Ssebikindu is not a name that rolls off the tongue. But to hundreds of children and families in Memphis, it’s a name that is worth its weight in gold.
Ssebikindu has called Memphis home for over 30 years now, 20 of those spent at the helm of Living Water Community Church at 428 N. Watkins, a church that, in different forms and congregations, has been a part of the Crosstown neighborhood since the 1930s. His road to Crosstown, however, was both wandering and rocky.
“I was born in Uganda. That’s where I grew up,” Ssebikindu begins. “This was during Idi Amin.”
He says that Amin’s reign was not political— it was against the church. “He rose up against churches and started harassing, invading, and killing Christians. Any leaders of the church were a threat to him especially,” he remembers. “At that time, I was young, in my early 20s, and I was one of the leaders of the youth of the church. There were several attempts on my life.”
“I had an opportunity to escape, so I did.”
That escape led him to the northeastern United States where he finished his masters. One day in 1985, a friend called and gave him the challenge of meeting with a group of ladies in a North Memphis church that was in need of direction and leadership. Ssebikindu, after praying on the decision with his wife and two young daughters, accepted.
“We didn’t know too much about Memphis,” he laughs. “It was a hard location at the corner of Springdale and Eldridge. We were surrounded by gangs, drugs, even sometimes gunshots on the premises or right across the street, all because of drugs. I was trying to reach the youth, the really young people of the community, and it was tough.”
As he made the rounds in the community to meet people and orient himself, he happened to meet another new pastor in the area and discovered that they had both graduated from the same seminary. This serendipity sparked a friendship that would bring Ssebikindu into the small church on Watkins to serve as a guest minister.
“This was a neighborhood church back then. There were two gates in the back which were never locked because people walked to come here,” said Ssebikindu.”But the demographics were changing, people were getting older, and a lot of the congregation was moving to the east.”
When that congregation decided to merge with their Bartlett sister church in the mid 90s, they approached Ssebikindu with the prospect of moving his ministry to their location in Crosstown.
“We prayed about it and, as they say, the rest is history. We didn’t have much room to work with in the old church, so this really opened up the opportunities to help the young kids more,” he remembers.
Ssebikindu took the extra space that the Crosstown church provided him and began Living Water, a church that has been active in community and youth outreach for 20 years. To this day, Ssebikindu remains an active advocate and surrogate parent to youth all across the city. He has held food drives at Thanksgiving on WCRV AM 600 for 28 years. He reaches out to his friends across the country every Christmas to collect Christmas gifts for the youth he ministers— the large majority of which are not a part of his congregation. He recalls youth trips he’s led to Boston Harbor, to Washington, D.C., and to Sikeston, MO (“for throwed rolls,” he chuckles). He talks about working with his contacts in the Northeast to bring a youth group to see Nelson Mandela speak, so “a few kids in this neighborhood could say, ‘I saw an historic figure.’”
“I just want to show them different places, because otherwise a lot of them will never leave Memphis,” he says.
He just returned from a trip with 48 kids from across the city— literally from Frayser to South Memphis— to Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, a trip he’s taken every year for 27 years. A trip funded not just by what their parents can give, but by people in the community who believe in his ministry.
“We say this ministry is faith ministry because we don’t have a big congregation,” Ssebikindu says. “But I tell them one of my favorite bible verses: A good name is better than riches. Because of a good name, people help us and that’s why we’re able to do what we do.”
Ssebikindu’s ministry in Crosstown began only a few years after the shuttering of the Sears building.
“When I moved here, it was, sad to say, a ghost town. Everything had closed,” he remembers. “There was only one building across the street that a guy, Bob Smith, owned and he would sell car parts.”
“Then rumors started to fly— they wanted to start a prison in the Sears building. Then it was going to be a low income apartment complex. Then windows started getting broken. I don’t know how these kids would get in there, but they did it constantly,” he says sadly. “One by one, the windows were gone.”
Then, Ssebikindu recalls seeing a young man— one he didn’t recognize— walking the streets in 2010. Ssebikindu introduced himself and the man began talking about a feasibility study he was doing, one that was aiming to discover what would be best to bring back the Sears building and the neighborhood as a whole. The man was Chris Miner, now the Co-Director of Crosstown Arts. From there, Ssebikindu and Miner became close friends.
“I told him we were praying for a revival— a renaissance, I guess you could say.” says Ssebikindu. “We used to walk this street and pray for the neighborhood. We’d say, ‘God, do a transformation, make a change. Bring life back here.’”
When asked what he feels about the transformation happening as a result of Crosstown Concourse, he lights up and recalls what he tells his kids when he walks them around the immediate neighborhood.
“I tell the kids, ‘You know what? We are in a historical place here! That movie theater was the largest movie theater in Memphis at one point! Everybody came over here— Sears was a magnet!’ I think that Concourse can be the same magnet.”
He continues that he hopes Crosstown will spark other neighborhoods to see that communities can come back from blight, vacancy, and neglect.
“The people in this area have showed that they are on board with this project. Other communities may not have a big project like this but we could still have something like this happen in other areas that are now empty,” Ssebikindu says. “I’m hoping that this will become a trend for this city and for the entire county, so we can become leaders in the renewal and revitalization of our communities.”