Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Words, Handshakes & Hugs

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to practice this simple ministry of presence…But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories, and tell your own, then to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but you truly love them.” Henri J. M. Nouwen, Dutch Catholic Priest, writer and theologian

This desire to be present with people, to know them….really know them lives somewhere deep inside of my soul. I long for meaningful relationships. I long to know people in their own context. I long to hear their stories and to tell them mine. So this week, I sat on doorsteps and listened to my neighbors. I walked around Kampala, greeted people with a Ugandan handshake and entered their homes for a cup of tea. I listened as well as I talked. I hugged them and tried hard to communicate that I do not simply like them, but I truly love them.

Like Henri Nouwen, I have chosen to pattern my life after Jesus and practice this simple ministry of presence. We follow a savior who loved those he encountered in real and tangible ways. For him love was an action, not just a fickle emotion. Love was not quantified as big or small or as meaningful or insignificant. It was just love. Now as I model myself after him, I am trying to love like he did.

Over the last month it has slowly sunk in that I live in Africa. I am not just visiting. I live here day to day in an apartment with friends. I use public transportation and am slowly learning L’Ugandan. I have slowly gotten used to the fact that I am the only muzungu, white person, in my neighborhood. Mosquitoes bite me on an hourly basis. New red welts seem to appear each day. Veronica keeps telling me that the African mosquitoes are enjoying my fresh American blood. I guess it is a nice change for them. I sleep under a treated mosquito net and have never been so grateful to do so. I am hot from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed. I am always sweating. It is my new normal. I bathe in a small rubber tub and have now gotten better at getting my whole head in that small tub. I never realized how complex it is to wash my hair. Drying my hair has now become a luxury as we have electricity about 60% of the time. It now takes 2 hours to prepare a meal over the charcoal stove out side our apartment. Since, I have no idea how to make matooke or chapatti, my job is to hold the flashlight and stir the rice. There is no big story here. It is just life here in Kitintale. However, somewhere in the midst of these normal everyday experiences, I have known and loved people this week with words, handshakes and hugs.

Last Tuesday, I left the Corner Stone office to begin creating relationships with the orphans and vulnerable girls at the Ntinda Girls Youth Core Home. As we pulled up to the concrete house I was suddenly nervous. I am not often nervous around children as I work with them on a daily basis, but yet suddenly my heart was beating. What would they think of a 35 year old muzungu entering their home, disrupting their daily routine? As I stepped onto the red dusty road, I asked the Lord to help me form a connection with these street children. My life has been the polar opposite of theirs. I wondered if I could even really comprehend the sorrow and pain of being an African orphan. As I entered the gate, I found 3 girls washing their clothes in a tub beside the house. As they looked up from their wash they smiled, greeted me and invited me over. I quickly retrieved the picture of Mary Kabi and from my purse. Mary is a special mentor to these girls. Their smiles broadened even more and they began to ask question after question about Mary. Other girls then came out of the house and I was introduced as a friend of Mary. At that point, the girls ushered me into the house saying, “You are most welcome.” I smiled and shook each of their hands.

I toured each girl’s bunk in each room oohing and ahhing over their few possessions. We laughed about pictures of famous male actors they had on the walls and examined each other’s nail polish. Then I walked out to the main sitting room where the girls were listening and dancing to some rap music. They were startled when I came in and then broke down in hilarious laughter when they realized that I had caught them busting a move. This seemed like a moment to show that I may be 35 and every bit the awkward muzungu, but I have some moves of my own; so I started shaking to the beat. Now loud raucous laughter filled that place. After doing my best Saturday Night Fever impression, I suddenly decided that it was best to quit while I was ahead as far as the dancing goes, so I sat on the floor next to these girls and watched them play a board game. It wasn’t long before I was invited to play. They beat me soundly, but I left that house feeling every bit the winner. We had begun to know each other. Relationships had slowly begun to form. As I left the girls hugged me and begged me to come back. I was present with them and that made all the difference.

Veronica and her high school friends left on Saturday morning for Mbale, a rural area about four hours east of the city. They were going out to that village to tell them about the love of Jesus and to pray with them. I was moved at their love for their fellow Ugandans, especially those who are the least among them. Shortly after they left, Johnson Iwondo came to the door. He greeted me with his trademark smile. I was elated to see my dear friend. I have known Johnson for 5 years and watched him go from an orphaned boy to a confident man of God. It is like watching a caterpillar become a beautiful butterfly.

