EP Books’ latest Bitesize Biography (Festo Kivengere, ISBN: 9780852348512) tells the gripping life story of the best known African evangelist of his day, whose powerful preaching impacted several African countries. It also describes how Festo Kivengere pleaded with Idi Amin for the lives of the innocent, when that ruthless dictator was on the rampage. The following extract describes Festo’s conversion.
Festo turned his back on Christianity soon after his arrival at high school … He fell in with a group of lads untouched by the revival or Christian witness around them. He joined them in their escapades to the shops after dark and began to drink and smoke heavily …
So he entered into his college and training years in a deep spiritual vacuum. Nevertheless, he made considerable progress with his studies. He also discovered an uncanny ability to communicate with students of all ages. He had a natural tendency to leadership and a calm authoritative presence.
In 1938 his mother died … While Festo was grappling with his emotions and war was spreading across Europe, the revival continued in Uganda … The revival spread to the Sudan and to Tanganyika. There were reports of thousands of conversions and many spiritual blessings …
When Festo returned home to Rujumbura, he got a shock. As he passed through the market place he saw some people gathered singing hymns in public. Then as he arrived home his favourite niece Kyabyarwa met him, threw her arms around him and said, ‘Uncle Festo, welcome home! I love Jesus now. Do you too?’
The biggest part of his spiritual battle was about to begin. Festo felt that ‘God’s finger followed me and my conscience was ill at ease. When you know the truth and rebel against it, you become strangely hard’. By now Festo had become a drunkard.
The school provided him with a home and he moved in, with his stepsister Eva and his niece Kyabyarwa in one bedroom, his nine-year-old stepbrother Jonathan in another, and himself into the third.
He had hoped to have a happy family, but the relationship with his sister and niece were strained because they had joined the revival. They kept on telling him that he needed Jesus and that without Jesus he was going to hell.
His resentment turned into anger and, when he had been drinking heavily, his homecomings could be very unpleasant and the girls became afraid of him.
The ensuing days were difficult for Festo. The intensity of the revival in the town was increasing. It had begun in an ordinary Anglican service one Sunday during the Bible reading. The congregation started to weep and the Bible reading broke down.
People claimed to have found Christ in a new and personal way. Soon the congregation could not fit into the church and so spread out in small groups meeting under trees, or in homes all through North Kigezi. People would talk about Jesus everywhere and it was not unknown for the night to burst into song.
Many of his former friends had groups of people meeting in their homes and singing. People would call out to him, so that it was hard to slip away unnoticed.
Festo found an ally in his Uncle Karegyesa. They shared their resentment of the revival with each other. Many of the traditional taboos were ignored and distinctions between tribal clans were increasingly not observed.
Karegyesa arranged for some of the Christians to be beaten up and indeed some were. But he called off the beatings when the beaters explained that they couldn’t sleep at night. In the morning some of them ran off weeping to join the very people they had beaten up.
Because Festo was teaching in a mission school, he had to attend church services … Festo tells the story of the embarrassing day when it was his turn to take the morning chapel service.
‘I didn’t like it at all. I knew, and the boys knew, that I had nothing to give. It was embarrassing, but somehow I managed to admit, “Boys, I have nothing to say. Has anyone of you something to tell us?”
‘Who should stand up but my own brother! Nine years old, he came forward with his New Testament and for the next 25 minutes you could have heard a pin drop. He finished without calling them to make any outward sign of repentance, but about 20 boys gave their lives to the Lord. I should have got up and gone forward, but I was too proud’.
In this way, his school life became a strange muddle. Although he had to teach Scripture, he undermined it with snide comments. His great influence on children made them love him. His bad example with drinking was known to them, but only added an extra edge for them to admire, as it always is with rebels in all societies…
Early October 1941 arrived. Festo had even thought of suicide. Yet for all this the job of headmaster was becoming vacant and some people tipped him for the post.
On Sunday morning 4 October, Festo’s 14-year-old niece, very bravely considering past experiences, told Festo that God had told her and 12-year-old Eva that their prayers for his soul would be answered that very weekend.
The next morning it was Festo’s turn to take the boys to church. Feeling uncomfortable, he sat in the back. It was an ordinary Anglican prayer book service, but, long before the preacher stood up, people were standing all over the place, repenting of their sins and accepting the Lord. Then to his consternation his niece leapt to her feet.
‘I want to praise God. The devil has been making me afraid of telling you what the Lord has done for my cousin Eva and me. On Friday night, the Lord assured us that our prayers for Festo are answered. Festo is sitting in the corner right there, and we know that he is going to come back to the Lord today’.
Festo left the church furious and went to his Uncle Karegyesa’s kraal, where the two of them spent the day drinking and mocking the revival. Late that afternoon he was wobbling home on his bicycle, when he met another cyclist. It was his friend Festo Rwamunahe running towards him.
He skidded to a halt and breathlessly told Festo Kivengere, ‘Festo! Three hours ago Jesus became a living reality to me. I know my sins are forgiven!’
He then asked Festo’s forgiveness for three specific matters and promised that he would never live again the life they had been enjoying together. He challenged Festo with the words, ‘Where are you?’ and left him.
Conviction of sin
Festo got home under tremendous conviction, his hands shaking too much to light his pipe. He then felt a strong inner compulsion to pray.
Although he did not know what to say, he began to cry out to God. He said, ‘God, if you happen to be there, as my friends say you are, here is my life. Thoroughly empty, very much in trouble, and full of guilt, because of the wrong things I have done. Do for me what you have done for my friend, Festo’.
The response to this prayer is best told in Festo’s own words: ‘Suddenly, as if in a vision, in front of me was Jesus hanging on the cross, as clear as anything I had ever seen with my physical eyes’.
Festo later described it as Calvary ‘almost as it were up before me on a screen’. He was shattered. ‘For a time it seemed as if there was no one in the world except that Man hanging on the cross’.
As Festo looked at Christ, ‘I did not see just a helpless human being hanging on the cross like a criminal; I saw my God slaughtered for my sin’…
‘It was shattering, because it was as if Jesus was saying, “This is how bad you are”. This realisation engulfed me’. But then came the second impact. ‘It was as if the Lord said, “Now that is also how much I love you”.’
‘This was almost overwhelming. To have the one I had done that to turn around and say, “That is how much I love you”, was too much. I heard his voice. “While you were careless, I still loved you”.
‘His eyes of infinite love were looking into mine. I shook my head. Literally, I shook my head. “Lord”, I whispered, “You can’t love me; I don’t deserve it. I am your enemy. I am rebellious. I have been hating your people” …
‘Christ said, “I love you this much”. And that, of course, completely melted my heart. I began to confess my sins and to seek forgiveness, only to find that forgiveness had already taken place. I was forgiven. Guilt was no longer there’…
‘A whole new world had opened before me. Love ran through me and filled me with such a sense of freedom and joy and I wondered what to do.
‘I got up off my knees, still crying but now with joy. No more guilt, no more shame. God was no longer a threat. Christ was no longer an embarrassment.
‘He loved me! I started singing and shouting. I sang all the little songs I’d thought I’d forgotten, like “Jesus loves me, this I know”. They had now for me a new meaning! I just wanted to praise and praise’.