Saturday, November 20, 2010

Over the Pond

Currently, I am writing while flying over the giant pond known as the Atlantic Ocean. Hope we don’t need to emergency land because there is no part of me that wants to see if this cushion I am sitting on will actually float. I have my doubts. I love how the safety video Delta plays at the beginning of the flight makes the what to do in case we crash information so pleasant, and almost enjoyable. The woman smiles as she says in a smooth calm voice, “In case of emergency landing in the ocean, there are eights rafts that will inflate upon opening each door. Women please remove your high-heeled shoes so you don’t bust the raft and be the reason any remaining survivor drowns. Please do not worry, when the light on your flotation vest touches the water it will illuminate so rescuers may locate you as you float over waves in the middle of nowhere. If the crash into the ocean does not instantly take your life, please remove all shiny or sparkling jewelry so you are not devoured by a shark.” Ok… maybe that is not a direct quote, but they may as well just tell us the truth. If this plane goes down, I’d rather God just take me Home.

Here are a few moments of our trip that I will remember forever.

I have written before about Rays of Hope, which is Joel’s school in Kabalagala. I have always enjoyed the time there but this week topped every experience in the past. Every time we go, all the children dance and sing and put on programs for us. Africa is the most hospitable place in the world and here at Rays of Hope they truly embrace that custom. Sometimes it is so much, that we almost feel like they are the ones serving when we came with intentions to serve. They give us breakfast, water, and occasionally flowers. Our group was trying to think of ways we could show them God’s love and serve them without them actually serving us. So this week, we washed their feet just as Jesus washed the feet of His disciples. We washed 300 pairs of African feet. After getting over what we were actually doing, it was amazing. I have never been more humbled. 

There is a girl named Joan in Rays of Hope school that without saying a word has captured all of our hearts. Beyond just being an orphan living in one of the worst slums in all of Uganda, Joan is deaf and mute. You can tell by her actions she is extremely intelligent, but when she attempts to speak it comes out just noise. The thing about Joan that humbles me and brings me more hope, is that she is the most joy filled child I have ever met. I have never seen her without a beaming smile. When she sees us, especially Catherine, she comes running towards us jumping in our arms. Joan loves to be loved. We went to the mud-walled, thatched-roof home that she lives in with her grandmother. We took food, detergent, and soap and prayed with them. It was powerful. God was overwhelmingly present. (This is Joan in purple in the picture below.)

It is not getting easier to leave Africa. The piece of me that can’t wait to get in a hot shower is ready, but the rest of me is still in that home with those children. The few weeks I had there were incredible. There were again ups and downs, and times of great joy and overwhelming stress, but overall everything was amazing. The kids… oh the kids… God has truly blessed these children and this home. They are healthy, growing, smiling, laughing, and a phrase I feel like fits them well… they are finally just kids again. We looked back on some old photos earlier this week of when they were still at the previous home. It was hard seeing those images of the past. Beyond their visible illnesses, their malnourished stomachs, or their bones nearly protruding through their skin, the feature in these photographs that is more striking and heartbreaking than all, is their eyes. Emptiness and hopelessness are words that I feel like barely scratch the surface of what their eyes were saying. None of them spoke a language I understood, but their eyes were a lamp into their souls clearly communicating pure brokenness. Yesterday when I gave them all hugs goodbye, even thought it hurt to say that again, their eyes all tell a different story. They tell a story of hope and the power of God. Their eyes all show the glory of Christ and how he intercedes for us and restores us to complete healing. These 17 children's eyes are all now a lamp that shines the glory of God. 

