How Uganda’s award-winning Catholic radio station is changing the lives of its listeners

Hundreds of well-wishers surrounded the fence at Uganda’s Arua airfield as a small Eagle Air plane landed on the dirt airstrip. An Italian, an American and three Ugandans—all leaders of the local Catholic radio station, Radio Pacis—emerged from the aircraft, holding aloft a small trophy. Accompanied by cars, trucks and boda-boda motorcycles, the Radio Pacis team’s journey back to their headquarters became a city-wide festival as thousands of local residents lined the streets singing, dancing and ululating. Long associated with the dictator Idi Amin, Arua town and West Nile region could now boast of a much different kind of international recognition: the BBC had just named Radio Pacis as the best new radio station in all of Africa.

Over a decade after its 2007 award, Radio Pacis continues to exemplify how Catholic radio can respond to the “signs of the times” in 21st-century Africa. The station broadcasts Mass, the Rosary and biblical reflections, as well as programs analyzing refugee resettlement, peacebuilding and domestic abuse. Through community engagement forums in local villages, Radio Pacis gives a voice to ordinary Ugandans while also raising consciousness in the community around issues like sanitation and social entrepreneurship. The station works not just to inform but to transform the community.

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In the words of Prudence Joan Oden, production assistant at Radio Pacis, “People here believe that once you are poor, you are poor. The radio helps them to see how they can come out of their poverty and do things to improve their lives.” The station’s attention to the everyday struggles of its listeners is not just good ministry; it is also good for business. Radio Pacis reaches an estimated listening audience of 10 million in Uganda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In its holistic vision of what its founders call “Gospel values radio,” Radio Pacis is more than a radio station; it is a remarkable sign of the new evangelization in Africa. But to understand the vision that animates the mission of Radio Pacis, it is useful to understand the two missionaries who helped start it.

The Missionary Journey

Born in 1939 in the northern Italian town of Cesena, the Rev. Tonino Pasolini’s earliest memories are of running into caves to escape Allied bombing. The oldest of five children, he grew up with a strong desire to be a priest and entered a diocesan minor seminary at the age of 11. His strong call to the priesthood was not matched, however, by a desire for missionary life. “I despised missionaries,” he says, “for leaving Italy and not helping in their own home.”

It took a sudden, Pauline call to change Father Pasolini’s attitude. The Rev. Enrico Faré visited Father Pasolini’s seminary in Bologna to speak about his experiences as a Comboni missionary in Sudan. Father Faré’s passion and conviction left a lasting mark on the teenage Pasolini. As he recalls: “I remember the day and time distinctly. It was 4 p.m. on Dec. 3, 1957. God was calling me clearly, clearly.” Significantly, for Father Pasolini the call was more to Africa than to missionary life in itself. Following the model of the order’s Italian founder, St. Daniel Comboni, who died in Sudan in 1881, the Comboni missionary was expected to, in Father Pasolini’s words, “give your soul, mind, energy, heart and body for Africa to bring the Good News to the people of Africa.”

She assumed she would either keep working at the archdiocesan offices or go back to Indiana to work in parish ministry—until, at the age of 40, she started dreaming about Africa.

Father Pasolini was ordained in 1964 during the Second Vatican Council. Soon he received his long-awaited call to the African missions, landing in West Nile in 1966. His initial encounter included significant challenges. He asked the local Comboni parish priest about Lögbara culture and was told to learn how to eat cassava. “And remember,” the priest added, “that they are an inferior race.” Fortunately, this racist paternalism was also on the way out. The Comboni General Chapter of 1969 embraced the reforms of Vatican II and looked to renew the order by revitalizing Father Daniel Comboni’s original focus on “the mission for Africa.” Just as he was finding his feet, however, Father Pasolini was recalled to Italy, first as a postulant director and later as the youngest Comboni provincial superior in the world.

In 1982, Father Pasolini returned to Uganda and settled in the West Nile town of Maracha near the Congolese border. Here he channeled his energies into the formation of lay leaders and married couples. He also built a parish learning center to train catechists to work across Maracha Parish’s 55 subparishes, exhorting them to have “open eyes” to identify both the community’s challenges and its emerging leaders. (Catechists typically lead these subparishes, and priests visit every few months to celebrate Mass.) In 1990, Bishop Frederick Drandua of Arua asked Father Pasolini to become the diocesan pastoral coordinator. Recognizing that he needed outside help, Father Pasolini wrote to contacts at the Volunteer Missionary Movement to request an English-speaking lay missionary with a background in teaching, administration and academic theology. As it turned out, the movement had only one candidate who fit this bill: Sherry Meyer.

Born in 1951, Ms. Meyer grew up in a small suburb of Indianapolis, Ind. The oldest of six children, she attended Franciscan Catholic schools from elementary school through university, becoming the first member of her family to graduate from college. After years as a teacher and then a high school principal, she took a job with the Archdiocese of Chicago in the late 1980s, where she also pursued studies in theology and ministry at Catholic Theological Union. She assumed she would either keep working at the archdiocesan offices or go back to Indiana to work in parish ministry—until, at the age of 40, she started dreaming about Africa.

