From Uganda to America to AIPAC: One Christian’s Israel Journey

by Jahan Berns

(Israel InSight) — I read the Bible for the very first time as a teenager attending a Christian all-girls boarding school, in Uganda. After reading the entire Bible in three days, I was sure of two things: I wanted to serve the God of Israel; and I had fallen in love with the Jews — the people of Israel. I prayed to God to help me keep and fulfill these deep-felt vows. Little did I know how incredibly God would answer my prayers!

The years flew by… I never forgot my vows. I became an American, Alabamian and an attorney. I got involved with the Birmingham Jewish Federation, where I was welcomed as a Christian, and later the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. Advocating for Israel was not only meaningful but also life-changing for me and my family! 

On March 1, in Washington, trembling with great emotion and excitement, I stood before thousands of fellow AIPAC conference attendees and told the following story (which can be viewed here): 

I’ll never forget the last time I saw my father. I was a six-year-old little girl in Uganda. He had picked me up from school much earlier than usual. Our country’s civil war was at its height, and our lives were in danger.

At home, I watched him answer the phone and accept an invitation to what he believed would be the renewal of peace talks, and the possible end of a long and senseless war. Filled with hope and good will, my father agreed to meet. Instead of the peace talks, he walked into an ambush and was assassinated, along with all of his bodyguards.

My father – George Nkwanga – was an officer in the Ugandan military and a beloved leader of the federal democratic movement. But more than that, he was my role model.

He was larger than life and loved to tell stories. One of his favorite stories to tell was of Israel’s Operation Entebbe, when Israeli soldiers rescued hostages from the Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976. This story of Israel’s courage and determination had a lasting impact on him.

My father was a leader who worked tirelessly to secure democracy and peace. He trained abroad in many countries, but his favorite life lessons came from his training in Israel.

There, he witnessed Israel’s compassion and principles, even in the midst of conflict –– a lesson he vowed to take back with him… to his own mission in Uganda. But on that painful day in 1986, his mission was cut short by an assassin’s bullet.

The years that followed were cruel. Robbed of wealth, safety and dignity, my family became destitute. My father’s death also triggered endless cycles of nightmares and anxiety. I was searching for answers… For closure… for this heaviness to be lifted. At age 13, i was reintroduced to stories of Israel at my Christian school where I received my first Bible.

I remember the first time I flipped it open and read a passage – Psalm 91. It talked about the protection of God and the shelter he provides to those who are troubled. I was so moved by this message that I read the entire Bible in three days. The pages I read taught me more about the Israel my father spoke of so long ago.

After school, I became an American citizen and moved to Alabama, where my husband accepted a job. I became an attorney and got involved in various efforts to love and support Israel and the Jewish community, something that my father would have been very proud of.

After getting plugged into the community, I began volunteering for the Birmingham Jewish Federation; and after some years of involvement, I was elected to serve on its board. I was introduced to AIPAC a few months later.

Since then, my support for Israel has grown and expanded. I now meet with state leaders, and evangelicals in my community and connect them to this mission, which fits naturally within the core beliefs and values Christians hold dear. 

I love Israel… I have traveled to Israel multiple times – including with AIPAC’s education foundation.

On my first trip in 2015, I met the Israelis my father had befriended decades before. I too was filled with my father’s wonder. I saw their goodness and observed in their culture the desire to live for something greater than themselves.

One of my most powerful moments was when I visited Theodor Herzl’s grave – the founder of modern Zionism and a man with a dream that forged a nation. It was there and then that I realized the impact that one person can have. And in that moment, standing at Herzl’s grave, I broke down and cried. For the first time in my life, I felt that my father’s sacrifice was not in vain.

My father, much like Herzl, fought for a vision… for a people, for a greater good in the world that transcended his life, and may very well transcend yours and mine. Today, AIPAC provides me the opportunity to live out my father’s legacy by standing up for an issue – a country – a people – that changed my life and my faith for good.

At the end of my speech, even though most of my audience and I were in tears, it felt like God was smiling at me. “And why should God smile at you?” one may ask. To that question, I would respond, “God was smiling because once upon a time, a vulnerable orphaned African teenager sincerely and humbly requested to serve Him and love Israel.” 

Through my tears, I smiled back at God and my audience: I was overwhelmingly reminded that God answers prayers and keeps promises, especially where it concerns Israel. After all, of Israel God says: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” (Jeremiah 31:3.)

How grateful I am to be able to serve the people and country of Israel! 

(Jahan Berns is a Birmingham attorney.)