Since arriving back from my trip to Uganda about two weeks ago, I have been unpacking, wading through pictures, and reliving experiences. It was a wonderful trip. I have found processing the trip difficult, however. I am having the same difficulty putting my observations into words as I did when my brother, Mark, asked each of us for our thoughts over pizza on the shores of Lake Victoria the last night of our trip. I think one reason is that the trip had so many paradoxical aspects to it: it was part missions, part family vacation, part remote villages, part safari lodges, part observation, and part rolling up the sleeves. Missions trips usually involve a lot of work; fact-finding trips necessitate many meetings; vacations require simply having fun. This trip was a bit of all three. So if my thoughts seem somewhat incongruous, the trip was as well. Let me share three pictures with you.
Picture #1: Each morning at Good Shepherds Fold, I got up early, made some coffee and sat out on a porch overlooking the orphanage. My brother, J.R., and my mom often joined me in conversation before the day got started. Each morning I was repeatedly struck both by the unspoiled beauty of the landscape, as well as the poor economic conditions of the countryside. I would watch people “slash” grass or plant and weed fields by hand for hours. Children were busy playing or going to school, yet they called Good Shepherd’s Fold their home because their family could not afford to take care of them or treat things such as HIV and malaria. Sometimes the electricity worked, sometimes it didn’t. I marveled at the bounty of the gardens yielding mangos, tomatoes, squash, and papaya. We counted more species of birds each morning than you would normally see in a month. And all this from the back porch.
There was a constant tension between the natural beauty and bounty of the land, and the socioeconomic conditions that prevented the people from utilizing those resources to better themselves. My brother and I frequently noted how often good intentions, preconceived notions, and even tangible donations would fail to address the real issues of a place like Uganda. We did a lot of brainstorming about what might actually address some core issues and make a difference. I was reminded about my trip to Rwanda in 2007, where we heard aid organizations tell us, “People think that the problem in Africa is a lack of food and water. It is actually a lack of ways to preserve the food they grow and means to capture and store the water during the rainy season. Africa does not need more food.” I was also fascinated by a small but increasingly vocal sentiment that aid from the West is actually doing more harm than good. I came home and ordered the book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. There is a desperate need to be smarter with our good intentions!
Picture #2: On Good Friday, the local village church held a Good Friday service. I confess that I was not exactly pumped to sit through a worship service that was sometimes difficult to follow and understand. But the church is closely tied to the orphanage, and it would be another chance to play with the kids, as well as remember the events of Good Friday. Local villagers made their way to the church. The service was filled with singing, some dancing, and testimonies. Being the guests, kids often climbed on your lap or wanted your attention. This was followed by the Easter Sunday service and a meal complete with roasted pig and goat. The meal was delicious! It was our last day at Good Shepherd’s Fold before going on safari, so we used lunch as an opportunity to say our goodbyes and get pictures with the kids we had gotten to know during the week.
I had a moment in that Good Friday service, listening to the singing and watching the locals, where I thought, “Here I am celebrating Good Friday in a small church in a village in Uganda.” And then the thought struck me, “This place is not out of God’s way.” I may have had to travel 9,000 miles via airplanes, busy streets, and bumpy dirt roads, but it was no effort for God to be present in that church at that moment. In fact, God was just as present there as he was in any American church celebrating Good Friday. Then my mind took it one step further, “I wonder which service Jesus would rather attend?” I reflected back on some of the big, slick Easter productions that would be taking place in churches everywhere back in the States. I won’t presume to answer that question for Jesus, but I can tell you that I was quite content worshipping in that little remote village church that evening. It was a perfect way to celebrate Easter!
Picture #3: The last five days of our trip were spend on safari in Murchison National Park, taking in some of the most spectacular scenery and wildlife you will ever see – early morning game tracks, brilliant sunsets, elephants, rhinos, lions, giraffe, and cape buffalo, just to name a few. Each day presented us with more than we could possibly take in. We took an evening hike through part of the park – guided of course, because the park is full of wildlife. We witnessed a lion with a kill, a hyena making a kill, and giraffes fighting. Murchison Falls is one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world. I could go on and on.
I have been on a one-day safari before in Rwanda, and I remember a similar feeling of just being in awe. I will share some of what I wrote in my journal after that experience because it sums this experience up nicely: “I think I understand being in God’s creation a little better now. I am part of the animals’ world; unlike zoos, I am the one on display; I am confined to a truck on a dirt road traveling through their world. It reminded me that all I can do is travel through creation taking one moment at a time, never being certain what is around the next corner. There is no sense of being in control here – it is dangerous. Living life from God’s perspective would be to live that same way: knowing that I am in God’s world, that I am not in control, traveling with a sense of awe and exhilaration, always anticipating what God has for me around the corner.”