Far from embracing a romantic dream of missionary life, Ms. Meyer resisted.

Far from embracing a romantic dream of missionary life, Ms. Meyer resisted. Questions churned in her head. How could she leave her close-knit family? What if she got sick? How could she beg friends and family for mission appeals after years of proudly supporting herself? And perhaps most of all, “What good can a 40-year-old American woman do in Africa?” But over weeks and months of discernment, the call persisted. Ms. Meyer decided to join V.M.M., a Catholic agency dedicated to lay ministry and mission.

Ms. Meyer arrived in Uganda in October 1991, just in time for the Catholic Church’s annual worldwide celebration of Mission Sunday. Despite the apparent liturgical serendipity, the initial auguries were not good. Her roommate came down with hives; Ms. Meyer’s asthma kicked in; she had no toilet for the first time in her life. “Every day I said, ‘I can’t do this, I am going home!’” she says. She had to learn to be totally dependent on others, a mentality that did not come easily to an oldest child and single woman who had prized personal independence all her life. Now she found herself learning how to take a bath using a basin and how to care for chickens.

Given these challenges, Ms. Meyer told herself that she would complete a year of service and then go home to the United States. But Father Pasolini recognized her administrative abilities and passion for lay ministry, and he invited her to help the Combonis develop a new lay ministry training program. Her mission was straightforward, though not simple—helping local Catholic lay people embrace their calling “to be participants in the church rather than spectators.” Ms. Meyer was soon engaged in a variety of pastoral ministries based at the new Christus Centre that she and Father Pasolini set up in Arua town in the early 1990s. Her ministries included teaching Scripture to lay catechists, running collaborative workshops for priests and laity and planning two diocesan synods. In fact, 90 percent of the materials for Ugandan Catholic “liturgies in the absence of a priest” were developed by Ms. Meyer, enabling catechists to share Communion on Sundays with local Christians during the months or even years between visits by a priest.

Ms. Meyer realized that she was also offering a unique image for the Ugandan church: a laywoman engaged in pastoral and liturgical ministry. Although some of the old-school Italian Combonis fretted that she was, in her words, one of these “wild, American, feminist women who go to theology school,” Ms. Meyer’s results slowly won them over. When her five-year contract with V.M.M. ran out in the late 1990s, she affiliated with the Combonis as a lay missionary, attracted by the Combonis’ pragmatic focus. Such practicality soon opened Ms. Meyer and Father Pasolini to an innovative form of pastoral mission: taking the peace of Christ to the airwaves.

Gospel Values Radio

In 2001, Ms. Meyer and Father Pasolini were asked to jumpstart a new diocesan initiative in mass communications: a local Catholic radio station. On the suggestion of their diocesan bishop at the time, Bishop Drandua of Arua, they named the station Radio Pacis. The name was chosen in part because of the local church’s commitment to build intertribal and inter-religious peace in the historically neglected and war-torn region of Northern Uganda. The home region of Idi Amin, West Nile Province suffered greatly during the post-Amin instability and civil war of the early 1980s, when government soldiers took revenge on Amin’s former soldiers and local civilians. Having grown out of Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion—and the brutal government response to it—ravaged neighboring Acholiland and Lango District between 1986 and 2008.

The station’s name also highlighted Ms. Meyer’s and Father Pasolini’s desires to push Radio Pacis beyond the traditional strictures of African Catholic radio.

The station’s name also highlighted Ms. Meyer’s and Father Pasolini’s desires to push Radio Pacis beyond the traditional strictures of African Catholic radio. To be sure, Father Pasolini and Ms. Meyer ensured that the station broadcast Mass, liturgical music and 10-minute “Scripture Moments” that included commentaries on the daily readings. But Ms. Meyer and Father Pasolini also wanted the station to embody the social dimension of Gospel values by addressing issues of human rights, health, education, family, gender relations and civic education. For Ms. Meyer, this focus on human lives echoes Jesus’ own ministry. “Jesus always preferred the poor, the lame, the sick and those on the margins, and this entails issues of justice, human rights, courts, corruption and health care access,” she says.

Radio Pacis went on the air in October 2004 and quickly became the most popular radio station in the region, in part because the station broadcasts on three frequencies in all six local languages: Acholi, Alur, Madi, Kakwa, Lögbara and English. In turn, Radio Pacis has crossed more than just national and linguistic borders; the station’s highest listening percentage is in the overwhelmingly Muslim area of Yumbe. Ms. Meyer posits that this success across many demographics is because local people of all religious stripes appreciate the station’s commitment to “accuracy, truth, and balance” in a media landscape dominated by propaganda, bribery and superficiality. In addition, Ms. Meyer and Father Pasolini refused early pressure to hire only Catholics; Protestants and Muslims serve in prominent management positions at the station. For Father Pasolini, this inter-religious workforce reflects West Nilers’ general inter-religious harmony. “We live together! We plan together! We stay together! This is the real Uganda!” he says.

