I truly had no idea what I was in for. The closer the day of my flight to Uganda came the greater my concern for being emotionally and spiritually prepared for the journey I became. My concern was valid to say the least. On the flip side, I don’t believe one is ever fully prepared for what happens when you step off that plane and begin the process.
The first night in our hotel in Mbarara, I felt guilty for how nice it was. Our 5 hour bus ride from Entebbe proved to be gut wrenching. The closer we got to Mbarara the more devastation I saw. The darker the sky grew the more broken my heart became. I saw small children without clothing simply playing with rocks because that was all they had. A small child walking in the dark carrying pails of water to his family will shake you to your core. There was a very distinct moment when I realized those commercials I had seen on the TV for years were so real. They are not over dramatized.
As they saw our bus approach they stopped everything. I could see their smiles for miles. They are so beautiful and happy yet likely don’t know when or how their bellies will be full again. I’m already searching for ways I can truly help this community.
On our first full day, we had the privilege to attend a church service unlike anything I’ve experienced. I’ve never felt the Holy Spirit as present as it was in that moment. The joy expressed to us, as total strangers, was overwhelming and welcomed. I wish the people in that church understood how much they showed us during such a short amount of time. I’m typically not excited about talking in front of large unfamiliar groups but I knew I had to give them my all as I was introduced. I had thought about what I wished to share. I thought about my testimony and ran through it over and over in my mind. I had every intention of sharing my story but I just couldn’t. I was so overcome with emotion when it was my turn I could barely get through a quick personal introduction without my voice quivering and fighting back the tears. During the service, a woman accepted Jesus as her savior. What a powerful moment to witness! I later saw her at a school we toured and I approached her. My intent was to pray for her but she seemed to be trying to avoid me but I was committed to acknowledging her in that moment. The closer I came to her I realized she has been through things I can’t imagine. She wore sunglasses to hide her missing left eye and terribly burned skin. I hugged her and simply told her how blessed our team was to witness her coming to Jesus today during the service. I saw a hint of a smile and she lowered her head and walked on.
A little girl named Rachel followed me from the church to the school that day. This is the first of many times I connected with a small child during our trip. She wore a pink knee length dress and a smile that would capture any heart. Her worn dress was only able to zip about half way up because of a broken zipper. Her face was dirty and her smile was radiant. She came to hug me at any opportunity over the next several hours. At this particular school, I saw the dormitory that the girls used to sleep in before moving to the newer school. They had bunk beds in a room far too small to house that many children. The swings out back looked rusted and were made out of a two by four. I felt thankful my tetanus shot was up to date. The children still flocked to them and looked joyful at the chance to experience what little fun the swings could provide them.
For anyone who knows me, you may recall how much I love pygmy goats. Uganda is full of goats. They are literally everywhere just like dogs are here. I ventured off in hopes to just pet a goat and recharge my emotional battery when I stumbled upon a young man named Douglas. I was quiet at first as I was attempting to process that I was even in Africa yet alone part of the recent church service and now walking through this place that unfortunately resembled a school.
Douglas is 17 and is part of the choir. At age 2 his mother abandoned him by running away. He couldn’t be cared for by his father because he was a drug lord. His grandmother cared for him until her death due to old age. (The average life expectancy is about 50 years old.) He explained his extended family would not care for him because he was simply “another mouth to feed” and he was sick at the time. He was orphaned until Parental Care took him in 4 years ago. He spent years living on the streets and searching for food in trash cans. I wish this story were rare but I quickly realized how many children can retell this story only inserting their own name.
It began to rain and we all took cover in a school house. I can’t tell you the joy my heart had as children flocked to me. Some of them wanted to play with my hair. Some of them just stared and smiled. Most of them wanted physical affection which I was more than happy to supply.
One of the most powerful moments of the trip was visiting a boys home. Uganda is filled with hearts bigger than the state of Texas but Dennis is quite the soul. He provides shelter for more than 50 children. I don’t know a time in my life where I was more broken and humbled. I recall standing in a circle holding hands and praying with about 50 people. At the end of the prayer I opened my eyes just in time to see a single tear fall from my eye and hit the dirt. This was such a raw, authentic and telling moment for me. I remember catching eyes with a woman on our trip just as this happened. I do believe we were sharing the same broken feeling. I could feel her heartache from a distance and I had just met her. I just looked down and had to keep wiping my eyes in attempt to get it together. This home is filled with young men who have been rejected, put down, and broken until they have no hope.
I’ve been home for almost two weeks. I was concerned the stories would sit on a shelf and my overwhelming need to go back would fade. But it hasn’t. I owe my service to their community for what they have provided to me. My heart is changed. Those are four very powerful words.
My heart is changed.