Gospel and Shovel: A Village Funeral

Yesterday was Fiona’s funeral.  As I mentioned in my prayer request, she was a seven-year-old girl from a nearby village who was severely handicapped and who had been ministered to by some of the people at the orphange.  She died on Friday morning and I was asked around noon to preach at her 4:00pm funeral.  It was a powerful experience that is worth retelling.  I hope it will lead you to think and to feel and to pray.

When we arrived, 80-100 people were gathered in a small area in the village.  We were invited into a tiny room the size of a walk-in closet.  We took our shoes off as we entered.  Fiona’s young mother Amina was there, obviously distraught as she knelt next to Fiona’s wrapped body.  Siouxanne, the orphanage nurse, knelt next to her and wept with her.  The whole room wept with her, because most of the few people in the room had known and loved Fiona with both heart and hands (Siouxanne, two Ugandan mamas and two volunteers from the orphanage, the wife of the Texan man who helped start the orphanage, and Cindi and I).  Siouxanne put her hands on Amina’s head and prayed for her.  Then Amina sobbed some words in Lugandan that I couldn’t understand.  The only word I recognized was “Fiona.”  Amina wanted us to see her beautiful daughter Fiona.  She reached over and uncovered the tiny face.  Fiona had lived seven years, but she could’ve been a toddler.  I couldn’t tell that she had been disturbingly deformed.  Her face was precious.  It was strange to know that she had died that morning.

Soon we exited the small room and sat among the villagers for a few minutes while they finished eating and some men added more wrappings to Fiona’s body and prepared the wooden casket.  I was sitting only a few yards away from the doorway and observed the process.  This is the side of death that you don’t see in more scientifically-advanced societies where we have preservation methods and things happen much more slowly and deliberately.  When the men came out of the room, the small wooden box was dressed in black cloth.  The informal procession around the corner to the gravesite was only about twenty yards.  Siouxanne had been asked to sing something as we walked.  She sang “Precious Lord” and continued with two other short Christian songs as people gathered around the freshly-dug grave.

There was a local Christian minister who led most of the service.  Apparently the mother “Amina” has been recently attending the Christian church he pastors.  He spoke in Lugandan, and only a few things were translated for me: (1) He observed how much Siouxanne loved Amina and Fiona.  How did he know?  The tears.  (2) He told the people that he wished he were mzungu (a white person) but he is an African.  We would like to decide who we are and the circumstances of our lives, but we don’t get to.  God does.  The same is true of Fiona’s hard life and early death.  (3) He quoted from John 9 about the man born blind.  The disciples had asked whether his blindness was the punishment for his own sin or his parents’ sin.  Jesus said neither.  He was born blind so that God’s work might be displayed through him.  I had read the same passage a couple hours earlier after I heard that I would be preaching at the funeral.  “God’s work” in John 9 was Jesus’ healing of the blind man.  What was God’s work yesterday at Fiona’s funeral?  I may only ever know through time and eternity.  (4) He said “Mukama yebazibwe” relentlessly.  It means “Praise the Lord.”

After he spoke for fifteen minutes, he introduced me and asked me to speak.  There was no pulpit or podium or pews.  There were only people standing in a crowded circle around the gravesite surrounded by short banana trees.  Children looked on curiously.  I had a tiny sheet of paper that I had scratched some notes on earlier in the afternoon, but I barely used it.  This was not a speech.  Eloquence was uncalled for, and it would’ve been virtually impotent had I tried because I was being translated.  Plus, all I wanted to say was the pure and simple gospel.  And this I know by heart.  I told them that I didn’t know Fiona, but I did know Jesus Christ.  I didn’t know them, but I did know Jesus Christ.  I couldn’t speak to Fiona, but I could speak to them.  I couldn’t tell them all the reasons why Fiona died, but I could tell them why Jesus Christ died.  Then I told them the story of the gospel — that suffering and pain exist because we have sinned against God and have alienated ourselves from Him, but that God has provided a solution in His Son Jesus Christ.  I told them that if they were wondering whether or not God understood their pain, He did.  He too lost — gave — an only son.  I told them how their sins could be forgiven through this Son, and I told them not to play games with Jesus Christ.  I told them that I know many mzungus in America who have money and health and comfort and medicine, and that if they saw my mzungu friends, they would think that they were safe and almost invincible.  But these rich mzungus will all die, just like them.  The only hope we have — all of us — is Jesus.  “Repent and believe in Jesus Christ — this is what Fiona would’ve wanted to tell you today.”

