Ordinary people, extraordinary circumstances

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This is one of those posts which I wrote a few months ago, but it addresses our personal experience on the ground amidst foreign political tensions. I went back and forth choosing whether or not to post it, but in the end I decided I’d go for it. I hope you find it uniquely informative and entertaining.

Local elections were held on the 15th of last month in Arua. The last local representative from this region had been assassinated a couple of months prior and, with that still fresh in mind, the people showed up to the polls filled with suspicion and anger. The president of Uganda and many other members of parliament (MP’s) came to town to witness the elections, which, since no one thought that was peculiar, I believe was politics as usual. But, protests and demonstrations quickly turned to riots in town which were met with a heavy hand by police and national guard. Perhaps you have heard something of this already; what transpired has reached international news agencies.

Fortunately, we live a relatively safe distance outside of town and simply planned to stay home until the tensions passed. We had anticipated some trouble and had a bit of food and other necessities stored up. Then came a game-changing phone call. “Your children’s student passes have been approved and you need to travel to Kampala immediately to receive them. If you are not there by Tuesday (the 14th)  you could face a fine of over $1,000 U$D,” we were told. So, early Monday morning we hopped in the car and left for Kampala. Just over an hour into the trip we started having car trouble. Our route is not a good one to be stranded on with a broken vehicle, so we turned back and made it home. After much prayer and discussion we decided that I would take the night bus with the girls and Sal would remain home with the dogs. Later that morning Sal rode into town to purchase the tickets for us. By that time demonstrations had already begun in force, but, whereas it took a long time, he got in and out without incident.

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Meanwhile the girls, carefree, spend a relaxing afternoon under a mango tree

Throughout the day we heard distant sounds of demonstrators clashing with law enforcement and received a constant stream of information through social media of what people had seen or heard. We contacted the bus line and arranged to be picked up outside of town just past 10 pm. That night, for the very first time, our trusted motorcycle taxi man (“boda driver”) showed up early. He was anxious to get us onto the bus and return home to his own family. He and two other boda drivers carried Sal, the girls and I to where we had arranged to meet the bus.

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For lack of relevant photo, enjoy this cute one of Hadassah on a particular day she was feeling homesick and digging into her Wyoming roots.

Initially things were calm enough. Then a small group of demonstrators identifying themselves as “The Resistance” by their red headbands came marching by and chanting. I won’t tell you what they were saying but it was enough to get themselves in plenty of trouble. Our boda man and Sal were laughing together, making light of the situation and finding things and people to poke fun at to pass the time. I was chatting quietly with the girls who teeter-tottered between worry and curiosity. When police and national guard began rolling past us, even our boda man became alert and started to look worried. It was a selfish prayer, but I kept asking God to allow things to remain peaceful another 10 minutes or so until we were on the bus and Sal on his way back home.

When we finally spotted the headlights of the bus coming up the road we all sighed a grateful prayer and breath of relief. We had been watching as all the commotion moved gradually up the road, drawing continually closer to our position. We were playing chicken with the turmoil, hoping the bus would arrive before it drew too close. And praise God it did! Sal and I said a hasty goodbye and I moved to quickly settle the girls into their seats for the night as the bus wasted no time in getting back on the road.

When I sat down I texted Sal and apologized for not giving him a kiss goodbye. In all the stories the valiant couple always stop time long enough for an epic romantic embrace before turning to face the oncoming danger before them. I was a bit disappointed in myself to discover that, when circumstances demanded it, I was pathetically deficient in the romance department. I had the perfect plot painted around me: approaching danger just over the horizon, unfair demands pulling us apart, a sad and uncertain sending away, a brave knight seeing his beloved to safety. And I  totally ruined the moment with a hurried “See you later honey,” as I scrambled onto the

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A parting like this would have been so much better.

bus behind the girls.  As Sal rode home to safety, and the girls and I moved south and away from the turmoil, I made a silent promise to myself to be much more epic the next time.