Johnson was orphaned at 11 and left with 3 other siblings to raise. Terrified and hungry he sought out help from World Vision. He was then sponsored, mentored and discipled by loving World Vision staff. In 2002 he came to my church in Minnesota to tell his story: the story of how God rescues orphans. Several weeks before Johnson and the World Vision staff came; a man named Bob called the Minneapolis World Vision office asking to meet the Ugandans. Bob lived in Stillwater, a small town about an hour north of the Twin Cities. He wanted us to drive up to Stillwater in order to show them a wheelchair he had developed. This wheelchair was equipped with mountain bike tires and was durable enough for the rugged terrain of rural Uganda. Bob was hoping our Ugandan guests would be able to give him some much-needed feedback about his design.

Our local World Vision staff listened politely to Bob’s story and then suggested he contact some other mission agencies that specialized in medical devices. However, Bob continued to call three more times each time demanding to see the Ugandans and not willing to take no for an answer. Finally, in order to appease Bob, we decided to take a morning trip to Stillwater. This trip seemed so strange and quite frankly like a total waste of time, but Bob’s persistence paid off.

So Tuesday morning arrived and Jeff, one of our local World Vision representatives, took Johnson and several others up to the quiet town of Stillwater. As they approached Bob’s house, Jeff almost apologetically explained about Bob’s wheelchair and how insistent he had been about their visit. Jeff then noticed that Johnson’s demeanor changed slightly and asked if he was feeling okay. Johnson assured him that he was feeling fine and they proceeded on to Bob’s house.

After the short introductions, Bob pointed out his wheelchair and demonstrated its usage. The whole event had not taken more than five minutes and Jeff was wondering if this whole trip had really been worth it. Almost as an afterthought, Bob casually asked if they knew of any disabled Ugandan men or women who would be willing to test it out free of charge. At this point, Johnson fell to his knees and began to sob. Needless to say, Jeff became very alarmed and rushed to his side. As we comforted him, Jeff pleaded with him to explain what had upset him so much. Had we done or said something to hurt or offend him? In between sobs, Johnson explained that there was something about his story that we didn’t know.

As we continued to hold him, we explained that his closest brother in age was born with cerebral palsy and had spent 17 years of his life dragging himself on his belly through the dirt with his deformed shaky arms. He had never attended school and had never been more than 50 feet from their house. While the other siblings were in school, he stayed by the house unable to meet his own basic needs. His brother’s name was John and he didn’t eat unless someone came and fed him and had to wet himself if there was no one to help him use the latrine. Johnson then explained that John spent most of his time in prayer. He prayed for Johnson, his other brothers and sisters and he praised God. However, his most fervent prayer was for a wheelchair. Just before Johnson left for the United States, John told him that God was going to give him a wheelchair. Johnson pleaded with his brother to be patient and that he would get him one as soon as he graduated from college. So, when Bob offered this wheelchair to Johnson, he was overwhelmed at God’s faithfulness. Suddenly, he began shouting, “God has done a miracle! God has done a miracle!” At this point we were all crying huge tears of indescribable joy.

A couple of weeks later, we sent a camera back with Johnson to film that moment when God’s faithfulness became reality to John. It was incredibly moving to watch Johnson lift his brother out of the red clay dust into this wheelchair. John began to shake violently with excitement and to try to clap his hands. He was shouting in his palsied voice, “My God is so mighty! My God is so mighty!” It was truly a glimpse of God’s glory.

As we sat in Veronica’s sitting room reliving that moment when God came close to us and provided a wheelchair for his brother John, we both shook our heads and marveled at God’s great mercy and tender care for the poor. Johnson told me that he woke up in the middle of the night after telling John about the wheelchair and heard John praying loudly thanking God for his faithfulness and telling God over and over that he will serve him with his life. Johnson said that John stayed awake all night praising the Lord. I could feel this great swell of emotion rising up imagining this disabled man using his shaky voice and palsied arms to sing and pray to God all night long. John is doing well at a school for disabled people here in Kampala and becoming much more independent every day. It is amazing how carefully God protects the poor and the needy.

After talking for some time, we left for the market to buy some meat. (Picture at top) As we approached the meat vendor, the man started loudly shouting “my muzungu, my muzungu.” It is at those times that I am reminded how odd it is that I live in this neighborhood. We then proceeded to the vegetable market where Johnson paid for my every need. He then invited another World Vision co worker to come over to our house and cook for us. She made a feast of matooke, rice and vegetables. Over dinner Johnson talked about his excitement and challenges in working for World Vision in an ADP in the far west. There is fighting there and he lives with gunshots every day. I asked him if he is afraid, but he told me that he believes that God has rescued him to rescue others, so he feels he has nothing to fear. He has used his own story countless times to encourage other orphans in his ADP. Isn’t’ beautiful to see God rescue someone only to use him to rescue others. Incredible!

