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04 October 2013

Man of integrity: Bishop Ilukor

Man of integrity: Bishop Ilukor

Canon John Wheatley Price writes:

BITTEN by a cobra while fetching food from his store, the Rt Revd Geresom Ilukor, an outstanding African leader, and Bishop of Soroti, Uganda, from 1976 to 2000, died on 1 September.

Born in 1935, into a humble home in rural Teso district, in north-east Uganda, where the family grew their own food, he learned to cultivate crops and herd goats. His bed was a cowhide on the floor, and his mother taught him to read and write. He went to primary school, aged nine, and then worked briefly as an accounts clerk.

Archdeacon Ken Prentice, an Australian CMS missionary, encouraged him to sit an exam to train as a church teacher. After a local vernacular course, he worked, without pay, in two parishes, and then had a year's training in English at Buwalasi College, near Mbale. In 1957, he married Lois, always a loyal tower of faith and love. Seven of their children are alive today, and 23 grandchildren. After more work as a church teacher, he returned to Buwalasi for ordination training.

He was made deacon in 1964 in St Philip's Pro-Cathedral, Ngora, by Bishop Stephen Tomusange, the first Bishop of Soroti. The diocese had been created in 1961, when the diocese of the Upper Nile was divided into three. Geresom was curate in Serere under Canon Ongola, one of the first Iteso to have been ordained, and he was ordained priest in Soroti Cathedral in 1966, by Bishop Asanasio Maraka.

In 1967, Geresom became Diocesan Treasurer. I was Diocesan Secretary, and we worked together for five years. Our office was a garage with electricity, three tables, a safe, filing cabinet, and hand-worked duplicator and calculator; and we shared a clerk. Geresom worked very hard, and with complete integrity, to deal with many debts and problems; for Soroti was one of the poorest dioceses.

When I became Archdeacon in 1972, he became both Secretary and Treasurer. Later, the province wanted him as its treasurer, but Bishop Maraka would not release him. CMS funded him for a year at St John's, Nottingham.

One parish placement was at St Mary's, Marlborough, where Jeremy Walsh was Rector. He remembers how Geresom would graciously challenge the congregation about their lack of thankfulness for all that God had given them. When Jeremy became Bishop of Tewkesbury, he went three times to Teso to join Geresom on confirmation safaris. St John's wanted Geresom to study for a degree, but Bishop Maraka, believing himself terminally ill, recalled him after one year.

The diocese was divided into two, with Brian Herd, later deported by Idi Amin, as the first Bishop of Karamoja, and Geresom as Bishop of Soroti, embracing all the Teso district. They were consecrated in St Paul's Cathedral, Namirembe, in 1976, by Archbishop Janani Luwum, soon to be martyred. It was wonderful to have been with Geresom for his ordination as deacon, priest, and bishop.

Iteso Christians had collected money for a personal gift for him. He gave it to the diocese to train ten Readers for ordination. He worked hard to increase the number of clergy, and to improve their training and support. Amin had been in power for five years, the army was ill-disciplined, the country's infrastructure was crumbling, and inflation meant that many people's wages, if paid, would not be sufficient. Many people had "disappeared". Others had gone into exile, including three bishops.

Teso suffered very much: the theft of five million head of cattle; Amin's army's retreat; the looting and pillaging, political uncertainties, and insurgency. People were herded into camps; and raids by the Lord's Resistance Army, other armed raids, and drought and floods made the situation dire. No cattle meant great poverty.

The Iteso soon learned that their Bishop had not only integrity, but energy, courage, and compassion. He faced death threats and was arrested, with others, by a misguided officer. When a troubled area was desperately hungry, and the authorities said that it was too dangerous to travel, he loaded the diocesan lorry with food, hoisted a large white flag with a cross on it, and drove to the hungry people. "If they shoot at us, they will know whom they are killing," he said. As a peacemaker, he often risked his life.

At one time, he and Lois were feeding more than 80 people at their home. One evening, Lois told him that there was no food left. They prayed, and the next morning found an anonymous gift given to feed all those on their compound. Around the time of the 1988 Lambeth Conference, and at other times, several of us were able to welcome Geresom and Lois into our homes to rest.

Archbishop Runcie and others, having checked how dire things were, publicised their plight, and help began to arrive - not just for food, but to help the community to re-establish itself and become self-sufficient again. Neil Stedman, formerly Ngora Hospital Manager, with others started what is now the Teso Development Trust. Geresom refused to have a personal bank account, to make it clear that no part of any donation would go into his pocket. The Church doubled in size, and the provincial quota was always paid in full and on time.

Geresom chaired boards of governors of many senior schools, two hospitals, and a teacher-training college, and encouraged the formation of two emerging universities.

After the very troubled years, he was much in demand in the province. He chaired the Provincial Board of Finance for 15 years, and was Dean of the Province for the five years before retirement. He was called to help mend broken relationships, and he preached and practised forgiveness.

A fellow bishop wanted to nominate him when an Archbishop had retired. He declined. Three times he was invited to be the ceremonial head of all Iteso, but he refused, believing that it would compromise his Christian faith. He was invited to be religious adviser to the President, but he declined. People in authority knew that if they asked his advice, he might not say what they wanted to hear. Geresom would graciously and fearlessly speak the truth.

Despite ill health in retirement, he continued to support his people. He was revered by the Iteso of Uganda, Kenya, England, and Canada. They knew him as a gentle man of wisdom, integrity, courage, and compassion, who was approachable and forgiving. He had a wonderful smile and an infectious laugh. Above all, they knew that he wanted the best for and from them, loved them deeply, and loved the Lord. He was more than Father of the Iteso. I think of him, my friend of nearly 50 years, as the beloved "Patriarch of his People".

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