It was not ultra-prepared or profound, but the gospel is powerful.  It does not need a strategically planned service or a building with comfortable seating or a culturally-aware preacher or an alliterated outline, though those things have their place.  It, and it alone, is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

When I was done preaching, the minister said that God had used Fiona’s death to bring a mzungu from thousands of miles away to preach the Word of God to them.  If Fiona had not died, this preacher (me) would not have been here, and they (the village) would not have heard the gospel from him today.  That thought is no less true just because it is incredible.  Could it be that at least one small reason why our adoption process has been continually prolonged and postponed and why Fiona and her mother suffered so much over the past seven years and why Fiona died yesterday morning was so that an inexperienced young man from America could preach the gospel for ten minutes at a funeral where he didn’t even know the deceased?  Your answer to that question is one of the most important things about you, and it will define how you see God, how you live life, and how you deal with pain.

The minister continued speaking for a brief time, and then the burial process began.  Amina had been sitting on a small earthen rise next to her daughter’s casket (think of a primitive wooden casket from the Old West) with Siouxanne comforting her.  As the minister continued speaking, two men knelt down and arranged the lid of the coffin.  One began pounding a large nail into the outer edge of the lid with a round metal rod the size of a police baton.  This was especially disturbing to Amina, for obvious reasons.  The whole scene was unforgettable.  Four nails later, he was done.  The men picked up the coffin and walked it a few yards over to the deep grave freshly dug in the red soil and surrounded by piles of dirt.  I asked one of the orphanage mamas if it would be OK for me to move closer to see.  She said it would be fine — many of the villagers were getting closer.  I ended up two yards from the grave.  The father lowered himself into it and helped situate the coffin.  When he came back up, the men arranged some other things in the grave to solidify it in place.  The minister said a few more words, and then the man closest to Amina took a shovel and scooped up half a shovel-full of dirt.  He handed it towards Amina, but she didn’t take it.  He gently tossed it into the grave.  This began the burial process.  Amina took a handful of dirt and tossed it onto her daughter’s coffin.  Apparently it is customary for whoever wants to toss a handful of dirt onto the coffin.  It seems to be a cultural sign of compassion and care, perhaps like an American funeral where we place flowers onto the casket or toss them into the grave as we leave the gravesite.  I scooped up some red dirt with both hands and tossed it in.  As the villagers continued to take their turns, the men began shoveling the dirt back into the grave.  They did this until the hole had turned into a small mound.

At this point everyone turned and walked back around the corner to where everyone had been gathered when we first arrived..  A few people greeted Amina, but it was mostly the people we had come with from the orphanage.  They cared very deeply for her.  As we left most in our group gave her money, trying to be discreet so as to lessen the risk of it being stolen from her.  Then we took the short walk back to the van as the kids from the village followed curiously.

Later that night two of the volunteers told us about Fiona’s deformities.  They said her stomach was about the size of a mayonnaise jar but her ribs were the size of a small basketball.  Perhaps like an exaggerated hourglass.  Her organs were all misplaced for one reason or another.  You could feel it.  He legs were turned sharply to the side, at a ninety-degree angle to her upper body.  She had seizures, but the local hospital wouldn’t run the proper tests, probably for financial reasons.  This just scratches the surface of her medical problems.  Yet her mother Amina had taken care of her for a full seven years, even after her husband had abandoned her.  She had chosen not to work and instead to take care of Fiona full-time.  I have no idea how she (the mother) survived.  The volunteers said that everything the mother owned was shared with Fiona.  They lived in a room the size of a closet.  Amina’s bed was Fiona’s bed.  The wrapped skirt she wore at the funeral was what she had used to carry Fiona with.  The volunteers said that Amina smelled like Fiona when they hugged her.  There is a tenacity in a mother’s love that is no less beautiful for its ruggedness.

