The Gifts of Those in Need

On the ground in Soroti, Uganda, the Notre Dame economist has been working to improve the quality of life for those whose faith has moved him.

Author: Joseph Kaboski

I was not expecting it. There I was in the chapel of St. Peter’s Minor Seminary in Soroti, Uganda, with joyful harmonies ringing through the packed church. The music of Mass at the seminary has a different rhythm from what I know, with the traditional drums and kalimbas, or finger pianos, blending perfectly with the electronic organ in a way that for me evokes the choirs of angels in heaven.

Such moments in life are rare. The previous week had been exhilarating, but this Mass went deeper, touching my soul with insight as if God himself had called me to that place and time. Some 7,500 miles from my life in Granger, Indiana, I was home. I thought of the people I love the most — my wife, children, family, friends, colleagues — and wished they were with me to experience it. One simply needs to attend Mass in Uganda.

Soroti is a town of 60,000 people in eastern Uganda, a place where Catholic devotion and vocations run high but people are so poor that, 42 years after being named a diocese, the community is still struggling to raise the money to build a cathedral.

At St. Peter’s that Saturday morning last September, my friend Father Samuel Okiria preached a heartfelt homily to the teenage boys discerning vocation, most of whom have very little means. He urged them to “remember their Creator,” “rejoice in their youth,” “love the Holy Eucharist” and spread the “gospel of joy.” It seemed they were already experiencing the same joy I was, and Okiria, who attended the seminary decades earlier, connected with them. The greatest laughter was reserved for seminary inside jokes I couldn’t fully understand.

As a development economist, I had spent the week further west, focusing on research that might address the sometimes-overwhelming economic challenges that Ugandans face. I spent my days talking to economists at the Bank of Uganda and the finance ministry about economic policy and how research might best inform it. How to promote investment and development on those urban perimeters that seed growth? How to address high primary school dropout rates exacerbated by some of the longest COVID lockdowns in the world? How to get tiny firms to grow and hire those young men and women who do complete school? How to bring vital financial services to the rural poor?

Such are the questions that motivate our work, and there is so much to learn. COVID had prevented my travel to Uganda until 2022, and the emergence of Ebola in the country was briefly another threat, but time in the field is vital to development research. Even development economists who have seen such conditions countless times appreciate firsthand reminders of the simple economic realities so many people face. The wheels of the mind start spinning anew.

Despite facing many difficulties of poverty, disease, poor governance and internal strife, Uganda has seen much improvement since my last visit, back in 2017. Paved roads and electrical lines now extend out to every area we visited, even if the power supply is still erratic. Such investments, along with other factors, have rapidly raised land prices in these areas as people anticipate further growth. The challenges are real, but so is the progress.

Last year, my colleagues Taryn Dinkelman, Lakshmi Iyer and I co-founded Notre Dame’s research center for Building Inclusive Growth, the BIG Lab, to move beyond research that focuses only on aid programs and charity. Instead we’ll work to identify, measure and evaluate the large-scale, systemic obstacles that block low-income societies’ escape from poverty. In my experience, people in such places overwhelmingly are hardworking, resourceful and resilient. More than aid, they need a well-functioning economy so they can help themselves. The BIG Lab is big because it targets the larger issues that limit people and the larger policies that might address them.

My coming to Soroti is its own improbable story. During lockdown, I received an email from a Ugandan who found me on the internet and claimed to be a Catholic priest. Professors receive many such emails from aspiring foreign scholars asking us to host them as visitors, and we usually delete them without responding, but something about this subject line caught my eye, and once I started reading, its sincerity grabbed my attention.       

Father Samuel Okiria and I quickly became friends, frequently messaging each other and sharing prayers. Originally from a small village in the Soroti district, Okiria is now a professor of philosophy at Uganda Martyrs' National Seminary. He had visited the United States, and I had worked in Uganda, and we shared an interest in Catholic social thought and concern for the poor.

Attending the seminary Mass with Okiria, his sister and brother-in-law, his fellow priests and the seminarians, I began to appreciate how deeply religious faith is part of who Catholic Ugandans are. Mass is not merely something they attend on Sunday because of their heritage. It is an expression of joy, a source of strength, an experience of communion and community, a testament to the centrality of the Lord in all things.

The rest of Uganda is very religious, too, especially in rural areas where Catholics, Protestants and Muslims live side by side. Mosques and churches are everywhere, but it goes beyond that. You notice it in the given names of the people you meet — Innocent, Grace, Immaculate, John Bosco, Gratia Deo and of course Charles Lwanga, the most famous of the Ugandan Martyr saints. You see it in the myriad schools — even public schools — named for saints. You even see it in the names of businesses such as “Jesus Mercy Beauty Salon,” “God’s Love Pork Joint” or “Bismillah Trucking.”

