Pastor Wilber Kigundu
on December 1, 2012
On a Saturday morning, Pastor Wilber Kigundu oversees the contractors he has employed to build a metal fence outside for an empty lot next to a church. The sounds of chirping birds and circular handsaws hitting metal fill the air as the group begins to craft supports for one of the fence ends. One man stands on a long piece of metal while the other meticulously drills holes that will later be used to connect the larger pieces together. They work diligently, never missing a beat until the long bar is ready for installation.
Kigundu, a born-again Christian, currently preaches at Abba Church Ministries at Berkeley. Having immigrated to America 30 years ago, Kigundu knows firsthand the challenges immigrants face when starting a new life in the Bay Area, which is why he’s now dedicated to helping those in his community. Kigundu now spends his days balancing his work, family, and his passion for boxing.
Kigundu works with Clog Busters Plumbing, an organization that specializes in plumbing services, but also engages in general contracting for other businesses. Most days, Kigundu will visit several construction sites that he’s in charge of, and many of his employees are immigrants from around the world. Kigundu attempts to hire immigrants for his contract work so that they can have financial opportunities; these acts stem from Kigundu’s appreciation for the help that he received on his journey from Uganda to eventually settling in the Bay Area.
Kigundu was born in Kampala, the largest city in the country, and grew up in an area known as Kasubi. During his childhood, Kigundu grew up with more than 30 siblings who were all related to him through his father. His father, who was a police chief in Kampala and surrounding towns, had multiple wives, which Kigundu says was the tradition during that time. “He was a good man and he took care of us all,” says Kigundu, who remembers both his mother and father being very present and attentive during his childhood.
In 1978, a war broke out between Uganda and Tanzania. It was the result of deteriorating political relations between the two countries that began in 1971 after Ugandan President Milton Obote was overthrown by Idi Amin. Obote and Julius Nyerere, the president of Tanzania at that time, had been political allies. But in 1978, under Amin, Uganda began encroaching on land designated as Tanzanian, leading to the deaths of civilians and looting. Tanzania responded with an offensive directed towards Kampala, Kigundu’s hometown.
So as a young man in Kampala, Kigundu was molded by the environment around him, with harm or death a constant worry, a result of the crime and civil unrest at the time. “God has been so good to me in so many ways. I grew up in a time where there was chaos and fighting. People were dying. I was a young boy and the country lost many young men. I thank God I was able to survive,” says Kigundu.
“God protected us boys at that time. He gave me the grace, the love, and the tenacity to continue to serve him. I could’ve been dead. I could’ve been maimed. I could’ve broken my legs. That’s why I encourage people to find God. You need him to depend on. Other things can fail you,” continued Kigundu, breathing a sigh of relief.
At the age of 10, Kigundu found boxing as a means of escaping the dangers of living in the city. Kigundu was initially introduced to boxing by his cousin Cornelius Boza-Edwards, who was a popular boxer during his youth. “We all looked up to him growing up,” Kigundu says.
The two would spar together, and inevitably Kigundu fell in love with the sport. Boxing would soon become part of his daily routine as a means to avoid drugs and violence, as some of his friends succumbed to those temptations. “I didn’t receive any special training! I used to train every day. Go to the gym, then to school, and then home. School, gym, work, five days a week,” says Kigundu, laughing at his ability to forego sleep in pursuit of his aspirations.
Rising through the ranks of the boxing competitors at his primary and secondary schools, Kigundu went on to compete on the national level, becoming a champion in Uganda and representing the country in fights around the world: Germany, East African countries, Argentina, and the United States.
First arriving in the United States in 1986 at the age of 23 to participate in the World Boxing Championship in Reno, Nevada, Kigundu was focused solely on his craft. Arriving with Uganda’s national boxing team, Kigundu and two others began to adapt to their new environment together. “Through boxing, I had traveled to so many other countries—and especially Germany was as developed as the US—so it wasn’t a shock! When I first came it was quite different interacting with others, especially black Americans, so I had to be very attentive,” says Kigundu, of learning how to use American greetings and words.
Prior to traveling for his sport, Kigundu had never lived by himself, nor had to look after himself without help from family. So he also had to learn to be independent. “It was very challenging when I left Africa. I was living with my mom and she was the one cooking and doing all the cleaning. As boys, our job was just to do the dishes, but sometimes we would go play soccer and forget the dishes,” he says, holding back laughter.
While he didn’t win the main event in Reno, Kigundu was proud to represent his home country. And even though he returned home shortly thereafter, he decided that he wanted to come back to America. In 1988, he would have his chance.
“It’s through God. I thank God for opening up a door,” he says. Kigunda says that a man who had seen him box in the World Championship helped him buy a ticket back. This time, he settled in Richmond, California, where he began his studies while he continued to box. Kigundu studied at Contra County Community College from 1992-1994 and then attended JFK University in Pleasant Hill from 1994-1996, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration. “I realized that if I was to succeed in America, it’s a capitalist country. I had to excel in every area. I continued with my boxing. I continued to go to school, go to work. I was young, 24, 25—I could handle anything,” says Kigundu fondly.