The person who treated Amina (the mother) most compassionately throughout the entire funeral was Siouxanne, the American orphanage nurse (and a mzungu) who’s been at the orphanage for two years.  She was the one who had made sure that a Christian man would speak at the funeral even though the absent father was a Muslim (and even though he was allowing Fiona to be buried on his property in the village — perhaps his single pathetic act of care for his deformed daughter over seven years).  Siouxanne knelt next to Amina, prayed over her, wept with her, and held her in front of a hundred pairs of distant eyes.  She had cared for Fiona medically while she was alive.  Now she would love Fiona’s mother when Fiona was gone.  Her love stood out.  The minister commented on how much Siouxanne loved Amina and Fiona.  He knew because of the tears.

Compassion doesn’t have a skin color.  Jesus was not a white middle-class American, contrary to common depictions.  But if you are a white middle-class American visiting or serving in Africa, I would hope that people might begin to wonder if maybe He was.

As for me, I’ve never helped lead a funeral in any way (and wasn’t planning to for a while).  Much less one for the seven-year-old handicapped daughter of a single mother I just heard about in a village in Africa with a hundred village people I’ve never met, with three hours to think about it.  But none of that matters.  I would’ve preferred that someone else preach — someone closer to the family, someone who’s experienced African funerals, someone who knows the culture, someone who knows the people in the village, someone who speaks Lugandan — someone besides an adopting father visiting from America.  But life and ministry is not about preference and comfort.  Sometimes it’s not even about preparation.  It’s about call and obedience.  So what do you do?  You say “Yes,” you pray, and then you stand and deliver.

Please pray for Amina — for her salvation, for her comfort, and for provision.  Pray for her husband and for their village.  Pray that the love of Christ heard in word and seen in deed yesterday would pierce their hearts.  Pray that their visit to the house of mourning would not be in vain.

Yesterday an entire village saw the curse and heard the gospel.  Today may salvation visit that village, to the glory of the Son.  Today may they see that Christ is all, in death and in life.


9 thoughts on “Gospel and Shovel: A Village Funeral

  1. Wow! His word is powerful and you are faithful. Thank you for sharing your experience and giving us a window to Uganda. We hope you and Cindi and Judah are home soon!

    Dave & Vicky (Rachel’s parents)

  2. I was just reading in II Corinthians this morning and the following passage (2:14-17) stood out:

    “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.”

    This passage reminded me so clearly of how to pray for both of you, and also served as a testimony of why God chose to use you to speak out at the funeral of a tiny, precious girl you never met. Thank you for your faithfulness in offering yourself to serve God’s purposes, in sincerity preaching Christ. The aroma of your life in sharing the truth will not only please God but will touch the lives of many others. And thanks for sharing the powerful story with the rest of us. Praying that Amina will smell the sweet fragrance of God’s love and be brought from “life to life”. Love you guys.

  3. I found this paragraph while reading the other day and was reminded of it while reading your words.

    “God is in the business of strategically positioning us in the right place at the right time. A sense of destiny is our birthright as followers of Christ. God is awfully good at getting us where He wants us to go. But here’s the catch: The right place often seems like the wrong place, and the right time often seems like the wrong time.”

  4. Gunner and Cindi,
    Prsies the Lord for how He uses broken vessels for His glory. We are praying for you at PBC.
    We are excited to see all of you soon, Lord willing.

  5. Gunner, thank you for writing this. I had a similar experience when I was in Uganda and reading and praying through yours served to remind me of the power of the Gospel, the brutality of sin, and the thrill of living in faithful obedience.

  6. I am overwhelmed with the magnitude of what God is doing in our lives. I have been led to pray the full armour of God through this journey and am seeing that God’s plans are so much BIGGER than ours. I praise Him for His faithfulness and graciousness that He allows us to see His plan unfold before our eyes. Each time, His love for the fatherless brings me to my knees. Oh, that I can grasp the depth of His love AND share it FULLY with others. He has led me toward an obedience that calls me to “poured out as an offering for Him.” He whispers this gentle reminder to me daily. How we pray for you! May God richly bless you as you follow Him!

  7. Thank you.Thank you for having the heart of the Father…it is so obvious in your writings. You have a way of writing and sharing tht makes me feel as though I am standing right there next to all of you. Thank you for having a heart for Judah, the patience of waiting until the right time, the knowledge and understanding of God’s leading you and Cindi by His Spirit.Thank you for having insight into God’s love for all. I grieve and pray for Amina.

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