The rest of the story is far less dramatic. Sal fortified our home “just in case” (and to pass the time). The girls and I stepped off the bus in the morning and headed to immigration to finalize their paperwork, which went well. Then we hung out in Kampala for a few days to let the northern turmoil subside a bit. Although the protests did make it as far as the capital, our closest encounter was when our Uber driver drove like a maniac to weave his way through the traffic jams they were causing. I’m pretty sure that at that moment, our Uber cab was a far more dangerous place to be.

We took another night bus when we returned to Arua. We must have been served some bad food just prior because two of the girls had the runs. There are no bathrooms on Ugandan buses. Just as I was deciding to ask the bus driver to stop on the side of the road so that my girls could relieve themselves out in the African bush in the dark of the night, Arua came into view on the GPS map on my phone. I comforted my girls with those words all moms are familiar with: “Just a little longer honey; we’re almost there.”

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Talai enjoying pancakes, a special treat courtesy the big city, on the morning we arrived to Kampala

When we got home we quickly used the bathroom and crashed into our beds. We didn’t wake up until midday. As Sal and I decompressed the whole series of events together, we realized how exhausted we were and did a bit more sleeping. Two days later Mila became very sick and tested positive for malaria. I won’t go into detail except to say that malaria is a wretched disease and Mila has since recovered well.

Circumstances have been driving me to my knees with increased intensity. Before one challenge I bring before God has passed, we are already confronting another. Mila is starting to feel better and Hadassah suddenly comes down with some strange virus. We raise just enough money for a project in the refugee camps and then our car breaks down. Political tensions subside and we hear a case of Ebola has been documented only 20 miles from us. It is far too easy to get bogged down or discouraged over our challenges. But God, in His typical way, has changed my heart instead of my circumstances. Not that long ago, I was in that state of culture shock where you are TheTruthWillSetYouFreetaking everything  in while remaining on top of and at a distance from it all. It’s kind of like a job orientation where you are being guided through your new circumstances and responsibilities but don’t yet fully claim them as your own. I’ve experienced that overwhelming and exhilarating sensation of the first day on the job when things get real. But I must say, I often feel like a manager who was thrust into their position unprepared and under-qualified. The physical, emotional and spiritual needs we confront on a daily basis are so great that it’s easy to forget that we carry the hope of the greatest gift of all within us: the freedom-giving Gospel and Christ Himself.

So now, life has pretty much continued as normal. We’re involved in various children’s programs and working on starting a system of libraries which I am very excited about. Within the next couple of months we should have a community library in Arua functioning as well as a mobile library running in various parts of Rhino Refugee Camp. I’ll share more about this vision and project in a future post. We face a constant pressure to do more as we’re continually met with such great need, but that is also a thought for a later post.

As a journalist I find myself analyzing these current events, guessing at what roads they might take the country of Uganda down. In less than three years the presidential elections will take place and the fate of the nation rests on the shoulders of a generation in which 80% of the population are under the age of 30. As an anthropologist I am trying to get inside people’s heads to figure out why they are the way they are. Complexities of culture and tradition run deeply here. As a feminist I’m crying over women’s unjust struggles and brainstorming ways to level the playing field. As a mother I’m sitting in the dirt with kids, trying to love them in a practical and meaningful way. And as a Christian and a missionary, I’m pulling together all of these resources within me and asking myself and God, “How can I serve this people, share with them the saving Gospel message and see communities transformed?”. These people are no longer “the Ugandans,” “the South Sudanese, ” or the “Congolese;” they are my brothers and sisters, and every day I intend to make them more and more my people.

As always, I am so grateful that you are reading this and involved in our lives. May God bless you and yours and may you too find ways to shine forth His light wherever you may be.

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Making new friends at the hotel we stayed

A paradigm of joy and sorrow

Hello friends and family. Please accept my sincerest apologies for  my lack of recent articles.  Several factors prevented me from getting timely updates posted, but I am committed to overcoming these challenges and posting more regularly from here on out. As it stands, I have a few unpublished articles that I’ll be posting in succession over the next couple of weeks. Where they may seem slightly outdated in this age of instant news at your fingertips, I think they still offer insight into our lives as missionaries and I hope you will enjoy them.