On Sunday, Johnson again came to my home to take me to church. We went to a large church here in Kampala and worshipped together. I was there before the Lord with my African brother and I enjoyed every moment of it. Johnson then took me to lunch at a hotel near the church. He did not allow me to pay for anything. He treated me like an honored guest and I was so honored to receive his love and care. After lunch we walked down to the bus park. The bus park is a large area teeming with busses going in a thousand different directions. Imagine 500 hundred mini busses parked inches from each other with conductors shouting for passengers and hundreds of people milling around. Immediately, Johnson noticed my sense of being overwhelmed and grabbed my hand.
After getting on the right bus, we proceeded to Johnson’s new house. It is a lovely peaceful place and will make a good home for him and his future bride. We then sat in his house and just enjoyed being together. We really celebrated God’s incredible goodness. As we left his house I was able to talk to Johnson’s fiancé, Agnes, on the phone. I can’t wait to meet this wonderful Godly woman. I can’t wait to attend his wedding in October!

I am so proud of who Johnson has become. He is a Godly man with wisdom beyond his years. He has allowed God to heal his pain so that it can be used to encourage other children. I am glad that God has connected us and allowed us to have a deep meaningful friendship. He is my African brother and I am his American sister. I encouraged him as he grew into a man and now he has taken care of me. Here is this man that I have cared for over the last few years, this former orphan—who is now caring for my every need—he paid for my meals all weekend, he paid for my transport, he made me feel comfortable in the city, he shared his hopes and dreams with me. Is that how God works? The privileged American can be loved by a former orphan-- just as God promised-- his Kingdom will be shown through the poor. He will bless those who are weak and needy lifting them up and giving them great blessings. In God’s economy the poor become rich and the rich become poor and in the midst of it all God’s love reigns.

As an American, we long to be a part of something big. We want to feed thousands of people, save the lives of many, provide shelter for the most needy. We want to be part of some big work that makes for an eye-popping story that makes others weep. Rarely do we long to love simply—to be a part of something small. We aren’t as desperate to know and be known by those around us as much as we are desperate to do something great. This week I have started to let go of my American need to do something great and have begun to embrace the small and the seemingly insignificant. I have loved and allowed myself to be loved.

Update on my life:

I spent a majority of my week getting my bearings. Most mornings I attended chapel at the head office for World Vision here in Kampala and then most afternoons with Corner Stone, a ministry to orphans and vulnerable children. Corner Stone allowed me to visit two of their 5 guardian homes. There are 5 youth core homes here in Kampala, two homes in the Gulu area, one home in Rwanda, one home in Burundi and one home in southern Sudan. Corner Stone’s programs for these vulnerable children are vast and comprehensive and I feel I have just scratched the surface. I also was able to travel an hour outside the city to visit the Leadership Academy for Girls. This Academy is a residential high school for the most needy with the most leadership potential. The girls there are taught leadership skills alongside their regular curriculum. They also attend chapel each week and are discipled by mentors. These girls are empowered, articulate, intelligent and joyful. I was incredibly impressed. This coming week I will be traveling two hours outside the city to the Ranch, the Leadership Academy for boys. I will spend the night and get a better sense of what happens on the ranch.

This last week I also visited the International School in Lubowa, 8 kilometers outside of Kampala. This school follows the International Baccalaureate curriculum. This is the same curriculum that my school in the States follows. It was so fascinating to see how they have implemented this curriculum. There are many American, European and other diplomat children at this school. It is by far the most beautiful school I have ever seen. The headmaster invited me into his office and explained that there was a 5th grade opening and all but offered me the job. It is a paid position complete with a house near the school. I was overwhelmed at the thought of it knowing how hard this kind of decision would be for my family and close friends. The headmaster has asked me to at least interview next week. I never want to burn bridges, so I will interview and then pray about it. I have prayed for years that if I lived in Africa, I would have a paying job. At the very least God is showing me that this kind of life is possible.

I will also travel up to Gulu in the next couple of weeks and possibly to Rwanda. Next week I will start volunteering for an abandoned babies home here in town. You know what a soft heart I have for babies.

Well, life here is different every day, but I will try to keep you as much in the loop as I can. In fact, I woke up Saturday morning to some kind of loud screeching. As I looked outside I noticed that a HUGE turkey was tied next to our home. A friend of Veronica had given her a turkey. It has now been here for 3 days. Patrick, Veronica’s brother, will slaughter it tomorrow as May 1st is a national holiday here. I have to tell you I am tired of waking up at dawn to its LOUD gobbling.

Great News!!!! I was able to upload all my pictures. Just click the link on this blog site and enjoy!

Much love,

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As I sit in my climate-controlled office in Edina I am in awe at your courage & strength as you experience God's love a world away. Continued prayers...Lisa (& Dave)