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From global justice champion to Christian university president

A Ugandan teenager imprisoned on false murder charges. An American law professor inspired to follow God’s calling. The story behind a life-changing meeting, an African nation’s reforms and Pepperdine’s surprising choice.

MALIBU, Calif. — A few hours after Jim Gash’s inauguration this fall as Pepperdine University’s eighth president, First Lady Joline Gash showed up at her husband’s fourth-floor executive suite with a Ugandan medical student.

Tumusiime Henry, 26, had flown nearly 10,000 miles to help celebrate Jim Gash’s unlikely ascension to the top post at the 7,900-student university, which is associated with Churches of Christ.

Henry wore a black suit with a red plaid bow tie as he joined the Gashes in an office overlooking the Pacific Ocean — a postcard-perfect view flanked by Pepperdine’s 125-foot-high monumental cross on one side and a smaller cross atop the stained-glass Stauffer Chapel on the other.

The crowd gives Tumusiime Henry a warm welcome at the inauguration of Jim Gash as the eighth president of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

The crowd gives Tumusiime Henry a warm welcome at the inauguration of Jim Gash as the eighth president of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

At the inauguration festivities that morning, Henry had sat in the front row as a special honored guest among the thousands of students, dignitaries and faculty members dressed in academic regalia.

As Jim Gash, 52, will tell anyone who will listen, he never would have become president if he hadn’t met Henry.

“It’s all due to this young, brave man next to me,” Gash said of Henry — the nickname by which the aspiring ophthalmologist is known in Uganda, an East African nation that doesn’t have family surnames.

Tumusiime Henry, center, receives applause from the crowd at an inauguration event at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. Henry is pictured with Jim and Joline Gash.

Tumusiime Henry, center, receives applause from the crowd at an inauguration event at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. Henry is pictured with Jim and Joline Gash.

A step of faith

Jim Gash had a life he loved in Malibu, a coastal community about 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

“I was very interested in somebody helping there, but it wasn’t going to be me.”

When the Pepperdine law professor reluctantly joined a global justice trip to Uganda a decade ago, he had no intention of ever going back.

“I was very interested in somebody helping there, but it wasn’t going to be me,” he told The Christian Chronicle. “I went once … to show my wife and my kids and my God that I was willing to take a step of faith.”

Three years earlier, Pepperdine law students had started traveling to Uganda, an underdeveloped country recovering from decades of dictatorship and war.

Bob Goff, founder of a nonprofit organization called Restore International, now known as Love Does, had spoken at Pepperdine in 2007 and planted the seed for the trips. In 2009, Goff again touted Uganda while addressing a Christian Legal Society meeting that Gash attended in San Diego.

Finally, Gash gave in and decided he’d join those serving in Uganda.

“I remember walking into that prison. It was a one-room warehouse with no electricity, no running water. I just remember thinking, ‘This isn’t OK with me.'”

But just once.

His January 2010 trek was going to be “my one-and-done, my ‘volun-tourism’ trip,” the father of three said.

But then Gash arrived at a juvenile prison called Ihungu — in the rural district of Masindi in western Uganda.

“I remember walking into that prison. It was a one-room warehouse with no electricity, no running water,” Gash said. “I just remember thinking, ‘This isn’t OK with me.’”

At the prison 130 miles northwest of the capital of Kampala, Gash met Henry, then a teenager.

The 5-foot-4, 120-pound boy was clad in sweatpants, flip-flops and a blue T-shirt. He had spent a year and a half in custody on false charges of murder. While Henry was at school, villagers had attacked a former herdsman who stole money from the boy’s family. They dumped the man’s body at the family’s home. Henry, his brother Joseph and their father, who since has died, were implicated despite no evidence against them.

Jim Gash, Tumusiime Henry and Henry's brother Joseph at the Ihungu juvenile prison in 2010.

Jim Gash, Tumusiime Henry and Henry’s brother Joseph at the Ihungu juvenile prison in 2010.

While at Ihungu, Henry also had been charged with a second murder — again bogusly — when a prisoner ordered beaten by an adult taskmaster died.

Suddenly for Gash, injustice had a name and a face.

“It changed my life’s trajectory,” he said.

His one trip to Uganda would turn into 27 — and counting.

“I saw that there was a need that we at Pepperdine had the ability to meet,” he said. “And when you see a need, and you see people who are suffering, it’s very, very difficult to turn away, particularly when there is an individual — a young man — who is wrongly accused and who was waiting on God to deliver him.”

