Monday, November 28, 2011

the best $140 i ever spent

-posted by Thomas-
As I reached the crest of the hill and made a right along the dirt road my eyes caught something that made my heart jump.  Thirty yards ahead, walking in single file towards the same building as me was a row of young men dressed in suits and ties.  My heart began racing as excitement, affection, zeal, and curiosity swirled inside of me.  At that moment I thought, “Today I spent possibly the best $140 of my life.”  Now, I have made many financial investments that I do not regret.  I am proud to say I have invested money in God’s kingdom many times - but this one was special.   I don’t know that I will ever have such a simple opportunity to do something so meaningful again.  At the risk of being long and boring, I beg you to allow me to share this story from the beginning.    
     I believe it was around the year 2006 (it could have been a little earlier) I was first introduced to an organization/movement called “Invisible Children.”  Invisible Children is a multi-million dollar charity organization that began with 3 young men from California.  They wanted to do something significant with their lives so they decided to document their very own journey into war-torn parts of Africa.  Their goal was to experience the suffering of these people first-hand and somehow go home to raise awareness.  Their journey  led them to northern Uganda, to a city called Gulu.  During the late 90’s and even the first four years of this century northern Uganda was continually terrorized by a rebel army that ruthlessly murdered, raped, destroyed, stole, and most notoriously abducted children and forced them to be soldiers.  Uganda was unstable politically and economically and the gov’t was unable to provide protection to the people living in this region.  It was either leave your home and possessions and flee – or live each day with the risk of your worst nightmares.  

            By the time I was exposed to the “Invisible Children” documentary created by these 3 young men, most of the damage in Uganda was over.  The rebel army had taken refuge in neighboring unstable countries and northern Uganda was beginning to try to “pick up the pieces” of its society.  Invisible Children continued to produce riveting videos of the struggles of people in Gulu.  I watched, read, and soaked up everything they produced over the next four years.  I watched stories of pre-teens and teens who were given a gun and forced to kill; who were raped and now carried the child of their abuser; youth with scars and mangled limbs left to begin their lives over again.  Northern Uganda was now “safe” but the lives of these young people would never be the same.  Eventually we began hosting Invisible Children events at our church.  Some of our youth became Invisible Children “junkies” as well.  Long before I knew about Watoto, I was praying for the young people of Gulu whose lives had been devastated by evils which I could scarcely fathom as realities.
      Then, as so many of you know, in the spring of 2010 I was introduced to Watoto Church and Watoto Childcare Ministries.  I was elated to discover that in a war-torn, HIV devastated, economically challenged, politically unstable place like Uganda – God had raised up a world-class church to bring healing and hope.  I soon learned that Watoto was ministering in Gulu!  When my family came to volunteer for six weeks in February, we were privileged to travel to Gulu at the end of our very first week.  I was honestly lost for words to see the quality of ministry and outreach that Watoto had done in Gulu:  a local church, a baby’s home, a children’s village, day programs for HIV women, and counseling for trauma victims.  Then I discovered that Watoto had even taken about 30 war-affected students from a cheap make-shift government school and brought them to one of their villages.  

          During our first six weeks at Suubi I met one of these young men, named Patrick.  Patrick shared his testimony with me and he became friends with our entire family.  When we returned to Suubi in July, I still had a great curiosity for the Gulu students.  I discovered that they were all placed in a 3 year vocational program because they were too far behind in regular school.  Most of them had lost many years of their education to the war.  Over the last 3 months I have slowly had the privilege of meeting a few more of these students and even teaching some in a discipleship class.  I wanted so bad to just sit them down and ask them – what all happened to you during the war?  When were you abducted?  Did you kill people?  How did you escape?  But living with them opened up my eyes to the fact that these young men wanted to be normal again.  They did not want to spend the rest of their lives talking about those nightmares.  They wanted to study, play soccer, and talk about the future.  So I have politely constrained my curiosity out of respect for them. 

