I saw people eating scraps of maize. Torture survivors. Pregnant rape victims. Lepers. Crippled grandmothers. Blind great-grandmothers. The list goes heartbreakingly on.
I witnessed thousands of people living in poverty this week but not one poor person. In fact, the people I encountered were so rich I felt spiritually under-dressed for the trip.
The primal huts and slums of Katwe, Nateete, Gulu and Pugwini all live up to their National Geographic expectations. Smells of charcoal, raw food, diesel and decay. Scavenging varmint. Rusty red air. Naked children. Archaic commerce with little modern mechanization.
The poverty is so unreal it feels like a bad dream. Then you remember it’s someone’s daily reality.
Uganda’s collective facial expression is stoic. Her body is beautifully resilient yet her mind is tired. Uganda works just as hard as she prays. Financially, emotionally and spiritually left for dead, Uganda is a rotting cog in the machine that is Africa.
But still I saw no poor people.
Though we share the same sun and 24-hour day, time in Uganda passes very differently than in America. For many of us in the United States our days are disposable. Each one is used for a specific thing and then tossed into the landfill of our busy life as we reach for another thing. Things are important to us.
The Ugandans I observed seem to savor the day, with little rush to get to the end yet an appreciation that they did. They seemed grateful for today but very neutral about tomorrow. I expected hopelessness but found hope. I suspect my American definition of the word blinded me to what it really means. Things are not important to them.
By all global economic measures I am a rich person. So I went all the way to Africa to help poor people. Instead I discovered how rich they are and that the poorest people were actually back in my country.
I’m not making light of their poverty and suffering. It’s real. It’s happening right now. It’s beyond explanation. It’s wrong. It pisses me off. But most of all it makes me sad.
But God makes beauty from ashes and Uganda is His next top model.
The people I encountered love God with their whole heart. They are unashamed to sing, talk or share about Him. They love one another. Many of them have suffered horrors at the hands of their own countrymen but many more are striving to save their community.
And I humbly stand with them. This week wasn’t a “poverty safari” to observe slum dwellers in their natural habitat. It wasn’t a bucket-list mission trip to check off on my Christian scorecard. It was God’s will working though His people and I confess that I was tardy reporting for duty.
“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:18)
I thought I would see poor people in pain. I discovered rich people who happen to live in poverty.
I saw barefoot kids run to inspect Daryl’s white skin (they call Caucasians “mzungas”) and love on him.
I spent the day with a guy who was once too broke to afford rat poison and kill himself – now there’s a Disney movie in production about his work in the slums of Katwe.
I met a teenage rape survivor who forgives her attacker and wants to be a veterinarian.
Most of all, I saw people who are just as normal as I think I am. Not everyone was from a slum or a hut and several were very well educated. In fact, we spent time with 2 gentleman, Jimmy and David, who reminded us of ourselves.
In all fairness, for every story of overcoming poverty there is also a story of unhealed, unresolved pain. I didn’t see any poor people in Uganda but I know they exist. Despite being seemingly broken beyond repair I saw very many smiles and laughs.
Most days I rationed my tears until I was safely in my hotel room, for fear I would bring even more rain to their parade. I wasn’t always succesful. As I stood in front of the 30 teenage girls at Christine’s House, who had all been savagely abused, I lost it.
I told them I love them and have been praying for them for quite some time. I told them I have a daughter, a wife, a mother and sisters, and that it makes me sad to think of this happening to them. I told them since God adopted us out of sin into His salvation, we are all family. They are my sisters and daughters.
I told them I don’t just want to pray for them anymore. I want to do something. We all can start somewhere and Sports Outreach, Freedom 4/24 and Christian Relief Fund are just a few of the organizations making it easy to get involved.
The next day we sang and worshipped God together. I read Matthew 5 and taught about being the salt and light of the world, with the help of a very patient translator. They showed me how to make African donuts and proudly showcased their dress making skills. Some are already building houses and huts, planting crops and cities and giving God big-time glory. They want better for tomorrow while making the best of today.
The girls of Christine’s House are beautiful dreamers. And it’s contagious.
To be honest, I did more “ministry” in 1 week in Uganda than 1 year back home. They are rich and invested generously into me. They taught me that living in abject poverty doesn’t mean you live in absolute despair. Joy isn’t the absence of problems it’s the presence of God.
I went to Africa to find and help poor people. Instead I found impoverished people who helped me.
My present prosperity isn’t meant solely for my pleasure. We’re so fortunate in this country to possess more than we need and I believe it’s in order to meet someone else’s need. Now.
Not once the 401(k) is maxed out and the hard wood floors are installed. Now.
The Body of Christ was pre-wired with a generosity reflex. A desire to help. A burden to bless. Mine is Africa. I’ve known it for a while and regret my delay in really responding.
I think this trip was an invitation to join Him. Is it too large a task for God to restore orphans, victims and widows into thriving citizens? No. Is it impossible to imagine that God would use us to participate in this task? Nope.
What a gift! The opportunity to plant seeds, literal and eternal, that yield a guaranteed harvest of hope, grace, peace and unity.
You know, the stuff all those rich people have.