It's been ten days since I arrived back from Uganda. On the one hand, it seems like it's so much farther away than that. On the other hand, there are experiences and images and lessons that God so deeply imbeds in your mind that you don't know how even time and busyness and human forgetfulness could dig them out and carry them away. They are simply there to stay.
However, I still know that with the flight of time comes the flight of most memories and life lessons. So before that happens, I'd like to share (as briefly as I can) about the trip.
At the beginning of January, Shannon Hurley (Sufficiency of Scripture Ministries) invited me to help teach Anglican Church leaders at a week-long conference. He and his family left Southern California a few days later to live in Uganda as missionaries. They have an open door to operate an orphanage and do serious and needed pastoral training in an area called Mukono (a diocese [district] of the Anglican Church).
I left for Uganda on Friday, January 27, flying through London and Nairobi (Kenya) on my way to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. When I arrived (on Sunday morning), the Hurley's (all five) picked me up. On our way back to the SOS property, we drove through the capital city of Kampala. Shannon wanted me to be able to see the city, and Danielle (his wife) also needed to pick up some groceries. Since they had only lived in Uganda for a week or so, this was a big deal. This was just one of many transitional issues that the Hurley's and their fellow missionary family (the Atherstone's) had to begin to work through while I was there. I was blessed to be there at this specific time and to see the inconveniences, difficulties, adjustments, sacrifices, and frustrations that missionaries face (at least at the beginning). A wife and mother doesn't know if she should shop in the city or in the village, what things should cost (in both places), if people are trying to rip her off, how to deal with vendors in the village market who change the price of their pineapples every time she walks up, if her family will get sick off of the food she tries to make, what doctor to take them to if that happens, when her American recipes will arrive on the 40-foot container being shipped from the States, if stores will have the ingredients that her recipes demand, how to get the kids to take their malaria medicine, and how to fit her food purchases into the unknown family budget. And this is just one category of life: food. Imagine adjusting to and making decisions about these kinds of issues in all categories of life and all at the same time. This is incarnational ministry.
On Sunday evening (at the SOS property), I went outside to play soccer with some of the orphans from the orphanage. I needed to do something to keep me from giving in to the time change and going to sleep too early. The native language is Lugandan and the national language is English, so I could communicate with the kids (5-15 years old) just a little. As dusk settled in, I sat down on the dirt and a young boy came over to me. I asked him some basic questions just to get to know him. I asked him how long he had been at the orphanage, and about his mom and dad. I can still hear him say, in a thick African accent, "My mom and my dad are dead." It wasn't just what he said that struck me. It was the normalcy with which he said it. Like, "Hey, this is just reality. No big deal. I'm used to it. You asked." I realize that there are plenty of children in the United States whose parents are dead. It's not just an African thing. But the prevalence and the normalcy of it is stunningly African. I knew that something had probably happened to his parents or else he wouldn't have been at the orphanage. But to hear a seven-year-old say it is different than already knowing it. What do you do when you're sitting on the dirt in the middle of Uganda listening to a young boy tell you that his mom and dad are dead? What do you say? I don't know that you say anything. I think you talk to the Lord on his behalf and you do your best to show him the reflected love and compassion of the Father who never dies or leaves or forsakes His children.
I went to bed that night under a mosquito net and a pile of thoughts. Since there's no air conditioning there, the windows are always open. Sleeping with the windows open on a green property in the heart of Africa makes for a thoughtful environment. I like it.
I woke up on Monday morning feeling great, and three of us promptly left for the Sufficiency of Scripture Conference (15 minutes away). The conference ran from Monday through Friday. There were about 40 men there in all, which doesn't sound small to me even though I'm sure it sounds tiny to you. These men serve in the position of "Reverend," which means that each of them oversee around 10 to 20 churches and/or some schools or orphanages in their allotted areas. The three messages I preached were (1) Psalm 1, (2) how not trusting God's Word is at the heart of sin, and (3) "How to Study the Bible."