Gash’s extreme love and care for people are contagious, as evidenced by the relationships he has built in Uganda, said Goff, who participated in the inauguration activities.

“He’s trying to make everything about the power of Jesus Christ unleashed in the world in beautiful ways,” Goff said of Gash, who served for eight years as an elder of the University Church of Christ on the Pepperdine campus. “(But) he’s not out there as an evangelist. He knows what he believes, he knows why he believes it, and he lets love do the talking.”

An answer to prayers

For Henry, the mzungus — Swahili for “white-skinned foreigners” — who came that day were an answer to prayers.

“I remember that I had actually fasted and prayed for somebody to come and do something, and I was just waiting,” said Henry, whose mother raised him to trust in Jesus. “I was very happy to meet him. … It was really a wonderful moment for me.”

At Ihungu, the prisoners were required to speak Swahili so that they couldn’t make escape plans in native tongues.

Henry spoke the Bantu language of Runyoro at home and knew English from school. He served as a translator for Gash and his colleagues as they prepared legal paperwork for 18 boys and three girls.

Because of limited judicial resources, those charged with a crime often spent years in custody waiting for their case to be heard.

Eventually, the murder charge against Henry, his brother and father were dismissed. However, Henry remained in custody on the second charge.

Boys at the Mbale juvenile prison during one of Jim Gash’s legal aid trips to Uganda.

Boys at the Mbale juvenile prison during one of Jim Gash’s legal aid trips to Uganda.

Later, Henry was convicted of murder when his Ugandan attorney failed to provide adequate representation. A judge sentenced Henry to 12 months of probation and released him. But the black mark remained on his record, threatening his future ability to receive a medical license.

Gash, who became director of Pepperdine’s global justice program, took over the appeal of Henry’s conviction and began working with Ugandan authorities to reform the country’s judicial system.


Related: Five facts about Jim Gash, Pepperdine University’s new president


Numerous Ugandan judges traveled to Pepperdine to work with legal experts on matters such as developing a plea-bargaining system for their country.

In January 2012, Gash took a six-month sabbatical from Pepperdine. He, Joline and their children — Jessica, Joshua and Jennifer — moved to Uganda. While Gash focused on judicial reform, his wife and children worked with a mobile medical clinic.

“When we decided to move out there, Henry became a part of our family,” Gash said. “Our kids instantly fell in love with him, and Joline became a second mom to him.”

The Gash family — Jessica, Joshua, Jim, Joline and Jennifer — at the inauguration of Jim Gash as Pepperdine University's eighth president.

The Gash family — Jessica, Joshua, Jim, Joline and Jennifer — at the inauguration of Jim Gash as Pepperdine University’s eighth president.

The whole experience, Joline Gash said, let the family “step out in faith.”

Older daughter Jessica, then 16, overcame a fear of needles while working with the clinic. Now, the 2018 Pepperdine graduate is studying medicine in a physician assistant program at Stanford University.

“Sometimes, God needs to take you somewhere very far and remote and quiet to tell you what he needs you to do.”

Son Joshua, then 13, showed compassion to clinic patients. Now, he’s a Pepperdine senior majoring in psychology and interested in becoming a therapist.

Younger daughter Jennifer, then 11, loved praying with the sick people. Now a Pepperdine sophomore, she is studying religion and psychology. She envisions a future in ministry.

“Sometimes, God needs to take you somewhere very far and remote and quiet to tell you what he needs you to do,” Joline Gash said.

Uganda’s chief justice, Bart Magunda Katureebe, speaks at Jim Gash’s inauguration.

Uganda’s chief justice, Bart Magunda Katureebe, speaks at Jim Gash’s inauguration.

‘It’s over! You won!’

In summer 2015, seven years after Henry’s nightmare began, the appeals court finally ruled in his case, striking down the conviction.

Jim Gash called to deliver the news via Skype.

Jim Gash informs Tumusiime Henry of the appeals court's decision.

Jim Gash informs Tumusiime Henry of the appeals court’s decision.

“It’s over! You won!” Gash told Henry. “So no longer are you someone who has been convicted of a crime — the whole thing was nullified. It’s like it never happened.”

“OK!” a teary-eyed Henry replied. “Very good! Praise be to God!”

Henry first traveled to the U.S. in 2016 after the release of Gash’s book “Divine Collision: An African Boy, An American Lawyer, and Their Remarkable Battle for Freedom,” which recounts the conversation after the appeals court’s decision.

