Getting in touch with the power that drives the Universe...
In 2007, my wife Sally and I hosted a group of 12 students and our church youth pastor for a mission trip to Gulu, Uganda. The team was made up of Fallbrook high school seniors who had just graduated and were anticipating a college experience or the beginning of a career. We were visiting Africa for the purpose of catching a vision for how these youth might direct their post-high school work in terms of a global missions experience. We were helping them “vision” how they might serve God in the larger world through their professional career and education.
There was much excitement as we entered the country through the airport at Entebbe and then drove to Kampala, the capital. Transiting by the government airport, Sally and I recalled the horrific Israeli hostage scenario that had taken place their many years prior, at the direction of the evil dictator, Idi Amin. Our students weren’t even born at that point in time!
We acclimated ourselves in Kampala for a couple of days prior to the long, arduous bus ride to Gulu. We visited a small Christian private school for K-7 students and explored the nearby streets, shops and restaurants. One surprising factor of life in Uganda was the explosive monetary inflation. Sally, the youth pastor Darren, and I had to carry our exchanged US dollars in 3 backpacks stuffed with Uganda shillings. Although our cash reserves only totaled several thousand dollars, the volume of shillings was expansive because of the disproportionate exchange rate. I felt like a money “runner” for some drug cartel!
Arriving in Gulu (http://wn.com/downtown_in_gulu,_uganda http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulu ), we settled in to a daily routine of visits to schools, IDP camps (refugee camps http://www.david-kilgour.com/mp/Ugandan%20IDP%20Camps%20&%20Chi... ) and mission organizations. The IDP camps were particularly depressing. Due to the long-term war in that country between the government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army under Joseph Kony, the farming communities in the countryside have been having to deal with child abductions and terrorist acts as Kony freely imposes his will outside the cities. The children are particularly vulnerable, as the LRA kidnaps them to serve as soldiers or prostitutes for the soldiers. This is the primary reason that children used to walk into the cities at night and sleep wherever they could. In response to this mass migration each evening, and back to the farms in the morning, the government established the rural IDP camps and rounded up the farmers and their families to live there on a temporary basis. Unfortunately, the months turned into years, and as of 2007, the IDP camps had been in service for almost a decade and a half. During this time, the refugee families in the camps had lost control of their farms and livelihoods and their children had grown up without education or a concept of working for a living. Occasionally, the LRA would penetrate the army defenses of a camp and create mayhem in order to generate fear the in populace. Their terrorist acts would often generate suffering and death for anyone who tried to escape or resist their efforts.
We even visited the national headquarters for the Invisible Children organization ( http://invisiblechildren.com/ ). As we drove around the country side, we saw many late-model white Toyota land cruisers rushing up and down the roads. They belonged to a multitude of Non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) from other countries that were in the Gulu area to do humanitarian work. As an American tourist, it was kind of bizarre to see so many other countries and the UN involved so heavily in a country’s struggle to survive. Next door to our one-star hotel was a shop where detailed, colorful signs were being prepared to describe the appearance of deadly land mines for the local outlying farm communities. One got the feeling of a city held in siege by the excessive abandoned ordnance in the surrounding rural areas.
As we toured around the district, we noticed a European man in the company of a native Ugandan touring the IDP camps we were already visiting. Later we found him staying at our hotel and I ate breakfast with him. Max was a retired social worker from Denmark who had come to Uganda to connect disabled children and their families with school and work opportunities. He was about my age, so it was fun to talk to him and find out about how he was using his retirement and professional training to help these desperate people. It seemed to me exciting that I could do the same kind of work helping people in this far away land.
One night, as the team was walking to a nearby restaurant to eat we noticed that our youth pastor, Darren, had lagged behind. We went ahead and sat down at some tables, but when he arrived we inquired about where he had been. Apparently a young boy had stopped him and tried to chat with him in his native tongue. As I recall the story, the boy named Daniel, had seen our group laughing and having fun and decided he would approach one of us for help. Apparently, due to difficulties getting a passerby to translate, Darren had postponed the boy’s questions and asked him to get in touch with us at the hotel later when we could get a better idea of how to help him.
The next morning I got up early as I usually do and started to eat my breakfast and do some Bible study in the hotel lobby. About half an hour into this activity, I was interrupted by one of the hotel desk personnel asking if I knew where and when Darren would be available. Since it was only about 6:30 in the morning, I responded that it might be awhile before Darren was awake and ready to make himself available to visitors. I asked her who needed to see Darren, and she responded by pointing out the little boy who had stopped him the previous evening on the way to the hotel.