As he watches the workers at the church site, the atmosphere shifts as Kigundu begins to describe the mistakes young immigrant men can make when they come to the United States. Drinking, partying, and smoking are a few examples of indulgences Kigundu feels can impede someone’s future. “Walk right. Avoid things that will delay your progress,” says Kigundu. “I encourage immigrants, it is good to go out and have fun, but above all have a vision. If you don’t have a vision, you don’t want to live a life you’re going to regret. Do what you can, leave the rest to God, and you will excel in everything that you do.”
While Kigundu does not only employ immigrant workers, and none of them are from his church, he tries to give immigrants that he does encounter work, as he understands that living in the Bay Area can be overwhelmingly costly. “It’s very expensive to live here. If you are not making enough money, it’s best to find housing elsewhere,” says Kigundu. He says that many people who he has hired in the past have had to move further away.
“I wish immigrants could take advantage of the school system here more easily. When I first came here, I went to community colleges. It’s cheaper to get your associates degree. Then you can transfer wherever you want to. You want to excel in whatever gift you have and pursue it. Be visionary,” he says. “If you’re able to get a school loan, or grants, community college is wonderful. But if you want to pursue your dreams, community college first, and then transfer.”
He excuses himself to check on his wife, who has accompanied him to the job site and is sitting in his truck. The pastor returns visibly happy, shoulders back, a more casual demeanor taking over. Speaking about how he met his wife, Kigundu says, “It’s a good story! I knew a pastor who was also a boxer and he lives in Maryland. At the time I was looking for a wife. I was ready to get married, but I didn’t want to just pick up anybody!”
He smiles back as his wife waves from the passenger seat. “He gave me the number I called her, we started talking, and then we realized that God wants us to be together,” he continues. “So we met in March, 2004, and arranged for introduction and October 31, 2004, we got married.”
Kigundu and his wife Pamela, who is also from Uganda, have four children, ages 13, 11, and 10-year-old twins. “Every man needs a good women and she has been very good to me,” he says. “She has always supported me and been a wonderful mother to our children. I’m so grateful for her.”
On a rainy Wednesday night, Kigundu begins setting up chairs in a large communal space at the La Quinta hotel in Berkeley. Kigundu preaches here every Wednesday and has been doing so for the last few years. Double doors open into the hotel’s communal space; patterned floors, beige walls, and overhead lights adorn the open room. Energetic gospel music coming from a large stereo system can be heard resonating through the halls.
In the back corner lies a table with refreshments. Raindrops fall upon the glass windows as Kigundu closes the caramel and burgundy curtains. Next to the podium a projector has been placed on a table facing the wall behind the podium, which he will use to play music and showcase supplementary material for his sermon.
During his time as a competitive boxer, Kigundu also began to find his faith in Christianity. After moving to Richmond, Kigundu joined a local church and met a pastor who would lead him towards becoming a pastor himself.
“When I came from Uganda, God opened up a door through a pastor named Irene Houston in Richmond. She raised me as a young boy. I went through all the rigors of ministry and she ordained me as a pastor. She helped me to direct my path as a young man, so I thank God for that,“ says Kigundu as he fondly recounts his time working with her.
Kigundu remembers going to Houston for guidance and her encouraging him to do God’s work. Kigundu began taking religious seminary classes. He obtained his master’s degree in theology from the Pneuma Theological Seminary in Oakland, and has practiced as a pastor for the last 10 years.
Reminiscing about his younger days, Kigundu instinctively starts to assume his boxing stance, a smile on his face as he reflects on how boxing has now become a hobby, rather than a career. But that has not stopped him from keeping it as a focal point in his life.“I’m still boxing. It’s like riding a bike. You’re always going to be able to ride a bike. So you can’t say I’m a former boxer—I am a boxer,” he says, raising his hands in a defensive stance in front of his chest, as if ready to strike.
On a chilly Friday afternoon, after taking his children to basketball practice, Kigundu wraps his hands and prepares for his boxing workout at the Grove Park Recreational Center in Berkeley.
“He’s an active member of the community,” says David Garcia, a coach for some of the center’s boxing programs. Garcia says that he has seen Kigundu many times and often sees him helping kids who come into the center to train.
Kigundu makes a space for himself in front of the punching bags hanging in a line near the wall and begins to shadowbox. His feet become a blur as he moves back and forth, throwing punch after punch, never missing a beat. The more punches he throws, the more comfortable he becomes, as the speed and intensity of his hits begin to increase.
Drops of sweat fall from Kigundu’s head. Wiping his brow, he grabs his black boxing gloves, a vintage sheen showing their wear. Moving towards a smaller punching bag, he begins to reach a rhythm. The small black bag swings back and forth, quickly becoming invisible as a melodic banging sound fills the room.
On this day, he runs into a 15-year-old named Ella, who goes to the gym for P.E. classes and to practice boxing herself. Ella previously attended school with all of Kigundu’s daughters. “When I went to school with his daughters, he was always around and very supportive. He would always do his best to encourage the other kids, too,” she says, readjusting her blue boxing wraps.
Kigundu delivers one more defining punch to the bag, signaling it’s time for a break in his workout. Water in hand, Kigundu looks around the room at the children practicing their technique. His smile grows from a grin to an expression of joy. “Seeing all of the kids having fun and enjoying their youth—even having the opportunity to talk with them, or help them, or guide—them means the world,” says Kigundu. “That is my joy.”
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