Thursday, March 22, 2012

Toughest Day in Uganda

Our second day in Uganda proved to be the hardest for me emotionally. It's tough now for me to even go back there in my mind and relive it. I'm immediately flooded with images, sounds, and smells that will haunt me forever. I knew this day would be hard. I knew it would require me to lean not on my own understanding, but on God's truth and strength. I knew it would shake me up and break my heart, and it certainly did all these things and more! BUT what I didn't know was how this day would reveal ugly parts of my heart and require love that was far bigger than what I had to offer. I didn't know that God was going to reveal Himself to me through a whisper that was almost so quite I missed it. And I most certainty didn't know that my agenda for the day and God's agenda for the day looked so drastically different.

Rewind with me a bit and you'll see that God had been preparing me for this day since February 5th, 2011 when I was first made aware of the plight of the imprisoned children in Uganda. I watched a documentary at an adoption retreat that revealed a disturbing reality of injustice and heartache that gripped me.  Images of wrongly confined children living in conditions that were unimaginable left tears streaming down my face (and a large pile of snotty tissues too!). I knew God had opened my eyes to this situation for a reason, I just didn't know how the heck I was suppose to respond?! I returned home from the retreat broken yet determined to do something about the uneasiness in my soul! The injustice of it all made me sick to my stomach and kept me awake at night.  My mind quickly began racing with sales pitch ideas of how I could get my church on board with investing in the ministries that were pouring into this remand center. I knew our church had recently made the decision to focus our attention on Uganda and had already taken one mission trip there, so I thought to myself, "There's hope! Maybe if I'm persuasive enough, they'll at least watch the documentary and consider going to this facility!?" Well... silly me didn't consider the fact that God didn't need "Sales Pitch Hilary" at all to accomplish His work! In fact, He had ALREADY been at work and I just didn't know it! You can only imagine my astonishment/relief/excitement when I found out that our church was ALREADY plugged into this facility and unbeknownst to me, had JUST visited it the month before on their first visionary trip in January 2011! How cool is that?!  I was beyond thrilled to find out that I wasn't going to have to jump any hurdles to get our Compassion Ministry equally as passionate about investing in these vulnerable children!  Isn't it just like God to pave the way!?! In fact, I found out our church would be heading back to Uganda and visiting this remand center that July 2011! 

Okay, so with that marked off my list of things to tackle, I decided to focus my attention on sharing with others what had impacted me. I hosted a little viewing of the documentary later that month, (February 17th to be exact) to a group of 15-20 friends and family at my sisters house. Following that, in the month of April, I focused my efforts towards selling cupcakes at Joshua's school as a fundraiser for one of the amazing ministries that serves these imprisoned children. At the end of April, Joshua and I earnestly prayed and made the decision for him to go on the July mission trip with the team. Long story short...  He went. He loved it. He came home a changed man. He told me there was no way I could miss the next trip. There you have it.

Flash forward to February 23rd, 2012, our second full day in Uganda, I found myself standing on a dusty red dirt road in front of the rundown, paint chipped building with barred windows that's image had been burned in my mind almost exactly one year prior... SURREAL!  As our team slowly walked in and soaked in the scene around us I immediately knew that I was going to have to "check out" in a sense, just to be able to function that day emotionally. There's really no adequate way to describe the immediate feeling of defeat and darkness that comes over you as you enter a place like this. The presence of the guards was very obvious and heavy that day. They seemed to make their power known by just a look in their eye and the stories we heard would confirm that instilling fear and physical abuse as punishment is a tactic they use quite often.  There is much I could share about this day, and maybe in time I will, but for now I want to share just one story from the day that forever impacted me.

After we finished up an incredibly moving time of worship and bible teaching with the kids (yes, these children worship God despite their undeserving circumstances! They have an unshakable faith that I have much to learn from, that enables them to lift their hands towards heaven and find hope and joy in the midst of unspeakable sorrow!) We headed outside to hang out with the children and play and talk and get to know them in hopes of showing them Christ's love in some way. Although after having worshiped with them, I can confidently say that they know who Jesus is and they showed me His face that day!

