Reflections and Inspiration from Uganda
What a special trip to Uganda I returned from last week! I lived in Kenya back in 1988 for one year and have traveled to different parts of Africa five times in the late 80s and early 90s, but I haven’t been back in 25 years. So, it was very special to go there again with my daughter Theodora and get her set up for a two month mission as a part of her GAP Year of Service. She is staying there under the supervision of Peter and Sharon Georges and their St. Nicholas Uganda Children’s Fund, as well as at the Alundo Entono Primary School in the outskirts of Kampala.
Several things really stood out for me during my visit. First, whenever I travel abroad, whether to Uganda or Mexico or Albania, as I have recently, or some other part of the world, I vividly experience the reality of how we are all a part of a God’s great, big global family! No matter how different people may look, or how foreign their cultures may appear, whenever I spend time in these other countries I realize how much we are the same! We are all God’s children! Maybe we have a different skin color, a different religion, maybe our ethnicity and nationality vary, and our cultural ways can seem so strange at times. For example, as I was walking around Kampala, the capital of Uganda, I was one of the only white people in the midst of thousands of black faces. I walked around the market and saw people selling their staple food of bananas along with exotic fruit, as well as selling termites and grasshoppers as their special delicacies. I didn’t try the grasshoppers this time, although I have eaten termites when I was in Kenya! We sat down for lunch and had matoke and posho with groundnut soup – a culturally different cuisine but just as tasty as ours! Yes, there are real differences, but when we have eyes and hearts to see, we notice many different people who are still children of God, a part of His great, big family!
I saw parents just like our own parents here – mothers and fathers who want the best for the children, or at the very least, who long to provide at the basic necessities of food, shelter, clothing, education, and opportunities. When Theodora and her collaborator Parashqevi were playing games, doing tie dye shirts, teaching songs, and participating in school activities, the African children were adorable, hanging on to their legs, giving hugs and kisses, and joking around like any other children of the world. And the director of the school, Mabel, and her capable teaching staff, loved their kids and were trying to educate them in the best possible way, just like any great teachers and administrators.
Why do we think of ourselves as so different from others? Why do we separate ourselves from others, creating ugly caricatures and demonizing those who seem strange? In our country today, we see such a great rise in hatred and fear towards those unlike ourselves – whether Muslims or Jews or from some other religion, whether from Mexico, Central America, the Middle East, or some other region of the world, whether democrat or republican, or whether someone who holds on to different beliefs than ourselves - too many people are choosing to no longer see the other as a fellow human being and a child of God, but instead find it easier to place labels on them, and then mistreat them, judge them, demonize them and ultimately reject them.
My trip to Uganda reminded me how erroneous and evil such division and hatred is! We need to remember we all were created individually in the palm of God’s hand, each one of us created in His image and likeness, each one of us loved dearly by our heavenly Father!
I was also inspired in other ways during my trip. Theodora and I were invited to go to Uganda by Peter and Sharon Georges. They are a 69 year old couple from America who have been living in Uganda for the past 15 years. They are former OCMC missionaries who created the St. Nicholas Ugandan Children’s Fund in 2005, which presently supports 250 desperately needy students. Many of the children are orphans or have little family support. They face extreme and seemingly hopeless challenges. Yet, the Georges give them hope by paying for their school fees, their school uniforms, and whatever other needs they may have. The offer hope to these students by making it possible for them to succeed in school. They sponsor 250 kids throughout primary school, secondary school, and on through vocational training, and even in university. Imagine, they have already graduated 75 young men and women from either university or vocational school, most of whom have found jobs and are now supporting themselves!
On the Saturday I was there, one of their students, Moses, whom they have supported since 4th grade, just graduated from university! They are changing the lives and giving unthinkable opportunities and a hopeful future to hundreds of children! I truly was inspired not only by what Peter and Sharon are doing, but also by the story of their lives of sacrifice and service! They raise $250,000/year to support their students, yet they live off of their modest retirement funds, taking none of the money they raise to support themselves. They have become Ugandan in the way the interact with others, in the way they get around, in their simple living. Imagine, “retiring” to Africa at age 52 and spending the next 15 years living in Kampala serving the poorest of the poor! And why would they do that? Because they have discovered a life of deep meaning and blessing! Our Lord Jesus taught us that “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” And this couple realizes how richly they are blessed, as they try to bless others! We all long for meaning and purpose in our lives, and they have discovered this beautiful path for their lives! What an inspiring, faithful, and special couple! (If anyone wants to learn more and support their ministry, and I highly recommend it, please go to their website www.UgandaChildrensFund.org and support their ministry!)
Throughout my week in Uganda, I kept reflecting on the Biblical verse in the Gospel of Luke “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Yes, life can be extremely difficult in the developing world, and Uganda has tremendous challenges. We can’t romanticize life for the poor. Life is definitely not easy. For the poor in Africa, death is a frequent visitor in every home. Six percent of Uganda has HIV to mention only one of the difficulties. They have 2.5 million orphans in a country of 42 million people. There are limited opportunities to break out of the cycle of poverty. And yet, when Jesus said, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” maybe He was referring to the way the poor, in their desperation, turn to God as their only hope, and learn to rely on Him on a daily basis!
Here in America and basically throughout the West, we think our countries are so blessed and great because we are rich and prosperous and yet, we also see how our comfortable and secular worldview is leaving less and less space for God in our lives. Maybe we are like the Church of Laodicea in the book of Revelation, which the Lord criticized, “You say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’ [but] do not know that you are wretched, miserable, blind and naked” (Rev 3:17). In a poor country like Uganda, people see God’s presence everywhere. They turn to God, hope in Him, and constantly call out His Name – there are biblical verses and sayings on the back of so many taxis and cars, children pray and ask for God’s blessing numerous times throughout the day in school, and before everything, and a conversation about God is always near. When I left the Alundo Entono school on my last day, each and all 250 children kneeled down in front of me, asking for my blessing. Even the headmaster and the director of the school knelt before me to ask for God’s blessing.
In the midst of poverty and difficult living, people don’t forget God. He is present among them. Maybe this is why Jesus taught, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God!” Let us in our comfortable lives take note, and learn.
Finally, I want to say something about these young women, Theodora and Parasqevia, who is a friend from Albania who came to Uganda, as well as our dear Olivia in Peru. Why are they spending a year between high school and college traveling the world, not in places of comfort but in places of poverty and challenge? Surely they like adventure, they like to travel the world, and they realize that they have much to learn from other cultures and people. Yet, they also are discovering one of the greatest secrets of life - the deep meaning and beauty that comes when we reach out to others, try to help others, attempt to just live with others in their struggles. This is a lesson that all of our Church members who has gone to Project Mexico realize. Even the volunteers who help out at our monthly Living Bread Luncheon experience this. Those who try to share their blessings with others, give to those in need, and even when it seems we can’t offer much, simply try to enter into the struggle with others and join them in their journey of life, we realize the beauty and deep meaning of offering solidarity with one another.
We all are pilgrims journeying through life – it doesn’t matter if our skin color is different or if we come from different nations around the world, whether our beliefs are diverse or we hold dissimilar political views - we are all God’s children on a journey together through life. As followers of Jesus Christ, our call is to accept this journey of life together, walking with one another hand in hand, loving one another, seeing God’s image in each and every person, treating one another with respect and dignity and kindness and goodness, and entering into the challenges of others with the hope that we can learn from one another and encourage each other on our path into the kingdom of God!
IN WHOM DO WE TRUST?
Our Orthodox Faith