Along with 26 other pilgrims I went to Uganda July 15-29, 2014. These were my daily reflections:
25 July – God’s Work, Our Hands
Working together with Father Belden
We had an awesome work day (especially since my arm was feeling better). Our primary job was hauling dirt in large bags from a pile, into a retaining wall. Some in our number dug with hoes, while others of us carried the bags. I carried bags. The heavier ones I swung up with my better arm over my shoulder to make the trek.
It also felt good wearing my Lutheran shirt (the ELCA’s theme the last several years has been “God’s work, our hands” with an emphasis on service). As a voting member at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly last year we were greeted by Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden, from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. One of the things he said to us was something to the effect of, “As you near your 500th anniversary, we should find ways to walk there together.” (Luther posted the 95 Theses in 1517 – in Germany, this is the decade of Luther, 2017 will be a huge celebration). As he spoke, there were not many dry eyes in the room. Part of my experience here is doing exactly that, walking with my brothers and sisters in faith. Are there still divisions and differences between Roman Catholics and Lutheran Christians? Of course. But walking together, especially in service to our neighbors as the body of Christ in the world is exactly the kind of work and partnerships we should be building. Maybe one day we will be “one as my Father and I are one” as Jesus prayed in John 17. Maybe we already are and we just need to get over ourselves.
25 July – Late Night Giggles
We are at the point in the trip that anytime we return to St. Kizito, the girls swarm us and want to play games. The younger pilgrims on our trip are particularly good at this, and are making some really great connections. Laughter is becoming a very common sound at St. Kizito and it really is fun. It is exhausting, but fun.
Tonight it started to rain and the power went out, which became the signal to go to bed. J-Jeff and I stayed up and sat under the gazebo with a beverage. Then it began to pour. We sat talking and enjoying the sound of the rain hitting the metal roof.
By the time we got back into our dorm room, all the others guys were fast asleep. As we started getting ready for bed, we both got a contagious case of the giggles. We spent the next half hour or so goofing around with the flashlight and our mosquito nets. By the time we were really ready to fall asleep we had both been laughing so hard the tears were rolling down our cheeks.
This has been a great trip for our friendship. J-Jeff and I often talk during the week and catch up on what we are up to and how our families are doing – but this is the kind of thing I miss. Over twenty years of friendship we have giggled a lot. We’ve been there for each other during some very serious times as well, but somehow I tend to feel a little lighter when we’re together. I’m not sure what I think is going to be harder in a few days – leaving Uganda, or leaving J-Jeff at the MSP airport.
26- July – Not Just a River in Egypt.
The Nile runs through several countries. Egypt is the most famous, but the source of the Nile is in Uganda. We traveled today to the town of Jinja and Lake Victoria to that source – a four and a half hour excursion. Once we arrived we took a little boat to a small island. The source is a spring at that location, and we got to put our feet in the water. The spring provides about a third of the water for the Nile while the river also feeds off of Lake Victoria. It takes about ninety days for the water there to reach the Mediterranean Sea.
We also stopped for lunch which was an experience. We sat there for three hours before being fed, and most of our group didn’t like their food very much. J-Jeff and I ordered fru fru drinks which we thought would be fruity, but were actually licorice. I like licorice, but they were not what we expected. J-Jeff and I concurred that in future pilgrimages, this place would be crossed off the list.
After lunch (by now it was 5:00 p.m.), it took us six hours to drive back, and we experienced incredible traffic in Kampala. Once again, “driving is hell.” At the very least – it sure is an experience.
27 July – Final Mass at St. Kizito
This morning we had our last worship with the girls at St. Kizito. Tomorrow we leave, and will spend some time at the martyrs shrine in Namugongo prior to going to the airport. The singing this morning was extraordinary. Father Cyril’s homily on Solomon was good too – Solomon prayed for wisdom to govern which he received; he didn’t pray for wisdom to govern his own life which was a disaster. This serves as a calling for us to pray to govern our own lives with wisdom. At the end of worship, two girls came out to dance – one as Charles (the teacher) and one as Kizito (the student). Charles sang, Kizito danced and skipped across the room (the image being that these martyrs now sing and dance in heaven). Kizito danced to each in our group who were spread out across the room. It was a neat way to bless us on our way. When the dancer stopped at me, she rubbed my fuzzy head to the delight of everyone. The girls roared in amusement, and I laughed hard too.
Today is a long goodbye. Once worship was over it was our time to pack up. This afternoon there will be a soccer game and a volleyball match and then evening prayer before bed. A few of us have been asked to say a few words – which I am planning to do.
27 July – God’s Will
Sister Salome is a very effective leader who brings energy, relationships and determination to hew work. She commands authority without being harsh. She is gentle and caring without being a pushover. The girls at St. Kizito nicknamed her “God’s Will.” “Look out, God’s Will is coming!” they will say, but Sister will tell this story while laughing. She is a real gift to this community.
27 July – The Games
Our last afternoon at St. Kizito featured a volleyball game among the girls vs. the women of our group, and a soccer match between our boys along with some students from Our Lady vs. some local players.
Volleyball was really fun. I was chosen as the referee. Imagine six players on a side, surrounded by the other five hundred girls, faculty, and mzungus all on the sidelines. When we started I tried to get a “wave” going, which they found amusing but it didn’t catch on. What did catch on were the songs, the drums, the cheers, and an absolutely fun atmosphere all underneath a steady drizzle of rain. St. Kizito won the game, but nobody seemed to care.
