The Rev. Francis Ouma remembers growing up in war-torn Uganda during the late 1980s. Although his family grew most of their food and his father worked as a teacher, money was always tight. Ouma didn't own his first pair of shoes until he was in the fourth grade.
"We were a struggling family," Ouma said.
Once, when his family went to church before going to the market for sugar and salt, Ouma's mother put all of the family's shopping money in the collection basket, forgetting that they needed the money for food.
"Oh my Lord, what just happened?" Ouma recalls. In an almost biblical twist, later that day one of his father's students gave the family seven dollars—nearly three times what they put in the collection basket. The lesson learned? "If you complain after giving money to God it means you aren't giving with a good heart," Ouma said.
Ouma has brought such hard-won wisdom to his position as the associate Pastor of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, in Towson. Ouma, who joined the Catholic congregation last July, has won over the congregation with his humor, dedication to faith, and boundless energy, parishioners and church officials say. The journey he has made from his Ugandan boyhood to the priesthood and his post in Towson has been arduous at times.
"Since his first day at the parish, Father Francis has been very self-motivated about not only his duties, but also taking on new projects," says the Rev. Joseph Barr, pastor at the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Shortly after Ouma's arrival, Barr underwent knee replacement surgery. But that didn't slow Ouma's adjustment to his new job, Barr said.
"I was off campus recuperating for five weeks," Barr said. "When I spoke with Father Francis about the process of my 'reentry' for weekend and weekday duties at the parish he looked at me as if to say, 'Why are you doing that? I'm having fun being in charge and things are going great.'"
A typical day finds Ouma conducting Mass at Immaculate Conception or, on his day off, at the Missionaries of Charity, in downtown Baltimore. After Mass he logs time in the church's school, often dropping in on classes, much to the delight of students. For Ouma, ministering can mean "just hanging out with kids in the cafeteria."
For parishioner Jodi Walker, a mother of four from Perry Hall, getting to know Father Ouma has special meaning. Raised Catholic, Walker wasn't involved in the church growing up. Father Ouma has inspired her and her children to return to Catholicism, she said.
"He shares a lot of stories about his childhood," Walker said. "It's always wonderful to hear about his different background. It's hard for people growing up in this country to appreciate it."
Gillian Bowrassa, a parishioner from Towson who teaches history at Mount de Sales Academy, in Catonsville, agrees that Ouma's background is an asset to the church. "He mentioned his life in Uganda in some of his homilies. As someone who's live in Baltimore County her whole life, I appreciate that."
Coming to America
With the help of a scholarship, Ouma, 30, came to the U.S. in 2010 to study at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore. He was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Baltimore in June 2015, at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, in Baltimore.
Prior to coming to Immaculate Conception, Ouma served at St. Ambrose Roman Catholic Church in Baltimore's Park Heights neighborhood. Despite having his car broken into, Ouma speaks glowingly of his time at the urban parish. "Their liturgy is very lively," he says. Despite the violence and poverty he saw in the neighborhood, "you see in [the residents] a lot of hope," Ouma said. "It's a community that really yearns for God in their lives."
Growing up in the Acholi region of northern Uganda, Ouma was no stranger to violence. Thousands were killed or forced to flee to refugee camps under the brutal regime of Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (Ouma wrote a thesis about the influence of the Lords Resistance Army on the school system in Acholi). Ouma's older brother was killed by a snake bite when the family was forced to take refuge in the bush.
Despite suffering such hardships, Ouma never lost his faith. He began thinking of becoming a priest at age seven. Pope John Paul ll's historic 1993 visit to Uganda was "a huge experience," Ouma said. The family's potato field was dug up to create a road to connect the stadium where the Pope celebrated Mass.
"I told my mom that I wanted to become the Pope," he says. With the encouragement of his mother, Ouma entered seminary at age 12. "In 2000, when Ebola broke out in Uganda, I told my mother I wanted to be a doctor. But she encouraged me to be a priest instead."
In addition to the Pope, Ouma was inspired by several other religious mentors, including his uncle, Vincent Okot, who was a priest in Uganda and earned a PhD in moral philosophy in Rome. "I drew a lot of inspiration from him," Ouma said, adding that he rode with his uncle as Okot criss-crossed Uganda on his ministries.
He also greatly admired Guadensio Langol, a local parish priest. "He was a man for all seasons," Ouma said. "In him I saw a leader."
Cowpeas and peanut butter
During a recent Sunday Mass Ouma led at Immaculate Conception, congregants filed into the sanctuary to the strains of church bells and a quartet playing inspirational music.
Resplendent in wine-color vestments embellished with gold brocade, Ouma invited the worshipers' children to the altar to receive a special blessing.
During the homily he told the congregation that "we are all Olympic gold medalists in pointing fingers" and reminded them to cultivate forgiveness and compassion.
Among the 200 or so attendees at Mass was Angelica Javillo, of Towson. Originally from the Philippines, Javillo said Ouma's messages resonate for everyone, no matter their country of origin. "Wherever you're from, if you share the same faith, it doesn't matter."
As the church prepares to celebrate Easter, Ouma reflects on last spring's civil unrest in Baltimore.
"Poverty is something that is real; it is the root of the most of our struggles. I've seen that growing up," he said. "I hope that our response will be an expression of dialogue and cooperation working toward making the city better emotionally, spiritually, and relationship-wise with individuals."
Ouma hopes to be able to visit his family in Uganda this year. Visa issues have so far limited his ability to travel. "I am homesick," he admits.