church infrastructure in place there that included schools, training centers, a new airstrip for missionary drop-offs, and rural and community outreach that attracted Anglican workers from South Korea, England, Scotland, and Germany. "I did it by preaching the gospel fiercely," he said. A year later he became archbishop.

At a New York dinner or at home in the bush, the archbishop, at 6-foot-5, is a commanding presence not only for his stature but also for his baritone laugh and aggressive sociability. On Thursday evenings he teaches an evening Bible study at All Saints Cathedral in Kampala where 200 people regularly attend. Some say they walk more than five miles home afterward.

Orombi begins by opening a Bible well-inked in orange highlighter and saying, "God is good," to which the congregation immediately responds, "all the time." He takes them through 10 points about leadership using Mark 4 as text, punctuating the serious with the humorous. At one point he quotes an African proverb in relationship to his own leadership: "The higher the monkey climbs the more his nakedness shows."

When the service is over, Orombi stays nearly an hour to greet attendees, setting up meetings with some who want to discuss family problems or jobs. "I love people. I love to talk to people, I love to ask questions. I love to look at people's gifts and try to copy as much as I can. I've come to learn that until you learn to go to a practical level and interact with people, you can't appreciate them," the 57-year-old archbishop said.

Akinola, nearly a foot shorter than Orombi and, at 66, almost a decade older, brings the characteristic Nigerian intensity to conversation, an abrupt candor that doesn't obscure a sharp wit. With a series of deadly air crashes, the most recent last month, Akinola declared flying in Nigeria (something he does nearly every week) "a journey to the grave."

Akinola appears formal in conversation but is fond of showing up in what Nigerians call "civilian mufti"-street clothes minus the archbishop's traditional raspberry shirt and sometimes the cleric's collar. African papers refer to him as "the most powerful man in Anglicanism" but others, like one newspaper in Australia, brand him "a fundamentalist bigot." He speaks forcefully but acts cautiously: He rarely grants interviews, friends say, and makes it a rule not to publicize his travel schedule.


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