The Rev. Joy Magala was driving along Sherman Way in Van Nuys one day 31 years ago. She and her husband, the Rev. Sam Magala, had recently arrived from Uganda, having tired of the political instability and violence that, in 1988, resulted in the accession of the country’s apparent president for life, Yoweri Museveni.
They weren’t alone. Thousands of Ugandans were settling in the San Fernando Valley. Sam and Joy felt an invitation from the Holy Spirit to establish a church, with the support of their bishop in Uganda. They just needed a place to lay their prayer books — and that day in 1991, right off Van Nuys Blvd., Joy spotted Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Van Nuys, CA.
She tested her inspiration with Fr. Sam. They introduced themselves to St. Mark’s, which invited them to offer a service Sunday evenings at five. Their bishop exchanged letters with the fifth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, Fred Borsch. And so a small miracle from the heart of Christ, Ugandan Community Church, began in the heart of the valley.
Last night, before Trinity Sunday waned, I was blessed to preach and celebrate at UCC’s 30th anniversary celebration. Our first reading was from the book of Proverbs, handy for any preacher plumbing the ineffable relationship from the beginning of all things between Creator and Christ. Remembering Rev. Joy’s epiphany at Sherman Way and Van Nuys Blvd., this passage stood out: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand.”
And oh, what a celebration – over 150 present, with dozens of youth and children. We honored graduates and sang along with a full-throated young adult choir. The service was two hours, the festive dinner another two. At dinner we heard 12 speeches, including from the leaders of the Mothers and Fathers Unions. One speaker, son of a murdered Ugandan priest, said he had lost 11 family members to COVID and cancer in the last 30 months. He called us to immediate gestures of love to those closest to to us.
We danced, sang, and feasted. On top of my sermon, which was no shorter than usual, I was asked to give two more speeches and a closing blessing. At 8:30 p.m., Sam and Joy and the Rev. Onesmus Taybewa, who has assisted the UCC co-founders for ten years along with his ministry at Prince of Peace Church, Woodland Hills, California, escorted me to my car and sang a blessing. I think I floated home.
Many Ugandans work multiple jobs that keep them away from family. One senses the church embracing and supporting its people, like flying buttresses on a cathedral. Mother of five, also helping us shepherd St. Francis, Norwalk and St. Mary’s, Mariposa, Joy is in the same boat. Among her many responsibilities, she meets every other week in the park with over 40 UCC youth, doing what she can to help them feel loved and make good decisions.
Thinking about the constancy over the years of such devoted pastoral ministry in a sometimes perilous world took me back to Proverbs, which has Wisdom, the text’s anticipation of Christ, standing “beside the gates in front of the town,” keeping watch over every family, making sure every child is safe.