As I stand in the church with people I am trying to serve through my work, I can appreciate that their faith is central to who they are as a community, too. And even though I am a wealthy white American, I feel connected through this shared devotion. In the Mass, we all express the same love and receive from the same God.

The really big question for a development economist then becomes how we promote development while not losing, let alone destroying, the soul of a community — those things of greatest value to life.

Soroti’s poverty becomes increasingly evident as one moves toward its rural outskirts. After the Saturday Mass at the seminary, we visit Okiria’s childhood home. Along the way, we visit his grandmother at her home, a circular hut with mud walls, a grass roof and a dirt floor. Okiria’s father has a relatively high-paying job as a schoolteacher, so his home has homemade brick walls and a metal roof that collects rainwater for washing. Fetching drinking water still requires long walks or bike rides to the community well.

The next day, Sunday, we attended a Mass celebrated by Bishop Joseph Eciru Oliach and heard the gospel story in which the rich man is indifferent to Lazarus’ lack of basic necessities, only to find their situations reversed in the afterlife. I squirmed in my seat, acutely aware of whom I resembled in that situation. But Eciru was too gentle and wise to increase my discomfort.

“Raise your hand if you have everything you need in this life,” he said. “OK, now raise your hand if you have no blessings to share in this life.” When no hands were raised to either query, he explained: “We are all the rich man in some ways, and we are all Lazarus in some ways. At some points in life, each one of us is a beggar, and at other times we are each called to be donors.”

By simple extrapolation from Eciru’s thought, we might see how much this materially poor community has to offer to the affluent corners of American society and to the Church in the United States. The most concrete example is vocations, which Uganda has in abundance. Increasing numbers of parish priests in the U.S. are coming from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Their fervor spills over into a love of family and community, an appreciation for children, a compassion for the poor. Joy and devotion are also gifts that many of these priests have to offer.

Although it lacks funding, the Church in Soroti is robust and growing. I toured the site of the future cathedral, where land was being leveled, and I saw the big plans for it. Alongside the cathedral will be a thriving Catholic community, a visual testament to what these Sorotians value in life. I saw the Uganda Martyrs Technical School they have already built, again with immense resourcefulness, to teach practical skills to young men and women. I visited the youth center, which would host a national congress for Catholic youth in December. And I couldn’t help but contrast this vitality with the decline of the Church back home, where people with no religion outnumber Catholics almost 3 to 2 today.

Yet we Americans may have some things to offer Ugandans as well: a deeper respect for women, for example, and an emphasis on educating the young — things certainly appreciated by Eciru and Okiria.

Development economists, generally speaking, are not religious people. Attitudes toward religion within my discipline vary from dismissive to antagonistic to tolerant-but-unbelieving. The more tolerant may be willing to recognize that religion performs some social function, even if they too-often consider it a lamentable one.

But at that Saturday evening Mass at St. Peter’s, Soroti taught me anew that a shared respect for the things people love is critical if one is to respond and serve those people in love. That thought raised questions. What things are people willing to die for? What wouldn’t they die for? And how can we help people if we don’t value what they value? As social scientists, how can we respect people if we condescend toward what is most dear to them?

The really big question for a development economist then becomes how we promote development while not losing, let alone destroying, the soul of a community — those things of greatest value to life.

Such questions are not common in academia, and the lack reflects a condescension and inconsistency in our approach. In the boards and committees I sit on, I observe strong pushes for diversity and inclusion that don’t often include religious voices. I would venture to say that at the typical university or international decision-making body, the most underrepresented group is the devoutly religious.

The indifference is striking, given that Uganda is no religious outlier. Among the poor with whom I have collaborated in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, religion is central to life — and this doesn’t just hold true in Catholic countries. Certainly, religious identity can and does lead to conflict, but in an age in which self-definition is paramount, we must at least recognize that religious belief and practice are core to people’s identity.

In the crass terms of economics, the respect for religion within Notre Dame’s economics department is a comparative advantage, a niche from which we can make a real contribution. Our respect for religion even beyond Catholicism allows us to respect the people we study and appreciate what they value. At the BIG Lab, religion and community reframe the ways we think about development and development policy.

Alas, epiphanies at Mass don’t always come with practical insights. I recognize the naivete and idealism in these musings. The economic and social problems of both Uganda and the United States are manifold. Real progress requires serious thought, precisely the domain of a university professor’s work. But appreciating the value and values of the other is a necessary starting point. The imperative stems from solidarity: We are all children of God.

As the congregation at St. Peter’s sang “Holy, Holy, Holy,” I was caught up somewhere between worship, thought, contemplation and maybe the closest thing to ecstasy this poor sinner can experience. I was aware of the Lord’s presence. This is the reality of the Mass. For an hour in time, Soroti truly became the center of the universe.

Joseph Kaboski is the David F. and Erin M. Seng Foundation Professor of Economics at Notre Dame.