There Daniel stood with his mother in tow, looking eager to seek help from some kind Americans. I figured that the least I could do would be to entertain Daniel and his mom until Darren arrived, but the mom insisted that only Daniel needed help, so she motioned him over to me with the help of the hotel clerk. Since he didn’t speak English, I didn’t have a lot of options for interacting with him. I decided that chances were pretty good that being a poor child, he would be hungry. So I offered him some toast with jelly and he seemed quite happy to take the food from my hand, even allowing me to feed him some bites of banana. I was quite concerned when I gave him some nice mango juice and his face contorted like it was bitter and unpleasant. Sampling the juice, I realized that there was nothing wrong with it. I asked the hotel clerk to find out what the problem was, and she determined that he was put off by the coldness of the juice; strange as it seems, Daniel had never had refrigerated food and he was unable to process the sensation. Amazing what I take for granted!
As the morning passed, it became apparent that Darren would not soon show up to talk to Daniel. Since the boy had had his fill of breakfast, I decided that I needed to entertain him in some way. I remembered that I had a large bottle of bubble solution in my room, so I set him down on the chair we had been sitting in and retrieved the bottle. Upon returning, I decided that we should go out onto the front patio of the hotel to blow bubbles, as I didn’t want to make a soapy mess inside. Sitting on a small chair, with Daniel in my lap, I demonstrated how to blow bubbles with a small plastic bubble wand. As the soapy, multi-colored orbs floated away on the soft morning breeze, Daniel was swept away with the beauty of the experience. It was as if he was experiencing Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Knott’s Berry Farm and Sea World all at one time. He was amazed!
The people walking down the street were also amazed and curious about this young disabled Ugandan boy and his older American friend. Men tried to avoid our eyes but you could tell they were dying to understand what was going on. Women, primarily mothers walking with their children to school, stole glances while their happily grinning kids tugged at their hands to get a closer look. In many countries and cultures even today, the disabled are looked upon as guilty of some trespass against God. Their disability is considered a just divine punishment for either their own sin, or the sin of their parents! So the disabled are deemed unworthy of basic human kindness. Only the kids in the street didn’t yet know this, and they were just enjoying the special occasion of the miraculous bubbles.
Meantime, the bubbles were wafting their way to the person of the hotel guard. He was a stoic Ugandan man who guarded the entrance to the hotel during the nighttime hours. He held a machete and appeared to be all business. He didn’t care to make conversation with anyone and held a machete across his body in order to appear threatening. As the bubbles alighted on his coat, they popped and took him quite by surprise! Most likely, he too had never seen the simple beauty of a soap bubble. He was disarmed by the frivolity of the moment.
Sometime later, another guard came across the street from the premises of a hotel that was rumored to house LRA (rebel army of Joseph Kony) leaders when they came into town. I’ll never forget the question he asked as he approached the patio fence. In impeccable English he apologetically asked if I might answer a question. He had been wondering if perhaps the boy was my son. Now, you had to be there to understand the humor of this question. Daniel’s skin, like so many Ugandans, was deep brown; almost black. Mine is fairly light-colored white. For a moment, I had to assess whether he was joking. My initial thought was “are you kidding?!” Then I realized, he was probably assessing the situation based on how Daniel and I were interacting; how much we were enjoying each other. He was observing the love between us!
So I gathered myself and thought “well, in this time and place, and in a spiritual sense, I AM his father!” And so I said YES! It was perhaps the finest moment I shall ever spend on the mission field!
Shortly thereafter, Max came out on the patio and inquired about what I was doing with this child. I told him the story about how Daniel had been seeking help from our Christian group. He immediately responded that Daniel (and his mother) were exactly the kind of people he had come to Uganda to help. He shared that he had rehabilitative workshops where Daniel could be helped to use his deformed hands, and how there were special educational opportunities for him and job training for his mother!!! He politely asked if it would be possible for him to call his organization and set up care for this very deserving mother and son. Could he? Of course! I informed the mother through the hotel personnel what was available for her. She seemed happy, but a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of help after dealing with her son’s disabilities for so long, without help, or hope for that matter.
Within 5 minutes, a white Toyota Landcruiser drove up to the entrance to the hotel and Daniel and his mother were gently helped in to their seats. As the door was being closed, I stopped the proceedings and ran to get the bubble jar and wand from the table where I had set it. I crawled into the camper shell of the Toyota and handed the bubble set to Daniel and his mom. It was the last I ever saw of him. All told, I don’t think we were together for more than about 90 minutes, but it was the best 90 minutes of my life!
I am so grateful to God for the opportunity to spend time with Daniel and see him through the Savior’s eyes, and the eyes of the people on the street and in the hotel. I’m thankful that I got to be a witness to some aid for his “resurrection.” I didn’t deserve the beauty of those moments, but isn’t that like God? He gives us everything without asking anything in return; just thankfulness!