I went up to a group of girls that were gathered in a circle chatting. I've always had a special place in my heart for teen girls and it just seemed natural to approach them. I could feel myself start to smile as I neared them. The remand center is mostly made up of boys, so out of the 100+ kids there that day, I would say there were only about 15 girls total. The number of children is constantly changing depending on how many street kids are getting dropped off on any given day. (They've had upwards of 300+ street kids dropped off in one days time when an "important" government official is coming into town and they need to "clean up the street"- sigh!). Anyway, I approached the girls and started chit chatting with them about how pretty I thought they were. They proceeded to ask me my age, to which I reluctantly told them I was thirty one. They started laughing at me and said, "You're 31!!! (Apparently 31 is way OLD from their perspective and it probably was from my perspective too when I was their age, but my idea of what's "old" keeps getting higher and higher each birthday I have!). What they said following made me feel better though, "We can't believe you're 31! We thought you were like 20 something!" To which I replied, "See, I love you girls already! You're so smart!" and instantly the walls were down and connections were established. I vividly remember the thought coming to me while standing there to ask them if they wanted to share their story with me. Joshua and I had read a autobiography, Passport Through Darkness, several months earlier, and the author talked about how the people she ministered to in the Sudan just wanted to share their story with someone who cared. They wanted to know their life mattered. And so I stepped out on a limb and boldly asked the group of girls if anyone wanted to share their story. Immediately one of the older girls who seemed to be the "ring leader" in a sense, we'll call her "G",  quickly chimed in and said, "You want to know my story? I will tell you. It's long though." I told her that I had time. She said, "Follow me" and motioned for me to follow her up a set of stairs that lead to a low concrete wall where she sat down and began patting the spot next to her for me to sit. All the other girls had tagged along and were standing there with us, as if waiting their turn to share their story, and "G" politely looked each girl square in the eye and proceeded to point her finger and each one and say, "Privacy, Privacy, Privacy" as she went down the line. Each girl seemed to understand and ran along. I wondered if they don't even share their stories with each other?

And so began the one on one conversation that I thought was God's agenda for the day. I mean it made sense to me? Surely God had me in this exact moment to hear the cries of this precious 17 year old girl, "G"! Surely His plan was for me to let her know I loved her, that she was valued, and that He had not forgotten about her! I'm not ready to share the details of her story here right now, out of fear I may not do her life story justice. But rest assured, this conversation shook me to my core, and broke my heart in two! Here was an articulate, beautiful, vibrant girl... who in her short 17 years had experienced fear, hurt, and abandonment on levels I couldn't even wrap my mind around! As she shared her story she presented herself as strong and determined, yet loosing hope being stuck in this hellish place. Her only request when I asked what I could pray for, was that she would be able to go to school and get an education. Education in Uganda equals hope and most the time, the only way out. 

Meanwhile, I was keenly aware throughout our conversation that we were being eyed by one of the guards. Her manipulative glances made it very clear that she wanted "G" to know she was keeping an eye on her. My biggest fear was that I would innocently do something that would get one of the kids in trouble and cause them to "pay" after we left.  So as the guard looked away for a minute I whispered to "G", "Is it okay that we're talking, are you going to get in trouble for this later?" With her head held down, she quietly said, "It's fine." Right about that time I saw the guard strolling our way. My heart sunk and I took a deep breath. She approached with an arrogance about her that instantly surfaced feelings of anger inside of me for her. She proceeded to put her hand on "G's" knee and eerily say, "Daughter, daughter, daughter.... So, what are you ladies talking about today?" I immediately felt sick to my stomach and truly felt as though we were in the presence of darkness. In hopes of shielding "G" from being put in a compromising situation, I did my best to steer the conversation away from her. I told the guard that I had loved being in Uganda so far and that it was a beautiful country, to which she laughed and told me, "Ha! Uganda is NOT beautiful, Uganda is HARD!"... from this point on she proceeded to manipulate and take over the conversation, forcing "G" to actually get up and walk away. She began asking me all sorts of questions about America and saying things like, "Hypothetically, if someone like you Hilary, in America wanted to help someone like me here in Uganda by sending my children to school, you could do that, yes?"... I politely tried to inform her that no, I couldn't do that. She just kept pushing the question determined to get a different response from me, informing me of this little thing called "Western Union" and that she does KNOW in fact that I could send her money that way! (Ugh! Just retyping parts of this conversation make me sick to my stomach all over again!) Talk about being in the most uncomfortable situation EVER!  I wanted to run. I HATED this lady! I knew that she mistreated the children, I knew that she was mean, and I knew that she was my "enemy". The entire time she was talking all I kept thinking was, "She is getting in the way of God's plan! She is ruining God's purpose here today! Where is "G".... she's why I'm here!". I searched for ways to get out of this conversation, I physically got up and walked away from her... she followed. I frantically gave looks of "Help Me!" to my other team members- but for one reason or another, it wasn't happening, I was stuck! Another thirty minutes or so of this incredibly frustrating conversation went on.

