Pepperdine University’s New President Jim Gash Shares How ‘Divine Collision’ With Ugandan Medical Student Shaped His Life

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

A few hours after Jim Gash’s inauguration this fall as Pepperdine University’s eighth president, his wife, Joline, 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.

At the inauguration festivities earlier 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.

The crowd gives Tumusiime Henry a warm welcome at the inauguration of Jim Gash as the eighth president of Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Photo by Ron Hall

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.

Jim Gash had a life he loved in Malibu, a coastal community about 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles. 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 said. “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, prompted by a speech by Bob Goff, founder of a nonprofit organization called Restore International, now known as Love Does. Goff had spoken at Pepperdine in 2007 and planted the seed for the first trips. In 2009, Goff again touted Uganda while addressing a Christian Legal Society meeting that Gash attended in San Diego.

Jim Gash, from left, Tumusiime Henry and Henry’s brother Joseph at the Ihungu juvenile prison in 2010. Photo courtesy of Jim Gash

Finally, Gash gave in. 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.’”

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

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.

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,” said Gash, who has made more than two dozen trips to Uganda.

Jim Gash and Tumusiime Henry in Uganda. Photo
courtesy of Jim Gash

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.”

For Henry, meeting Gash was 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. “I was very happy to meet him.”

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 despite his claims of innocence and was eventually convicted of murder.

A judge sentenced Henry to 12 months of probation and released him.

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Source: Religion News Service