I am still overwhelmed looking back and realizing what God has done. All glory and praise to Him. These kids have really helped me change how I see people. I think God is finally showing me how He sees us. It is still a challenge but every now and then I will get a glimpse of seeing someone I don’t even know and realizing how much God cares for that person. The love is overwhelming. The grace is overwhelming. Even after all we have been through and done, out of His love for us, He sent His son to give us everlasting, never-exhausting grace. After traveling by myself through three different airports in three different continents in the past 24 hours, I have watched a number of people. Not watching people in a creepy way, but honestly, I could sit and just watch the interesting diversity of people walking through an airport all day. Sometimes I laugh inside and other times I can see their pain without even knowing them. Sometimes I try to imagine their stories and where they have come from and been through. Sometimes I try to think of how their accent would sound. I catch myself unknowingly practicing it out loud as the person next to me shoots a strange look my direction. There are so many different cultures across this world and before traveling half way across the globe, I don’t think I fully realized that. I have always known of the existence of other cultures, but never experienced it, is a better way of saying that. In Amsterdam, I really enjoyed sitting near the end of one of those moving walkways. Those are the epitome of lazy, but I must admit I never pass one up. Did you know we are the only country in the world that stands, and doesn’t walk, on a moving walkway or escalator? Don’t try to do that in another country because they will run you over if you are standing. The best thing about sitting near the end of this moving walkway is watching people’s expressions as they adjust from the speed of walkway to the motionless floor. As I am sitting here finding humor in the people that fall forward, God is showing me something so much bigger. Today, for a second at a time, I can see into the person. I have never really looked at people from God’s perspective before. I always see them from my perspective and how I feel about what they say, wear, or do. I judge quickly. When I can shift my mind to God’s perspective of a person, for a split second, I can see their heart. I can see how much He loves them. That may sound strange, but if I or we could see people from God’s perspective every day, at all times, my life and this world would be drastically different. I pray that when I get home, my perspective on others is no longer my quickest judgment or formed thought of something they have done in the past, but I see them with the love of Christ in me. I pray that for you too. This world would profoundly change.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

My Short Bond With Sunday's Lunch

Our two rooster friends are next to me this morning watching the African sunrise. They are enjoying each other’s company, and mine as well I believe, and just now realizing it is their time to fulfill their morning duty of waking the nation. They may not realize their inevitable fate after entering the compound gate, because if they did they may not be as motivated this morning. The sun is peaking over the horizon and painting brush strokes of vibrant color across the sky as the roosters make failed attempts to harmonize. The volume of their crows would normally interrupt my thought while I try to read and write, but my delicious cup of African coffee is keeping me focused. Honestly some of the best coffee I have ever tasted. Some people have obsessions with traveling across the globe to drink fine wine, smoke expensive cigars, try exotic food and taste the local flavor of a foreign commodity. Mine is coffee.  Something about coffee just calms me. The flavor on my lips signifies a beginning of a new day, a fresh start. I am not sure if Heaven imports their coffee from Uganda, but I would not be surprised if they did.  I look forward to coffee in heaven. I bet the creamer isn’t powdered.

I finally made it back to Uganda. Our plane landed safely in the night and we loaded into a van headed towards the orphanage. When we made it in the gate, I was reunited with my Ugandan family. We each exchanged a long embraced of emotion as if I was soldier returning to his family from brutal war. That’s all besides the fact that I was returning from luxury in the United States, a soldiers feelings I am sure are much more magnified, and my children look nothing like me, but it would have seemed as if it were true.

Two days ago, Lisa and I drove to Rays of Hope, which is a school run by our friend Joel in Kabalagala. This area of Uganda is one of the worst in the country. Prostitution is rampant and many families have addictions to alcohol and drugs. They don’t care for their children because any money that flows into their pockets flows right back to the next person offering a cheap high. The name of the school is very literal. Rays of Hope is a light amongst darkness that offers hope to this broken area. Slums are all around and after school ends most of the children return to homes built of plywood, mud, and scrap metal the size of some of our closets in the U.S. These homes often provide shelter for more than our average family sizes occasionally in the double digits.
When we walked into the school we were overwhelmed with a welcome. It is custom here to go all out in making guests feel at home. We were given flowers and the children sang songs as we walked into the school gate. The Bonds have helped feed the children at Joel’s school for a long time now and their appreciation was very clear. Joel greeted us and introduced whom he calls “Momma Lisa” to the school. They clapped and danced native dances that are historic in their culture. It was very different… but beautiful. A lot like what you see on T.V.

