The year was 1973, the place: Uganda:
Then [Idi] Amin ordered his soldiers to execute some of the people they had arrested. They were to take the prisoners to their home towns. The towns’ people would be ordered to watch the soldiers shoot the prisoners.
Three of the men were to be shot in the stadium in Kabale, the town where Festo [Kivengere] and [his wife] Mera lived.
“I should go to the president. I should talk to him about what is happening. Maybe he will listen to me,” Festo said to Mera. “He thinks we’re trying to overthrow his government. We need to convince him we’re not.”
Now, this was a very brave thing to do! To walk right into the palace and face the cruel president was risky, to say the least. After all, Amin was killing and torturing Christians and other leaders. He might kill Festo, too!
Festo went anyway. He drove to the president’s palace in Kampala, with Hark riding nervously in the backseat.
The president greeted Festo warmly. (Hark was surprised by this. And so was Festo!) Then Amin told lies.
“It is all right,” he said. “You are quite safe. Yes, some of the soldiers are doing bad things. But I am punishing them when they do. So don’t worry about it,” he said with a smile.
“Mr. President,” Festo said, “I hear you have told everyone in Kabale to come to the big stadium to watch three men be shot. Please let these men live. Forgive them for what they have done.”
Hark saw a big scowl on Amin’s face. Oh dear, Hark thought, now he’s mad.
Festo wasn’t allowed to stay any longer. Sadly, he (and Hark) left the palace and headed home.
“How terrible,” said Mera when she heard about it. “You mean thousands of people have to go to the stadium to watch the executions?”
“Amin thinks it will stop people from trying to overthrow him,” Festo replied. There was nothing for them to do but what the president demanded. When the day came, they went to the stadium.
Three thousand people were forced to attend the shooting. No one was speaking. Dark fear filled people’s hearts. Festo turned to two of his pastor friends.
“Let’s see if we can speak to the three men before they are shot,” he suggested.
“The soldiers will never let us,” replied his friend.
“Well, let’s ask anyway,” Festo said.
“Please, sir,” said Festo approaching the soldier in charge. “I am a minister. I’d like to speak some words of comfort to the three young men before they die.”
No one expected the soldier to agree. But to Festo’s surprise, he said gruffly, “All right. You can talk to them in the arena just before they are killed!”
Festo began to pray. Hark could hear the quiet prayers (angels can, you know). He wrote them down carefully.
“Please, Lord,” prayed Festo, “give me the right words to say to these men.”
A truck drove into the arena. The soldiers unloaded the three prisoners in the middle of the stadium. They were in handcuffs. Their feet were changed together. The firing squad stood at attention, their rifles ready.
In the stands, the silent people sat as still as statues. There was a horrible feeling in the air. Festo and his friends walked across the huge arena and came up behind the prisoners.
“Oh, dear Lord Jesus! What shall I say? What shall I say?” Festo said out loud. The three prisoners heard him and turned around to face the church leaders.
“Oh!” gasped Festo when he saw their faces. They seemed so peaceful!
Festo didn’t have to say anything. As he approached the prisoners, one of them suddenly thanked Festo for coming! The man told Festo he knew Jesus had forgiven his sins. Then he asked Festo to tell his wife and children he would be waiting for them in heaven. He hoped they would accept Jesus, too, so he could be with them there.
The second man said the same thing. He raised his hands in joy and smiled bravely at Festo. Then the third man said, “I am at peace!”
Festo looked at the wonderful smiles on the men’s faces. “Why,” he said to his friends, “we need to talk to the soldiers in the firing squad, not to these men!”
Festo explained the prisoners’ words to the soldiers. When they heard what Festo said, they were shocked. For a moment, they didn’t seem to know what to do!
The three prisoners stood tall, smiling at the huge crowd of people. Then they raised their handcuffed arms and waved. Everyone waved back! People who were near had heard the brave words the prisoners had spoken. They saw the peace of God on the men’s faces.
Then the shots rang out, and the three men fell.
Now they’re safe in heaven with Jesus, thought Hark, standing beside Festo.
Then everyone went home.
–Jill Briscoe, The Man Who Would Not Hate:Festo Kivengere (W Pub Group, 1991), which was read by yours truly in this morning’s sermon