What stood out to me about the conference was the men's humility and teachability. Most of them were over 40 years old and had a lot of experience in their positions. The three of us teaching them were 31, 26, and 24 (me). The messages I preached were like normal chapel messages at TMC or like the expository sermons we hear in our local churches week in and week out. And they were thrilled by them. I'm not a great preacher, and I rarely preach. Yet they were so receptive to what God was saying through me and the other teachers. Those who are starving love any food they can get. Those who are spoiled turn up their noses at everything but royal cuisine (and often dig up things to criticize even in the royal cuisine).
Remember, I'm a white, 24-year-old American student who's visiting Africa for the first time and who looks like he's 18. Some of the men I was teaching were retired from Anglican Church ministry because they had hit the mandatory retirement age. But they were still giving up their week to be at this conference, sitting on hard wooden chairs in the heat and humidity, sleeping in (African) dormitory-style rooms, taking copious notes, and listening to a kid talk about the Bible. And then they'd stand up and confess how ashamed they were of how they'd treated the Bible all their lives (which is exactly what one retired pastor said after my "How to Study the Bible" lesson which I had only had a few hours to prepare). This is what I call spiritual hunger, manifest teachability, Christian honesty, and raw humility. If they learned the Word from me half as well as I learned soft-heartedness from them, they will have learned much.
On Friday night, we returned from the conference, tired and grateful. I spent the weekend running miscellaneous errands with the missionaries, playing with the orphans, going to an Anglican church service on Sunday morning, talking about the needs and opportunities in Uganda, and soaking up Africa. Then the last highlight of the trip came on Tuesday morning.
Cindi and I are in the process of adopting a baby orphan from Uganda. The orphanage we're trying to adopt from is called Amani Baby Cottage (ABC). Because it's located in Jinja (only an hour away from SOS Ministries), I was able to spend two hours there that Tuesday morning. There are 55 kids there currently, ranging from newborns to about three years old. The orphanage is big on adoption, so 40-50% of the kids I saw were already in the process of being adopted. Considering that ABC has existed for less than two years, I was thoroughly impressed. While I was there, I met lots of precious babies.
"Josiah" had been discovered just a few days before. Some kids were playing a few blocks away from the orphanage and had heard a baby crying. They discovered Josiah abandoned in the bushes. He hadn't been cleaned up, so he still had the afterbirth all over him. As I write this, he's about two weeks old. They'll take him into town and get him tested for HIV, and go from there. I don't have mental categories for this kind of thing. Usually when I experience things from day to day, I automatically house them in their appropriate mental categories. But I had to add a slot for this. Yeah, I could've told you that there are Josiah's out there. I'm not that naive. But seeing him and hearing his story is different. It doesn't fit any of my constructs. It stretches (and rips) my paradigm. And it should.
"Jeremiah" is one year old. He looks like he'll be a linebacker if he ends up being adopted in the U.S. Which would be amazing since he was found in a pit latrine. I can't paint you a precise picture of what a pit latrine is, but I can tell you that babies should never be found there. And I can tell that if they're found there and rescued, God must be very kind.
"Howard" has curly hair and big, curious eyes. Howard's being adopted into a family in Tulsa. That may not mean much to you, but it means a lot to me. I grew up in Tulsa. Howard will never know this (even though I told him), but he's going to grow up in the same city I grew up in. He'll know the same streets, the same restaurants, the same landmarks, some of the same churches, and hopefully the same Gospel that I know. That's incredible.
All in all, it was a privilege to visit Amani, especially since we're trying to adopt from there. Most families see the orphanage for the first time when they're arriving to pick up their child. But the Lord orchestrated my circumstances so that I could see many of the children and meet some of the staff and observe the workings of the orphanage long before we actually pick up our child. This is grace upon grace.
Tuesday evening, I got on a plane and flew back home, through Nairobi to London to Los Angeles. Here I am now in my study almost two weeks later, looking up to my right to see my wooden Africa cutout that I bought in Kampala. It will remind me to remember, and to pray.
I don't know if I would say my life is changed because I went. It probably wouldn't be fair or wise for me to say that until six months or a year from now. But I know more, and I see more, and I think I love more. May the impact and the lessons and the perspective and the passion not fade, even though many of the memories will. And may Christ reign in Africa like the rising of the sun in its might.