Yesterday Lisa and I went all over town and accomplished a list of tasks. Things here don’t operate like they do at home though. Everything is slow and complicated. Just attempting to open a P.O. Box yesterday you would think I was applying to fly a fighter jet in the air force because of the complex process. On the way to town, we ran out of gas right in the middle of Uganda’s busiest road. Awesome. Really great coasting to a stop with cars and boda bodas honking and passing at high speeds as our driver ran to get a gas tank. We made it out and carried on our day later to learn how to make paper bead necklaces with Mato and one of his friends.

Yesterday we got a chance to drive to Jinja. It is about two hours away traveling over rocky roads, but well worth the grueling drive. I saw Lisa’s eyes grow and heart stop a few times caused by the close-call collisions our car circumvented. Jinja is one of my favorite places on this earth. It portrays the true beauty of God. We were able to see the Nile River, Bujagali Falls, and the bungee jump over the river we conquered just a few months ago. At the falls, mass amounts of water crashes over gigantic boulders creating a breathtaking sight. What a wonderful Maker. Unique African culture is strung through out this town. It has a small downtown containing many shops with awnings covering their front porches. Wild flowers in the medians, mural paintings across the walls, and locals strolling to and from the restaurant on the corner all make this town special. Jinja actually reminds me a little of Auburn. Maybe that is why I like it so much.

Don’t tell my parents this… but I drove by the restaurant we were at during the bombing. I could briefly see inside and it looked like they had renovated and recently done some painting. Chills shot up my arms infiltrating every cell in my body as a sickening feeling crept into my stomach. I didn’t go inside. My curiosity said go, but my mental health said don’t. I haven’t fully decided against it. Everything in the area was back to normal. People eating, walking around, and carrying about their day. The news here and back in the United States has faded and picked up the latest breaking tragedies to tell the nations about. The event was merely a piece of the past. Sometimes it is a struggle because even though it is the past in everyone’s mind and the media no longer has interest, I know that for the seven of us that walked out through pools of blood, the story will replay in our mind for the rest of our lives just as fresh as the wet paint on the restaurant wall.

I am again reminded of the greatness of God and his hand directing our every step. Literally, he directs every step we take. If not for his grace and guidance, we may have unknowingly stepped quicker, drove faster, ate dinner sooner, or arrived earlier and then I would not be writing this very paragraph today. It still amazes me. How great is our God?

My friends next to me are still competing in a crowing competition to see who can wake Kampala first.  I have not named them because of the fact I try not to get attached knowing they will be Sunday’s lunch. Maybe it is better if the roosters know they are going to a good cause and feeding orphans. I’ll tell them. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Travels Abroad

It didn’t even take us to leave the state of Georgia before the adventure began. My travel companion, Lisa Bond and I walked up to the curbside check-in at the Atlanta International Airport. We proceeded with preexisting apprehension hoping our bags we were lugging across the concrete were within the airline’s requirements. Approaching the desk, I searched for the friendliest looking attendant, and I happened to lay eyes on a large African-American woman that had a smile the size of Texas. She grinned at me and said, “Checking your bags here sweetie?” I nodded while inside being glad she said sweetie and knowing that even then there is a chance we may not get beyond this point. Mrs. Bond was checking two bags, and I had one to check. However, our main obstacle was a huge box containing the desktop computer donated to the Sozo Uganda orphanage that I was claiming as one of my bags. An official serious looking man in uniform walked out, and as he measured the box’s dimensions he began saying, “nope, this one is too big...” I knew it. I already started thinking of plan B. There was no plan B. I prayed. As he worked on the box, the woman began weighing our bags. One, overweight, two, overweight, three, overweight. Even after weighing them ourselves at home, every bag we carried was overweight. Zero for four was not a good way to start the trip. The man put on his pilot style hat signifying his authority and started saying it would cost us at least $300 more just for the extra weight, and they didn’t know what to do with the oversize box they can’t check. We smiled and reaching for a piece of hope through empathy said, “This is all going to an orphanage in Uganda…” The pleasant woman smiled back requesting some sort of the same empathy and said, “you take care of your friendly workers, and we’ll take care of you.” Not knowing what that really meant, Mrs. Bond and I exchanged glances and immediately agreed while beginning to pull out tip money from our pockets. We each knew we had an understanding. They talked to each other acting as if they were hiding what they were doing from the other officials working the check-in counters inside. I could imagine there are some differences and tension between the inside and outside workers. “We can’t let them see,” she said, “or you be paying for this thing.” We slipped our new best friend the generous tip as our bags were taken off on a conveyer. She walked us up to the indoor check-in counter to get our boarding passes and last claim ticket. As we talked to the KLM official inside, a box on the conveyer belt behind him slyly crept by unnoticed that read “Fragile – Sozo Children International” Something about beating the system always makes the day more entertaining and left us feeling more accomplished than if they would have just checked it from the beginning. I shot up a quick prayer, “thanks God.”