Whatever its international reach, Radio Pacis remains a distinctively local, engaged community radio station. The station raises over 70 percent of its operating budget from local sources in West Nile, and at least 22 of its 24 hours of daily programming are locally produced. Since 2010, the station has sponsored “community engagement” efforts, in which field reporters move into villages, hosting forums that enable ordinary people to voice their concerns directly to their civic leaders. The station’s huge listenership provides ample motivation for the recalcitrant politician. In turn, Radio Pacis has raised awareness among the local population on questions of human dignity like sexual abuse of children, alcoholism and domestic violence.

According to Sarah Amviko, a West Nile native who is the human resources manager for Radio Pacis, women are now speaking more openly about domestic violence. “[The radio] has empowered women to stand their ground and to know that they are human beings.” she says. For her part, Ms. Meyer recalled a conversation with an older man who thanked her for the attention the station pays to spousal relations: “The things you say on the radio are really unique—no one else can say that to us!” For Ms. Meyer, this demonstrates how radio can be akin to a “social liturgy,” creating a sacred space that facilitates an elevated conversation on questions of human dignity.

Many local residents praised the program for improving family life.

A good example of this “elevated conversation” is provided by “We Go Forward,” one of the station’s most popular morning programs. In a focus group conducted by Radio Pacis, many local residents praised the program for improving family life. For example, while state-run primary school is free, parents are still expected to provide school supplies. Sometimes this is a big challenge on both a financial and a cultural level. But one Lögbara mother credited “We Go Forward” with convincing her that it was worthwhile to pay for her children’s scholastic materials. After listening to a program on domestic conflict, one local man foreswore physically abusing his wife. Still another woman in nearby Maracha District argued that “We Go Forward” lifted the self-esteem of such marginalized groups as women and children, people with disabilities and people living with H.I.V./AIDS. “Being a discordant couple [ one partner is H.I.V. positive and the other is not], I used to fear to disclose my status,” she says. “But having listened to the program Ama Mu Drile [‘We Go Forward’] on Radio Pacis, I freely came out to tell people about my status.”

As 1.3 million South Sudanese refugees have poured into Northern Uganda over the past five years, refugee questions have become central dimensions of Radio Pacis’s community outreach. The station’s Rural Initiative Community Empowerment brings together refugees and local host communities to discuss areas of shared concern such as environmental destruction, infrastructural development and disease prevention. Other weekly programs like “Voice of the Voiceless” and “Refugee Hour” enable refugees to speak directly on their own situations. For the longtime local reporter Gabriel Adrapi, this programming reflects Radio Pacis’s mission that “whatever we do, we do for the voiceless of the community.”

Radio Pacis also strives to practice what it preaches through staff training and apprenticeships. Many on the staff have learned the ropes through the radio’s Candidate Mentor program, a competitive four-week apprenticeship. The station’s managers have trained with the best mass media agencies in the field, including BBC World Service, the Uganda Media Development Foundation, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and Radio Vatican. In turn, Radio Pacis staff are now teaching radio managers from around the continent; this year delegations from South Sudan and Malawi came for training. Not surprisingly, the Uganda Communications Commission recently praised the station as “not only a model radio station in Uganda, but a model radio station in the whole of Africa.”

Radio Pacis also strives to practice what it preaches through staff training and apprenticeships.

This does not mean that the station faces no challenges. Radio Pacis has been stymied in its efforts to open a new station in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. The station remains dependent on foreign donors for a significant percentage of its budget. In turn, staff salaries are lower than those of Radio Pacis’ local competitors, leading some reporters to take their talents elsewhere.

Those who remain do so in part due to Radio Pacis’s collaborative and empowering work environment. Multiple staff members spoke of how much they appreciate Ms. Meyer’s and Father Pasolini’s consultative leadership style, including a tradition of Friday meetings at which staff members collaborate to voice commendations and critiques from the past week. When asked to explain its success, Station Manager Gaetano Apamaku highlighted the “decentralization” of Radio Pacis, noting that “in leadership you have to trust other people to do things.” In recent years, Ms. Meyer has moved out of administrative leadership and into a senior consulting role; Father Pasolini is currently in the process of handing over his directorship role to the Rev. Charles Idraku, a local priest. This transition reflects a demonstrable shift from the racist mentality evident in some members of earlier generations of missionaries. It also reflects deeper missiological convictions. The work of Ms. Meyer and Father Pasolini is based on a deep respect for the identity and beliefs of the people with whom they work. As Ms. Meyer put it, “God was here long before the first missionary arrived in Africa.”

This mission of integral human formation remains at the heart of Radio Pacis as it approaches its 15th anniversary this October. Echoing this mission, Ms. Amviko described the true measure of the radio station as not market share but maturation.

“Radio Pacis has not just inspired people but made people grow,” she says. “As a human being, what can I do to become a better person?” The deep faith of the station staff and their commitment to the wider world encourages a mentality that resists the temptation of creating an insular community. Rather, Radio Pacis encourages greater engagement with the world and deeper service for all our brothers and sisters. As Father Pasolini puts it, “If we work for our community, we have understood what it means to be a Christian.”

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