And then it happened. God whispered. Ever so quietly, I heard Him. My emotions of bitterness and hate were screaming inside my head, but somehow the Holy Spirit was able to shout His whisper just loud enough to drowned out "Hilary" for a split second. Much to my disliking I heard this little voice say, "SHE IS MY AGENDA, SHE IS MY PLAN FOR TODAY!" 

(Here is where the ugliness of my heart was revealed and where God's beautiful agenda took over...)
"What?! NO WAY!!!! She doesn't deserve your love God! She is horrible! I can't do this! I won't do this!" A defiant anger rose up within me to ignore His whisper and continue listening to the shouts of hate in my head. I can't recall another time in my life where I ever have felt such ugliness toward an individual and an indifference to their life circumstances and their eternity. I'm just being honest, I know it's not pretty. But knowing what I knew about her, I just didn't have it in me to show an ounce of compassion or love for this lady! 

And then I heard the whisper again, "YOU INVITED ME HERE TODAY, I CAN DO THIS!"

Almost instantly an unexplainable certainty came over me. A peace in my soul that God was about to take over this conversation. I just needed to get out of the way! I needed to surrender my anger, my agenda,  and my hatred and let God's love shine, even when I couldn't muster it up on my own!

That's the beauty of the power of the Holy Spirit folks! Paul talks about it in Galatians as the "Mystery of the Gospel"- and in that exact moment, it was as if the veil of this mystery was lifted off my eyes and I KNEW, as a believer in Jesus Christ, HE COULD DO THIS through sinful ole' me! (Romans 8, good stuff!)

 I've gotta be honest here in saying the conversation from here gets a bit blurry in my head because quite honestly, the words coming out of my mouth were not my own! Pretty much the gist of it went something like this...

"Here's the deal guards name, I'm not going to be able to send your kids to school or send you money, and I'm sorry that you'll probably never understand that because it appears that I should obviously be able help you. BUT I can do something better for you!" 

She quickly became super interested in what I had to say, "What's that?!"

"I can pray for you! I KNOW as a mother, there is probably nothing you want more than to have your children grow up and know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and I KNOW you probably desire for them to grow into healthy and happy adults who make a difference in the world! So I will commit to pray that for you. And I'll even go a step further and commit to pray for you HERE in this job. I can only imagine that it's hard and you feel under-appreciated and under-paid, but I KNOW that deep down you must know what an honor it is that you've been intrusted with this position that enables you to make life-changing impacts on these children. I KNOW that surely you want to show these children the love of Christ and have them walk out of this place one day saying, "Yes, I lived at a place that might have been hell on earth, but guards name showed me Jesus, she showed me love, she gave me hope, she believed in me!" I KNOW surely you want that! I KNOW that you recognize the responsibility God has given you to care for these fatherless children, HIS children. And so I can only imagine that you need prayer?! And I can do that, I can commit to that! Can I pray for you right now guards name?!"

A look of complete bewilderment was on her face as she nodded and quietly said, "Sure". It was the first time she was silent and had nothing more to say since she had approached me 30-40 earlier! I'm just sayin', there is power in the name of Jesus to silence people! (o; 

And then I prayed for her. And I haven't stopped praying for her EVERY DAY since Feb 23rd! I pray God's truth overwhelms her and His love radically transforms her! I pray that she is light in the darkness there and that she never lays a hand on any children there ever again! She could be exactly what turns this place around! I have to hope that God can restore her and use her and that He is able to accomplish far more than I can imagine! 