We boarded the Delta 747 headed to Amsterdam and began to find our seats. I am not sure if people try to carry on every possession they own for fun or just to prove to the airline they can, but today everyone on our flight was trying to squeeze all they had in the overhead bins. They seemed to think the harder you push the better it will fit, as if the back of the bin would break through the side of the plane and allow more space. After breaking anything in the bags that would crush under pressure, people squeezed shut the doors on claustrophobic bags that were trying to burst out gasping for air. We still had to check our carry-on items because of course there was not room for our bags by the time we got to our seats. I sat down and finally began to rest and think about how excited I was to be on a flight headed to reunite with the family I left in Uganda. In only hours I would be there, and until then I thought I would rest without worries. I slowly reclined my chair not to disturb the passenger behind me just when that guy in front of me threw his seat back jolting the plane. He must have been in emergency nap mode, which I can sometimes relate. The flight attendant was dressed in navy blue with a red scarf around her neck and she looked similar to a sailor. She began walking down the aisle offering free newspapers. Quick side note of how I feel about things given away on airplanes: After paying for this flight… anything that they are giving away, I am taking. They say free, but we all know it isn’t free. TINSTASFL. They just want us to feel like we are getting something. I could have bought season tickets to this incredible Auburn season (War Eagle!) for the price I paid for this ticket across the globe. So yes, I will take this item you offer as "free." Anyways, something in me feels like the more I consume or use on the plane the less it actually costs. Or at least I am getting my monies worth, right? Newspaper, drinks, boxed food that taste like plastic, peanuts, wings that pin to my shirt?… Yes. Sure. Don’t mind if I do. Absolutely. And yes again. I will gladly accept it all. I might even use an extra few tissues drying off my hands in the bathroom. After kindly accepting the “free” Financial Times she handed me, I quickly realized Delta does not always live up to their standard of passenger’s comfort being their first priority. I cannot make this up… The front page headline on the newspaper she handed me read… “Bomb Fears Shift to Passenger Aircraft.” Not really the ideal story a terrorist bomb survivor wants to read on the passenger aircraft he just boarded.

I will admit unexpected adventures add excitement to missions, but I as I write aboard this plane headed to Uganda with threatening news articles in my face, I will also admit I am looking forward to the rubber of the tires returning to the asphalt on the runway.  I write this joking about the trials of traveling, but honestly, I am so thankful to be on this plane, even with the conditions. We made it on, luggage and all, and I can’t wait to see seventeen African children smiling, laughing, and playing. God is good. He is always faithful. We are exhausted.  

Monday, November 1, 2010

If Tomorrow Comes

Tomorrow I return to Uganda. I am finally getting to go back to the kids, the culture, and the comforts of Africa. While being there, I never thought I would associate comfort with Africa. That Uganda actually has comforts sounds almost contradictory. America is the land of comfort. But Uganda has many comforts in different ways, and everything in my soul longs to reunite with them. There are 17 of them laughing, playing, and eating right now. The welcoming culture and laid-back schedule is a luxury I saw as a burden for some time. Honestly, my time while I was there was taken for granted and wasted away on the Internet or missing food, friends, and familiarity. The familiarity that I missed is now again familiar, but it has been turned upside down. Something in me now wishes the familiar were not so recognizable. The Internet and travelologist call this phenomenon “reverse culture shock.” It means after being in a foreign country for some time, the unusual effect people go through by re-entering the United States. I have self diagnosed myself with a pretty severe case. I get back to the world of excess and I look around almost in disgust of how I live. Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful for everything I have, and this sea of stuff we live in is not always bad, but an unavoidable feeling of guilt is overwhelming after seeing the rest of the world that has nothing.