The ex-prisoner returned to America in 2017 to promote “Remand,” a Revolution Pictures documentary about the relationship between Gash and Henry as well as Pepperdine’s efforts to improve the struggling country’s judicial system.

When Gash invited Henry to attend the inauguration, he didn’t hesitate to accept.

“I always love when Henry comes to visit because, of course, he’s going to stay in our home. And my kids feel like he’s a part of our family as well.”

“I always love when Henry comes to visit because, of course, he’s going to stay in our home,” Joline Gash said. “And my kids feel like he’s a part of our family as well.”

Henry had to skip five days of medical school to make his third trip to the U.S., where he’s a big fan of In-N-Out Burger, an iconic West Coast chain.

“I was like, ‘I can’t miss out on this day,’” he said during his visit to Gash’s office.

“And I’m really happy,” added Henry, now married and the father of an 8-month-old son, “because I never dreamed that I would set foot in America. I never dreamed for a minute that I would meet Mr. Jim. I never dreamed that I would become a doctor.”

Jim and Joline Gash with Tumusiime Henry and his wife at Henry’s medical school.

Jim and Joline Gash with Tumusiime Henry and his wife at Henry’s medical school.

‘The gospel of plea bargaining’

The night of the inauguration, the law school showed “Remand,” followed by a panel discussion on “Pepperdine’s Quest for Justice: Spotlight on Reform in Uganda.”

Danny DeWalt is Pepperdine’s vice president and chief of staff and executive director of its Sudreau Global Justice Program.

DeWalt, one of Jim Gash’s closest friends and a frequent traveler to Uganda, moderated the discussion in Smothers Theatre.

Jim and Joline Gash wear Ugandan attire as they join Tumusiime Henry at his wedding.

Jim and Joline Gash wear Ugandan attire as they join Tumusiime Henry at his wedding.

Besides Gash and Henry, the panel featured Bart Magunda Katureebe, Uganda’s chief justice; Yorokamu Bamwime, Uganda’s principal judge; Major Gen. Kahinda Otafiire, Uganda’s minister of justice and constitutional affairs; and Mike Chabita, Uganda’s director of public prosecutions.

“I think the seed has been sown, and it will be watered, and it will become that mustard seed that will come into a huge dream,” Katureebe said of Uganda’s judicial improvements in partnership with Pepperdine.

In the past, some spent more than 10 years in prison just waiting to go to trial, Bamwime said. Now, he said, “People are happy to appear before a judge in a time they feel like doing so, especially after I’ve preached to them ‘the gospel of plea bargaining.’”

Tumusiime Henry prays during a panel discussion on “Pepperdine’s Quest for Justice: Spotlight on Reform in Uganda,” hosted by the law school on the night of Jim Gash’s inauguration.

Tumusiime Henry prays during a panel discussion on “Pepperdine’s Quest for Justice: Spotlight on Reform in Uganda,” hosted by the law school on the night of Jim Gash’s inauguration.

Bamwime voiced appreciation “for the project that Jim Gash and friends launched in our country.”

For his part, Gash told the crowd he wouldn’t be standing on stage as Pepperdine’s new president if not for Henry.

After joining the faculty in 1999, Gash served as the law school’s first dean of students under former Dean Kenneth Starr. Later, under Dean Paul L. Caron, he became associate dean for strategic planning and external relations — a position not known as a stepping stone for the university presidency.

Jim Gash and Eric Wilson in Gash's office at Pepperdine University.

Jim Gash and Eric Wilson in Gash’s office at Pepperdine University.

But Gash’s passion for — and successes in — Uganda impressed Pepperdine’s regents. And others on campus, too.

“Jim’s work for justice in Uganda made him a strong candidate and makes for a good connection with the students,” said Eric Wilson, the first African-American preacher for the University church.

Pepperdine has six international campuses — from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Shanghai, China — where students study abroad. Gash would like to expand that reach to the developing world.

Uganda, the new president said, “gave me a global vision of what was possible on this planet.

“It gave me an entrepreneurial spirit. It gave me the opportunity to interact with leaders of a country,” added Gash, whose family has welcomed more than 100 Ugandans, including three chief justices, into their home. “It gave me the opportunity to speak and to lead students — all because I met this guy who needed something and believed that God would deliver him.”

Jim Gash speaks at his inauguration as the eighth president of Pepperdine University.

Jim Gash speaks at his inauguration as the eighth president of Pepperdine University.

Filed under: global justice International Jim Gash National Partners Pepperdine Pepperdine University social justice Top Stories Uganda

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