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Talai gets her hair done at Dreamland, a South Sudanese orphanage that relocated to Rhino Refugee Camp in Uganda because of the civil war.

So without further adieu, allow me to start with my most recent post: The Christian life: a paradigm of joy and sorrow.

To follow Jesus’ example is to know both joy and sorrow intimately in great manifestations and often simultaneously. The same Good Shepherd that rejoiced greatly over finding His lost sheep was also a “man of sorrows” who grieved over his beloved yet rebellious people and who sweat drops of blood. In other words, He “for the joy set before Him, endured the cross,” (Hebrews 12:2). I believe that most Christians who are walking sincerely in their faith carry these two things – joy and sorrow – both as nearly constant companions. Many Christians wrestle quietly behind closed doors with the challenges in their lives while struggling to reconcile the abundant joy that the Bible speaks about being available to all the saints in any and all circumstances. I do believe that we have done ourselves a disservice by insisting on a paradigm that completely segregates joy, peace and happiness from sorrow, sadness and grief. Indeed I believe that we, as image bearers of God, are capable and designed to experience these complex emotions in unison.

Over the past several years, Sal and I have worked increasingly with people who have suffered severe trauma. These experiences have prompted me to a studious examination of this theme. Allow me to share a recent story and example of where I have personally confronted it.

Here in Arua, Uganda, there is a group of children who regularly gather at my back fence. They range in age from newborns carried on an older sisters’ back to mid teenage

years, but most are between two and ten. We talk and laugh, they teach me phrases in Lugbara and fall into hysterics as I slaughter their language.

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Talai plays with a group of local children who gathered at our back fence.

We play various games like Simon Says or toss a balloon back and forth. In fact, I am rarely able to go out my backdoor without small ones calling to me and/or gathering at the fence. At times I have lamented my lack of privacy, but that frustration quickly dissipates when confronted by the contagious joy beaming from a plethora of beautiful brown faces.

One day I gave them a couple of balloons to share. You would have thought that I had just handed them tickets to Disney World. They tossed them back and forth to each other and squealed delightedly as they dove to stop them from falling to the ground. The smallest thing: a sticker, a balloon, a pencil – things that many Western children would scarcely think about – are great treasures to these children. They “thank you” profusely and smile ear to ear.  It is so easy and so lovely to revel in their delight.

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A bonfire with other girls from the base in our backyard

Three of the girls who come regularly share the name Queen and the youngest is around two years old. She is a beautiful girl with big brown eyes and a smile that would make a grumpy old troll laugh. She always appears to be enjoying some grand joke that no one else knows anything about. We have fun passing flowers back and forth and our favorite game involves her drawing near to me and then trying to jump away before I can tickle her. Her visits have caused much joy and laughter in my life, but about two weeks ago her mother died.

I knew someone in our neighborhood had passed away because the funeral occurred behind our house and continued for five days straight. In Uganda, funerals are grand to-do’s. Night and day groups of people broke out in sporadic communal wailing, some of it quite gut-wrenching. Several times I startled awake in the middle of the night because their wailing had entered my mind causing me eerie dreams. Many, many of the villagers came to pay their respects. People camped out, sang, prayed, cried and sang some more. In general, Ugandans are very vocal and expressive and all of this was intermittent with what Linguists call “non word interjections.”

Before I knew who had died I observed the whole thing with a sort of anthropological curiosity. Even though tradition determined much about the funeral, I wondered if week-long funerals were developed, at least in part, to meet a need to fully grieve and move on in a culture that has known too much death. I have often considered that many cultures seem to have a much healthier grieving process than my own homeland where most people don’t understand grief and are clueless to help others who have suffered loss.

