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Dennisons serving as “non-traditional” missionaries in Uganda
“Moving to Africa was quite a huge change,” admits Mary Jane Moore Dennison ’91, who currently lives in the city of Mukono, Uganda with her husband, Brian, and children: Charlotte (8), David (7), Robert (2), and Carol (four months).
“I grew up in Savannah and lived in the same house and went to the same school kindergarten through my senior year. In fact, my mom, Carol Moore – an SCPS teacher for many years until she was killed in a car accident in 2003 – taught me in kindergarten. After graduating SCPS, I attended UGA and received my Bachelor of Arts in Journalism in 1995, then married Brian, a lawyer who practiced law at Bouhan, Williams, and Levy in Savannah for almost 10 years.”
The Dennisons took a giant leap of faith in 2008 and moved to Uganda, two ten-hour flights and a world away.
The country is about the size of Oregon, and includes 50 different tribes and 30 languages. Most natives also speak Lugandian and English in addition to their local tribal language. Located just above the northern edge of Lake Victoria – Africa’s largest lake, the largest tropical lake in the world, and second only to Lake Superior as the world’s largest freshwater lake – Mukono is a growing urban area about 23 kilometers (14 miles) to the center of Uganda’s largest and capital city of more than 1.4 million people, Kampala.
Mukono has a population of more than 50,000, and one paved road.
“We don’t have a car, but we hire a driver a couple of times a week and risk our lives in a boda-boda. This local taxi name describes their ‘border to border’ driving range, and the drivers do drive like crazy! We live in a two-bedroom house with 6 people, and highlights of weekly life include getting a soda, usually a Fanta, at the local canteen, or maybe ice cream. That is a huge thing!”
Mary Jane and her sister, Jennifer Moore Meyer ’89, grew up at Christ Church in Savannah, Georgia as a part of the Episcopal Church. When Mary Jane married Brian Dennison, it was only natural that the couple continued to raise their growing Dennison family at Christ Church.
Through their church, the Dennisons also began to build relationships with other Christians in the worldwide church, especially when Christ Church withdrew out of the Episcopal Church USA and became temporarily affiliated with the Church of Uganda (Anglican) and prior to becoming a member of The Anglican Church in North America.
“For a long time, we thought missionaries were only preachers and evangelists,” Mary Jane recalls. “But, then we met a couple that our church was supporting in Uganda. The husband was a white man named Jason Mehl, who is now the Assistant Basketball Coach at Toccoa Falls College. At the time, he was serving as the Athletic Director and Head Basketball Coach at Uganda Christian University.”
Jason was a missionary kid in Nigeria through the 1st to the 3rd grades. He later felt called to UCU, where he ended up starting the hugely successful UCU basketball team and Athletic Department.
“God used natural and a few supernatural circumstances to give me a chance to do something meaningful, exotic, and adventurous at the same time,” Jason recalls.
He first met Brian in Savannah over a cup of coffee during a fund-raising trip. They continued exploring missions and God’s call in their lives over the next couple of years.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as traditional or nontraditional missionary service,” Jason explains. “Telling un-reached people about Jesus is one necessary role that needs to be filled by members of the body of Christ. Teaching students in various academic disciplines in a Biblical perspective, and then modeling servant leadership for them, is another necessary role. There are hundreds of necessary roles and we believers are individually equipped and called to fulfill different ones.”
The more the Dennisons learned and contemplated Bible verses like I Peter 4:10, “Each one should use whatever gift he has to serve others”, the more they began to feel called to go themselves.
When an opportunity arose to go on a mission trip to Uganda, Brian went seeking to see if, indeed, the Lord was calling.
“I originally asked the Lord,” says Brian, “if we could just send a check.”
However, as he prayed and read about “Jonah, the son of Amittai” in the Old Testament book of Jonah (Jonah 1:1), he felt compelled to seek a sign of Jonah as confirmation of a call to go.
“While I was in Uganda, someone invited us to their house the day after I prayed that prayer. While we were there, the wife brought out their newborn baby and introduced us to ‘Jonah.’ Interestingly, the father’s name was ‘Ochamittai,’ very similar to the Biblical Jonah’s father, ‘Amittai’.
For further confirmation, since we were on our way to see a Bishop whose wife had a ministry for giving people native names, I asked the Lord for another sign – to make my name line up with ‘Ochamittai’, which means faithful and trustworthy. Sure enough, I was given a new name that essentially means the same thing.”
At the same time, Brian was praying for Mary Jane, who was back in the United States.
Mary Jane recalls, “When I went to Sunday School at church in Savannah that Sunday morning, the teaching was on Jonah. And I left with these words ringing in my ears, ‘God will never tell you to go somewhere He’s not going to be with you.’”
Beginning at that point, it took the family two years to move.
Brian specifically felt called to serve in the Law Department at Uganda Christian University (UCU) in Mukono. The school was a seminary for decades, and changed to a university about 12 years ago with a vision to raise up Christian leaders. Along with native staff, there are other missionaries at UCU, including an OB GYN teacher, Health Sciences teacher, and the Vice-Chancellor.
Brian teaches law and Christian political thought, has written the textbook “An Introduction to the Bible for Lawyers” to teach students how to be Christian lawyers, works with law students on research projects, directs the moot (oral argument) program, identifies and develops new educational opportunities, and coordinates a clinical legal services program in conjunction with International Justice Mission – an organization that seeks to defend against property grabbing so that widows and orphans can keep their property after their husband or father dies. He started the first campus chapter doing hands on work in their local community.
Brian sees his purpose as providing instruction and mentoring to future Christian leaders in Uganda and East Africa.
Education is extremely valued in Africa, and people are very fortunate if they get to go to school at all.
Attending UCU costs about the same per year as SCPS tuition, but Brian receives no University salary. The family does get to live on campus, but they have to raise their our own annual support.
“The Dennisons are doing some very important things,” says Jason. “Life in Uganda is not easy, and it is confirmation of God’s call on their lives and their obedience that they are enjoying their time at UCU, and that God is blessing them, as well as using them.”
“It is exciting to be gifted by God and have the opportunity to serve as missionaries,” says Mary Jane. “We have no idea how long we will be here, but it is a great adventure!”
For more information, visit the Dennisons online at web.mac.com/dbriandennison.