[I wrote these recollections of our recent mission trip to Uganda while on the long plane trip coming home. They are by no means all I have to say about the wonderful people of Kaihura, but they begin to tell about what it is like there, and what it is like to leave. Please continue to read the Embrace Uganda blog to hear more.]
When I walked down the loading bridge to the plane in Entebbe, a blast of cold air hit me. Air conditioning. Settling into my seat, I realized that I had suddenly crossed over, from a mostly pre-modern world to a very modern world. It made me sad.
I am still trying to hold in my mind specific images of Kaihura, particularly the faces of our friends. Saturday morning they met us at Faith’s home, the orphan children from Home Again and the children from the Dorcas Vocational School, as well as pastors and adults who had welcomed and assisted us, and we walked the quarter mile down dirt roads to the tiny business district of Kaihura, the children insisting on carrying our luggage.
Our bus came. We boarded. As we looked out the window of the bus, our Ugandan friends were weeping. My friend Sam, a gifted 18 year-old young man, was standing in the back, wiping tears from behind his sunglasses. Joanne, with whom I played many games at Home Again, was her usual placid self, but tears were in her eyes. Daniel did not cry but stood right in front looking at me. He wrote me a letter, and drew a picture of flowers for me, but at 15 was too concerned at becoming emotional to deliver it himself. Stephen, who has broken his arm, was looking on. I pointed to each of them and waved, wanting them to know that I was saying good bye to them as individuals, that I would miss them, that there were no little people in Kaihura. When you look out and see 400 kids looking intently at you, it’s sometimes overwhelming to realize that each one is made in God’s image, that each one is a soul in need of redemption, that each one has dreams and troubles of their own.
Behind me I hear the uncharacteristic sobbing of my 13-year old daughter Anna. In front of me, my 16-year old son Stephen was crying. And so was I. Not only because I would miss them but because unlike us they could not leave behind the relentless hardship of life, a life they lived, however, with faith, hope, and love. But then as sad as it was to say goodbye to them, just as sad were those faces of the countless other adults and many children of the community who stood outside their homes and shops and alongside dirt streets and the main road and sadly watched us leave, most of whom I had not been able to get to know, leaving them to substandard, often unaffordable health care, poor education (despite the dedication of some teachers), and with neither running water nor electricity. We were leaving.
During the course of the two weeks, Stephen and I interviewed all 25 teenagers that went on the trip, in addition to some others. These kids raised their own support and often more in order to come. Some were curious. Some felt called by God. None were prepared for the overwhelming love they experienced and the work God did in them and through them in a relatively short time --- exposing self-centeredness, teaching them how to worship freely, and meeting their need for phileo love, the deep love of authentic friendship that the children and adults here gave to them. They also grew in their love for one another --- helping, loving, and sharing with each other. Practically all of them wanted to stay. Several of them cried at the mention of leaving or when they began to talk of how being there had affected them.
We adults have said many goodbyes. We forget what it is to be a teenager, where goodbyes seem for a time to be the end of life as we know it and we cannot imagine a world without whatever it is we leave behind. We have also had mountaintop experiences only to return to the mundane plain of life. We know that life will go on, that we will return to the familiar patterns of life on the other side. We say we have perspective. And yet we too easily guard our emotions, steeling ourselves against disappointment. Maybe deep down we are tainted by a cultural cynicism. And yet what these young people give us is a sense of the intensity of experience because they are less guarded, more engaged emotionally, and more in touch with the present moment. Can you remember that time in your life? It’s worth trying to remember, worth letting go of talk of perspective and letting the intensity of the moment, whether of sadness or happiness, wash over you. Then you will go on, but you will not be the same.
I don’t want to be the same. Perspective tells me that I live in a different world than my Ugandan friends, and yet my heart tells me we are the same. I find myself already adapting my conversation and attitudes to the world I live in, and yet I feel a bit estranged. I am home, and yet ill at ease, aware that something is amiss. Something is. To use scriptural words, being an “alien and stranger” on the earth takes on new meaning. I’m feeling alienated. It feels strange. And yet it feels better. I have a better sense that this world is not my home, that my citizenship is not here.
I don’t want to be the same. I don’t want to forget. I plan on surrounding myself with pictures of my Ugandan friends, visible reminders of faith, hope, and love, and talking about what I heard, saw, and learned. If I can remember the faces of my friends standing on that roadside in Kaihura, I can change. God can do a work in me too. We may have had tears, but God promises that “those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy,” shall “come home with shouts of joy” (Ps. 126:5-6). I’m not happy about leaving. I’m not completely happy about being home. But there is joy knowing that God is at work in Kaihura. . . and in me.