Just as a cool side note... in the midst of my little "God interrupted conversation" with this guard, a storm was brewing. Dark nasty clouds started swirling overhead and we were about to get nailed. It was a bit eery as I felt like there was an actual spiritual battle of good vs evil going on- but I'm sure it's just coincidental. Regardless, just as I was finishing up and praying for her the wind kicked up pretty strong and sent everyone running to get inside and our team to get back on the bus. As I closed the prayer with "In the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen".... it was clear that our conversation was going to be over given the impending downpour. I have to think it might just have been God's way of getting the last word. She wasn't able to say anything as I ran away to get back on our bus, and my prayer is that those words "In the Name of Jesus Christ" have lingered in her heart!

As for "G"... oh sweet "G", I think of this girl and pray for her every day too! As I got on the bus, all in a tizzy from my crazy encounter,  I glanced out the window to my right and there she was trying to get my attention!  My heart skipped with joy because God let me say goodbye to her when I thought the opportunity was gone. I was quickly able to tell her that I would not forget her and to hold out hope. I was able to make her a promise that I would follow up with a certain individual who is fighting to get "G" out of there with a sponsorship to school. And I was able to look into her eyes one last time and see a glimmer of hope still left. Pray for her, please!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I don't know JACK!

Well, it turns out I'm a "processor"... I never knew this about myself, but I've discovered this to be true since returning from Uganda almost three weeks ago. I'm overwhelmed right now just trying to figure out where to begin in writing this post! I'm utterly aware of the fact that there is no way in words I'm going to adequately sum up my experience and all that God has opened my eyes and heart to! This same feeling of, "Where the heck do I begin?!" floods my head when someone nonchalantly asks me, "Oh hey, how was your trip?!"... I want to respond, "Well, you gotta an hour, or two?!"... because there is just no quick way to wrap up this life changing experience... and let's face it, the majority of people are asking for the quick version.  Oh how it makes me grateful for the few who really want to know the stories, who really want to know the names, who really want to take the time, who really want to know the heartbreak and joy that consumes my thoughts each and every day since returning! To those who have listened, I have cherished those meaningful conversations more than I you know, as they truly are what has helped me process through it all! My gratitude runs deep!  Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for all who have asked, even if only to be polite, it's just that my eyes have seen things and my heart has felt things that have rocked me to my core, so I can't possibly sum up all that is churning inside me in a 20 second response. I only wish everyone could go and see and hear and feel and smell what I've been privileged to, then you'd understand. I'm changed. Uganda changed me. So, instead of putting this pressure on myself to cram all my thoughts into one post, I think I'm gonna ease into this and do several posts as I process through it all. For today, here is what is heavy on my heart...

I walked away from Uganda realizing that I don't know jack! I don't know jack about the cultural gap that exists between us, especially in regards to marriages, parenting, education, and work! I don't know jack about the hurt that comes with the gut wrenching stories that hide behind the sweet faces we met! I don't know jack about solutions to corrupt government policies! I don't know jack about the despair that comes with constant hunger, wondering where your next meal will come from! I don't know jack about any of this because my life is so far removed from these issues! (And for the record, I don't want my life to be so far removed, I want to close in this gap of understanding!) But the truth is, because of our drastically different lifestyles, I found myself completely stripped of anything and everything I thought I had to offer! I had no solutions, I had no wisdom, and I definitely had no grounds for even pretending to understand the difficulties they face each and every day! This left me feeling pretty inadequate, vulnerable, and overwhelmed. This left me exactly where God wanted me, with NOTHING to offer BUT HIS LOVE AND HIS TRUTH! The best part about God's love and His truth is... it trumps all culture! (thank you Mama Bishop for reminding me of that!) So while I don't know jack about a whole heckava lot... there is true freedom found in the realization that God's love fills in the giant gap of my understanding! Sometimes it's the only solid ground there is to stand on! 
1 Corinthians 13:13 "Three things will last forever--faith, hope, and love--and the greatest of these is LOVE."