Since being home, my schedule has become priority. My iCal is overworked and begging me to slow down. Everything I do I subconsciously obsess over efficiency and I don’t even know why. Honestly, it is draining me emotionally and spiritually. It is like I am in this time management mode and all I can think about is how I can do something better or faster. I plan breakfasts, lunches, dinners, coffees, ice creams and I even catch myself judging routes home and figuring how I can shave off the most time. For example, when I am on highway 280 between noon and one o’clock, I merge into the left lane when I see Chick-fil-a in the distance because I know that traffic in the right lane will most likely slow down from all the merging people craving waffle fries and a chicken sandwich. I cram as much as I humanly can into a day. It reminds me of the same feeling I had working in restaurants on a busy weekend night. It brings me back to my days at Chili’s. Oh, how I praise God those days are over! I learned a lot working in restaurants and I have said before I think everyone should have to do it for one year of their life just for the experience. You learn about people and also how important it is to be friendly to a server that is overworked in a restaurant is understaffed. Working in restaurants forces you to master time management. Everything is a process that can be constructed in a certain way to be done the fastest. Fill up drinks, and then run salad to table 2 after putting desert for table 1 in microwave. As the timer rings entrees are taken to table 3 while dropping off napkins and Paradise Pie at table 1. All of it timed perfectly as I clear checks for table 4 and bring in another well made tip from table 5.  It is a sickness. I have taken it and applied it to my life back here in the States trying to do as much as I possibly can. It is a disease, that in my case, only Africa can cure. I have to slow down. God is telling me to “be still.” In Africa, they commonly uses the phrase “Hakuna Matata” to express how their style of life means no worries, and I can’t wait to dive back in.

On July 11th our life was radically impacted by the Kampala bombings during the World Cup. 76 people lost their lives that night, some only feet from us, as all of our team walked out untouched. It was a clear miracle by God’s hand of protection. Psalm 91 has never seemed so literal and real.

“…He is my refuge and fortress…”
“…He will cover you with his feathers…”
“… under his wings you will find refuge…”
“…his faithfulness will be your shield…”
“… You will not fear the terror of night…”
“… a thousand may fall at your side… but it will not come near you…”
“…you will only observe with your eyes…”
“…no harm will befall you…”
“… he will command his angels to guard you in all your ways…”
“Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.”

A part of the story I don’t often tell is what happened that morning before the bombing took place. It was Sunday so we loaded up seventeen kids and all six of us in a fourteen-passenger van and headed to church. It was just another Sunday. Nothing unusual. That morning the pastor said something that stuck out to me in his sermon. He challenged all of us that morning with the question, “If Jesus were coming back tonight, what would you do different today?”
I was impacted by that question and after the service I went to our balcony that overlooked the lush jungles of Kampala and began to write. I wrote everything I could think of that I would change. Every detail of how I would and should live differently because of the fact that I am not promised tomorrow. Of course if I would have known how close I was actually going to come to meeting Jesus that night, I probably would have been more doing that writing, but still, I listed it all. I poured out my heart. Even though I get pretty honest and personal on here, I don’t know if it is time yet for me to post those things I wrote, but I pray everyday my life now reflects it and God receives all the glory. Knowing that tomorrow may never come and today could be your last, how would you live it differently? One day that statement will be true for all of us. One day we will all breathe our last breath. I don’t say that to spur people to begin making their bucket lists that include line items such as buy a Harley, see the Pyramids, or sky dive, but to really question how your heart and decisions would change if you were to stand before your Creator today… 

If tomorrow comes for me, I finally get to return to the country and people I have grown to love. They say that once you get the dirt of Africa on your feet, you can never again fully get it off. I am not sure who “they” are that say that, or if “they” could mean that literally because of the skin staining Ugandan clay, but I do know there is a piece of my heart that is still in Africa and I am looking forward to finding it again.