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The funeral gathering behind our home

During the funeral I had very few visitors, but a few days after it’s conclusion my young friends returned to the back gate. I inquired about the events and they told me that Little Queen’s mother had slipped while mopping, apparently hit her head on the way down and died. Life is tough enough on girls in this land where arranged marriages and domestic abuse are the norm, and now Little Queen faced a future with all it’s challenges without a mother. I was told that she was being sent away to be raised by her older sister; it’s unlikely I’ll see her again. And just like that, a young child that I had grown attached to was orphaned, out of my reach and out of my life.

Many people who work with children, both secular humanitarians and Christian missionaries, have a “don’t get attached” policy. It’s quite similar to how healthcare workers who work with the elderly tend to keep an emotional distance from their patients or how juvenile detention workers tend not to get attached to the kids in their charge. It’s a self protection mechanism; we try to prevent excessive heartbreak by not allowing ourselves to get emotionally involved in the first place. A few years ago when we first started working consistently with traumatized children, I tried taking this approach which was recommended to me by several fellow missionaries. It’s all fine and good to sing on Sunday mornings about how we want to love everyone as God loves them, but when we love we share in another’s joys and pains, and when we work with so many children who have such deep and painful wounds and who live in sometimes desperate situations, how can we share in their pain without being drowned by sorrow?

At first I served those children, who then were the street children of Argentina, as I was

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A Saturday children’s Bible study at Rhino Refugee Camp

advised and held back my love, but this did nothing but make my heart restless; I had no peace in the matter. My heart told me that in order to love these children as I loved myself – as Christ commanded- I had to love them as my own children. Still, these children were orphans and/or children of prostitutes. Sometimes their mother’s “customers” payed extra for access to the child as well. Some had been forcibly drugged, raped, beaten, abandoned and exploited in many other ways. How can someone carry that on their shoulders without becoming a depressed, pessimistic Atheist? And yet, if truly the greatest power to heal and to set free is love – pure, unadulterated, involved, intentional, selfless love – and if Love’s name is Jesus and we are to be His ambassadors, then how could I in good conscience not care for these children as if they were my own?

I began praying that God, by His supernatural strength, would help me to help these children. I was amazed by the change that God orchestrated in my heart. He enlarged my capacity to love. Suddenly I could immerse myself in their lives, empathize with their pain and pray through tears that God would change their situations, and I wasn’t consumed by grief. Surprisingly, my capacity to experience joy also enlarged. I could play, and laugh and dream and hope with these children as well and be 100% present and involved. As a mother, I know no deeper agony than watching my own children go through very real pain, and I know no greater earthly joy than to experience their pure and sincere love and affection towards me. I’m not saying that treating troubled children as your own flesh and blood is the easier route; the depths of my sorrow for them can be profoundly deep at times, but so too are the heights of my joy. However, to love at arm’s length is insincere, and whereas it may bring about some good and change, the kids can always sense it. The higher road is to love as Jesus loved: profoundly and with abandon.

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers to the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”

~Shakespeare

And so, I can’t just forget girls like Little Queen. I weep for her loss, pray for her safety and future and laugh as I remember the beautiful times that we shared. Sometimes I cry while I am laughing. I believe that is what it is like to become more like Christ in the way we experience joy and sorrow.

Not all Christians will find themselves on the international mission field working with

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A craft/science experiment day at our house for base and local kids

traumatized children. However, I believe that all Christians will experience loss and grief of their own at times and have to wrestle with how to grasp on to the perpetual joy that God has promised them. Also, all Believers are missionaries in their own spheres of influence. We’re surrounded by lost and broken souls who are hiding behind anger, pride, perfectionism, depression, apathy and a myriad of other masks. If we are to be Christ’s presence to the world, we must love the world, and if we are to love the world, we must immerse ourselves in other’s lives and pain, and if we are to take that step, we must be prepared both to grieve and to rejoice profoundly.

This post is a touch more theological than most that I write, but it’s a reflection of my heart. As always, we appreciate your support and prayers. We pray God both challenges and blesses you.  Thank you for reading.

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