The soccer match was a little more intense. Sister Salome said that the mzungu team won, but I don’t think she was really keeping score since she and J-Jeff had left on an errand. But who among us can argue with “God’s Will?”
27 July – Last Night
Our time at St. Kizito came to an end with an adoration /sending service for us. Somehow along the way the girls have come to regard “G-Geoff” as the dancer, not because of my moves (anybody could refute those), but because as I listen to the girls sing, I bob my head, sway my shoulders, tap my feet, as I deeply enjoy the beauty of their voices. I’ve tried to move around where I sit, but the last several days I’ve sat in the same section of benches on the side. Tonight, as I entered that section, many requests came: “G-Geoff, sit here” so they could join me in dancing. The electricity was out tonight, so candlelight added to the atmosphere. Father Cyril preached a great message from James 2, about living an active faith.
At the close of the service, Victoria, Matt, Father Belden, myself, Father Woody and J-Jeff were asked to say a few remarks about our experience. All were heartfelt. When it was my turn to come forward, I made some headbobs and shoulder shrugs like I was dancing and the girls erupted.
I said something like this:
“While sitting in the dark I was thinking about what I had planned to say, when I remembered Jesus’ words, ‘You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. A city on a hill cannot be hid. If you have a lamp, you aren’t going to hide it under something so no one can see it, would you? No. You hold it high so everyone can see. Your light fills this room. Even in the darkness tonight your light shines bright. You have shared that light with each of us. Thank you. You have inspired us by your joy and your faith and your amazing singing. In America it is getting harder and harder for us to be the church, but you have given us hope. Thank you. You remind me of one of my favorite verses from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, ‘Blessed are the feet…happy are the feet of those who bring good news.’ You bring good news. You have blessed us. You have made our feet happy. My feet are happy. They make me want to dance like St. Kizito did this morning. Thank you for bringing the light, and for making each step lighter. God bless you all.”
J-Jeff talking to the girls in the chapel, after the lights came back on.
J-Jeff concluded the talks by sharing how the St. Kizito community had helped his son Isaiah who was in the hospital through their constant and vigilant prayer, and that even though we would be leaving; our prayers would connect us still.
It was a nice end to the evening. Tomorrow we begin the journey home.
28 July – The Martyrs
We left around 8:00 a.m. for our last day – a pilgrimage to the site of the Ugandan Martyrs. In 1886 the king sentenced twenty-two Roman Catholics (including Charles and Kizito) along with twenty-four Anglicans to be burned alive. Rather than calling out in pain, they sang hymns and invited their executioners to faith. In the early 1960s the Roman Catholci maryts were canonized as saints. A beautiful church was constructed on the site of Charles’ death; while an Anglican seminary is on the site of where the others died (new buildings are under construction to commemorate the location.)
We had mass outside the Catholic Shrine at a pavilion on a man-made lake constructed for when Pope John Paul II visited in the 1990s. Before worship J-Jeff said a few words and presented Father Belden, Father Woody and myself with vestments made by the sisters at the mother house we stayed at our first night in Uganda. It was a very nice and unexpected gesture. The vestments given to me are white. When I wear them, I’ll think of this amazing trip, my fellow pilgrims, and the wonderful people – including the sisters whose faith continues to shines bright.
(What day is it???) July – The Journey Home
After a last lunch at a mall (of all and some shopping for souvenirs, we were off to the airport. DELAY!!! Our 6:30 p.m. flight finally got out of Entebbe around 1:30 a.m. I did get to talk to Tam and Mia via Facetime for a couple of minutes and get a number of laps in the terminal in before a long day’s coming worth of sitting. Some in our number decided to nap in the terminal. We finally got in the air.
J-Jeff and I even got to sit together. We watched a movie and tried to sleep. When we landed we both had sore necks.
Originally we had a long layover scheduled for Amsterdam, and several in our group wanted to take an excursion into the city. After our delay, there wasn’t time for such an outing. J-Jeff was relieved – one less logistical piece to worry about. J-Jeff, Father Woody and I found the Irish Pub and discussed what we enjoyed about this trip and what we might alter for a future endeavor.
(J-Jeff is always thinking about how to get more people to Uganda.)
The second flight from Amsterdam to Detroit was really fun. J-Jeff and I got to sit next to one another again and we watched several movies together including an old favorite, “Tommy Boy.” We were probably obnoxious with our constant giggles.
After making it through customs, we finally arrived in the U.S. and made our last flight to Minneapolis. Upon arrival Tammie and our friend Dave Holtz were waiting for me. It was a great reunion.
I experienced mixed feelings as we all said our goodbyes. This was a great trip, our time together had come to a close. One of the things we discussed in the last few days in Uganda were things we missed and food we wanted to eat when we got home. I mentioned nachos which spurred a multiple day conversation. We spent the night at our friend’s Brian and Larissa Scott in Red Wing, MN before Joe and I would head out to CT on Thursday.
Waiting for me when I got there…nachos! God is good. (So were the nachos.)
30 July – The Pearl of Africa
Uganda is nicknamed the ‘Pearl of Africa’ because of its beauty, lush vegetation, and preserved natural habitat for many animals and birds. I think of it as the ‘Pearl of Africa’ because of the people we got to meet, the joyous culture we experienced, and the new treasures we all enjoyed – many for the first time.
We learned to play drums.
Some got to dance.
We met lots of children.
My small group
Pilgrims became friends.
We served others.
We thought about our faith in new ways.
We became more comfortable with who we are in God’s world.
Mia in her dress made by Sister Monica
We continue the journey, even back home…
Pilgrimage to Uganda, 2014