 Eventually I came to learn that the Gulu students were going to graduate Dec 2 from their vocational program in a joint graduation service with the high school students.  This would mark the end of an era for Watoto.  These young men would now enter trade school or return home to work.  Suubi village would still be home to hundreds of miracles because every Watoto child is a miracle.  But to have former child soldiers, who have been saved from the darkest clutch of evil, is just special.  To worship beside someone who was the victim of some of the most heinous crimes against humanity in this decade is simply remarkable.  To see them smile, sing, clap, and dance in God’s presence is like a tonic of inspiration for an American like me.  I began to ask around, and I found that there would be no special recognition or celebration for them.  They would leave Suubi quietly and spread back out into the fabric of Uganda to be the salt and light that Watoto envisioned.  

       About two weeks ago I just couldn’t help it.  I went to the director of the vocational department and asked him about the possibility of someone like myself funding an appreciation dinner for these Gulu boys.  He went to work on the possibility and informed me that for about $140 US we could pull off such a gig.  So we set Sunday evening November 28th at 6pm as our date.  The boys were invited as well as their vocational teachers.  At first I was torn about the cost.   Our monthly budget of $2000 doesn’t include $140 appreciation meals for people I barely know but happen to be enamored with.  We have “cushion” money in our bank account that is supposed to be used wisely and sparingly along the way.  I live each week here with the sharp reality that we simply do not know how long our support will last . . . but these were the Gulu boys!  So my emotions have see-sawed for a week now between pride/excitement and worry/regret.  I love to do things like this but I know I didn’t come to Uganda just to play Santa Claus (no pun intended towards my current facebook profile pic).  But when I topped that hill and saw those eight dressed in the finest clothes they owned walking towards the classroom that would serve as our dining hall – I knew I had made the right choice.  I rarely see students on the village in suits – suits are only for very special occasions.  Most of the time I see the Gulu boys in old shirts and pants that are too short for them.  So the suits told me that these boys were feeling honored.

 pictured here is David and Patrick, two boys I have been able to meet with and disciple on a weekly basis.  to hear David's story, you can watch this video link from you tube.  the video was filmed here at Suubi Village.  
    Our evening with them was absolutely heavenly.  They were all so grateful.  We had to bring forks from our house for them to eat with (in Africa it is common to be invited to a meal with a “bring your own cup, plate, and/or silverware” policy).  

  After we had all introduced ourselves and eaten to our hearts content, I gave them a short speech/sermon.  I told them what an inspiration they were to me and many others back in America and I encouraged them to keep their hopes high during their transition time.  Then we opened the floor for them to speak.  We all realized once we were together that this would be their one and only chance to process their graduation and upcoming transitions together.  About ten of them addressed the crowd with parables, wise sayings, gratitude, exhortations to keep focused on Christ, and even crazy stories of memories they had made together (jumping off bridges naked).  Their teachers also encouraged them and then we prayed for them.  Then they sang some praise songs for us in English and Acholi – there are no words to describe what those moments meant to me.  At 10pm, with huge smiles and hugs they all disappeared into the night to walk ¾ mile in the dark back home.  As we left, Mika said, “If you don’t blog about this I am.”  It’s 1:20 am as I wrap this up but my heart is still overflowing with awe and fulfillment.  Who am I that God has allowed my grandest dreams to come true?  In 5 years time, I went from watching Invisible Children Videos to eating dinner with former child soldiers and listening to them worship.  The same grace that snatched them from their hellish circumstances has chosen to intersect my life with theirs.  I am humbled at the thought.  If you actually read this whole thing – God bless you for being such a kind and enduring friend.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

just this morning, i looked down at the display screen on our printer and it tells me it is November 16.  i did a double take.  is it really??  i mean, i KNOW it is November, but sometimes i forget.  none of my usual reference points for November are present here - no bare branches, crunchy leaves, bonfires, and fall decor.  no plans to leave in a few days to make our annual drive over the mountains to spend Thanksgiving with T's family in NC.  most of our new friends and neighbors here don't even know what Thanksgiving is!  but i'm making plans to bring in the holidays next week with as much style as possible.  i've been looking up homemade craft ideas on the internet.  we got a canned ham in a care package, which will be the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving meal. (if that's not stylish, i don't know what is!)  :)  i did find out that i can go into Kampala and put my name on a list to order a turkey, and i would get a turkey, along with a dry mix for dressing, all for only $150!  - yeah, ummm, that's not happening. 

so, it's November.  we've been here 4 mo. now, and i've not done a very good job of blogging about what we actually DO on a weekly basis.  T's routine is much more interesting and varied than mine.  he is responsible for writing all the daily devotional curriculum for the primary schools at Watoto's three villages.  on Mondays, he leads assemblies for the primary schools here at Suubi and concludes the week by leading chapels on Fridays.  during the week, he also teaches during the high school's discipleship sessions both here and at Bbira Village.  speaking and writing... he does a lot of both of these things right now!  he also has times throughout the week where he meets with the youth workers and student leaders to invest in and mentor them spiritually.  then, of course, there are the basketball teams that he coaches (sr. boys, jr. boys, and girls).  4 evenings a wk there are practices (5pm- 7pm), and then scrimmages on Sunday afternoons.  this may sound like a pretty busy schedule, but, really, he is still with the family a lot, since most of these appointments happen within a mile of our house.

as far as what the kids and i do... we like to join T with his schedule whenever it is convenient.  getting our schoolwork done everyday is priority.  well, i MAKE it priority, then, as soon as it is done, the boys make a new #1 priority - climbing trees, creating weapons with friends (sling shots and bows&arrows), and guarding the gardens from the monkeys.  Reynah's only priority these days is looking cute and making messes.  she does this very well.  as i elaborated on in an earlier post, managing our house and cooking meals takes up a good chunk of my time.  i've intentionally not taken on any extra commitments so far.  i've been asked to help with the Watoto mums' English skills by writing assessment materials for them to test with.  i hope to start this the first of next year.  i'm excited about the thought of putting my ESL background to use here.  but, for now, i have wanted to focus on helping my family adjust and just learn how to function here.  my contribution to Suubi Village is purely relational - visiting kids in their homes, having girls over to help me cook and hang out, hosting parties and meals.  of course, there are special events on the calendar that i love being a part of too.  there have been several of those that i have thought to myself i should post pic. of on here... and i just haven't done it.  but i HAVE to document our most recent special occasion, because, it was just, well... so special!

while we were in the States in the spring, we had a "Bibles for Homes Campaign" where we raised money to purchase an illustrated children's Bible to put in each Watoto home.  we realized while here earlier this year how fascinated the Watoto kids were with Josiah and Judah's Bibles.  they would come to our apartment and sit (literally) for 45min - 1 hour looking through the pages at the Bible stories come to life.  they had never seen such Biblical illustrations to capture their imaginations before.  Friends in the U.S. gave generously and we bought over 300 Bibles (the very same kind our boys have)- one for each home on Suubi, Bbira, and Laminadera Villages. the Bibles were then brought over in the suitcases of a visiting team from the States.  two weeks ago, we were able to start distributing them, first at Bbira Village and then at Suubi last week.  it was a delightful experience to meet with all the mums and encourage them to be a spiritual parent and disciple their children - not only to encourage, but to EMPOWER them by putting the Bible in their hands.  

i sat studying the faces of the Suubi mums last Friday.  some of them i've been able to become friends with, but there are sooo many stories i yet want to hear.  most of these women have experienced unthinkable rejection and grief... the neglected daughter of a second-wife, the war-widow, the AIDS widow... the vulnerable woman who needed Watoto as much as Watoto needed her.  and now she is here raising 8 children 24/7 as a single-mom, cooking over charcoal, washing laundry by hand, the most significant person that God will use to shape these rescued ones in her home.  it was powerfully humbling for me to stand up then and affirm them.  i just had to tell them that i loved them, even if i hadn't yet met them, and that they are doing an amazing job - that they are my heroes.  i think my face was shaded red while i spoke to them, not from embarrassment, but from an unexpected fervency for them to feel loved and valued.  i so wished i could cup each one of their faces and tell her she is a beautiful and important daughter of God!

anyway, the mums were beyond grateful for the Bibles.  when we bought them, we had the children in mind, but soon realized that the mums were just as interested in reading them for themselves.  for many of them, it is the first time they can read the Bible in such simple English.  in fact, Mama Victoria met me outside before church Sunday, pulled her Bible out of her bag, and said, "i have already completed it!  i loved it!" 

we can't wait to make plans soon to travel up north-country to Watoto's Laminadera Village in Gulu and do the same distribution there.  and i can't wait to find ways to befriend, honor, and learn from these sweet mama's here.  they are heros, indeed!

here's a few pics from our time with the mums at Bbira...