15 July – Anxiety, Airplanes and Arrival
The last week or so has been interesting: time in both Banff National Park in Alberta and Glacier National Park in Montana, family camp at Luther Crest Bible Camp in Alexandria, Minnesota and getting ready for my trip to Uganda.
I left Luther Crest Sunday morning in order to make it to church at St. Anne’s in Hamel (our friends J-Jeff and Laura Reither’s parish that is running this trip). J-Jeff is the organizer and primary leader of our trip. He’s also one of my closest friends over the last 20 years, and I am happy to be experiencing this adventure with him. Another of my closest friends – Brian Scott, went on this trip in 2012; and he was kind enough to drive me to Hamel on his way back home to Red Wing. I’m glad we had that drive in the car together as we talked about what was to come. Once we arrived, Brian stayed at St. Anne’s for worship with me too. When I get back in two weeks, Tammie is going to pick me up at the airport, and we’ll go back to Brian and Larissa’s house to debrief and spend the night.
It is a good thing to have good friends.
Since Sunday (yesterday), I have been observing the anxiety in the group as twenty-seven of us come together. For some, that anxiety is manifest by the constant talking and chatter about “what if” questions that pervade conversations. For others it is the reverse – a pulling back, coy kind aloofness that gives every appearance of remaining cool under pressure, but quite obviously is anything but calm and collected. I have noticed fidgety behavior by another set of travelers, constantly checking passports, boarding passes, and other items in carry-on luggage. I am sure I’ve embodied all of these “types” at some point already, but I think the way I have handled the unknowns of this trip so far has been to ignore the details. I am still not that familiar with the itinerary; perhaps because I didn’t make any of the planning meetings other than hearing about them afterwards from J-Jeff, but I think it is more than that. Another excuse could be the business of an already full schedule this summer, but again – I can more than handle logistics like that. Maybe I wasn’t sure it was really going to happen, or since I knew J-Jeff was leading this trip I didn’t have to worry. Maybe since I’m the only non-Catholic along I am already embracing a role as an outsider to the group. Perhaps some greater reflection will happen as time goes on; but what has helped me get engaged and cast my own anxiety aside is jumping into camp-counselor mode. J-Jeff has assigned us into four small groups, both he and I, along with the two priests: Father Woody Pace and Father Corey Belden will serve as the small group leaders. Once the group was assembled I turned that leadership role on – not taking into account the things or behavior in others that might annoy me normally. My role as a leader on this trip is to keep things positive, make sure people are included or don’t pull back, and yes, familiarize myself with what we are doing, when and why. Once we get there I’m sure I’ll feel better…
…The flights were L-O-N-G !!! Holy buckets – we traveled for over twenty-six hours to get here. I’m not sure if it is Monday or Tuesday anymore. I am however, grateful to be at the Ulrika Mother House of the nuns who will be our hosts at the two schools these coming weeks. I am fortunate enough to have a single room – which is great for winding down after those long flights. (I’m tucked under my mosquito net as I write.)
I helped some of the others get through customs once we landed in Entebbe. Camp counselor mode is actively running! Sister Salome met us once we got through customs. “You are most welcome” she told each of us we were greeted with a warm hug. We each received a sign the girls at St. Kizito made for us, with our names, and that same message, “You are most welcome to Uganda.” I like that phrase. It is extreme hospitality all the way. We have arrived. Thanks be to God!
16- July – Mzungus on the loose!
For years when Jeff and I are together – he is J-Jeff and I am G-Geoff. Our kids only know us by those names. He’s a natural at thanking everyone for their hospitality and sharing our excitement to be among them – which was received well. After we got settled a little bit – we have two large dormitories – one for men and one for women (the priests will each have their own room!); we took our first walk to the other school where we will both dedicate the library and help build the science lab: Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Children filled our walk. When one would see us they started shouting, “Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!” which as far as I can tell doesn’t just mean “white person,” it also seems to be a term of endearment; because often when Mzungus come, they bring treats! We had tootsie rolls and other trinkets to give away. They were received well, but I started to wonder what it means that the “Mzungu” come to bring stuff. We are doing that – we brought supplies, clothes, candy, money, even ourselves to help this community. It will be an interesting discovery over the next couple of weeks to see if we are perceived as partners or as saviors. It will also be interesting to see how we perceive ourselves. I hope we can be partners, equals, each contributing for the greater good, rather than getting caught in the classic power dynamics of privilege. I remember Randy Nelson at Luther Seminary telling our group as we travelled to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, “leave behind your backpack of privilege.” I hope to do that. I’ll share that with my small group tonight too. We are here to learn as much as teach, receive as much as give, listen as much as we speak,. Perhaps “Mzungu” can mean that too. I hope so. When the kids come running shouting that term, it does bring a smile to your face.
17 July – Giving and Seeing
Today was a hard day’s work at Our Lady of Guadalupe. The science lab is already outlined by a brick wall at knee height. The building will be built into a hill so that both the upper and lower floors will walk out at ground level. At the lower floor side were piles of bricks. Three large rooms will fill the lower level. The center of each room contained a large dirt pile, about my height at its peak, and below the bricks in the corners.
Our job would be to move the bricks to the back of the lower level into the hill’s retaining wall. e lined up in teams and started throwing bricks. The last person on the line stacked them neatly for the bricklayer crew.
Once we completed the brick tossing/restacking task (which took a couple of hours) our next job was to level the dirt in rooms. Garden hoes were our only tool to complete this task and it was long and arduous in the hot sun. We stopped around 1:30, and then we played with some of the school kids until we ate at 2:00. As a group we were both hungry and tired.
After lunch came the big giveaway. As part of our luggage each of us brought a large plastic container called a tote, containing items we would donate. Some of them would be used to bring medical supplies to a health clinic later on, the rest contained clothes, shoes, toothbrushes, etc. for the giveaway that would take place that afternoon. Sister Salome told the local villagers that we had brought items to give to them. Already by our lunch break, they began to fill the fill the hillside.
The porch of the new library was divided into several areas – t-shirts for boys, dresses for girls, shoes, toothbrushes and a few other items. The school also runs a program that gives away five-hundred hard-boiled eggs twice a week to the local kids to make sure they are getting protein in their diet. Sister Salome decided there would be an egg station as part of the giveaway as well. I ran the toothbrush line along with some of our high school boys.
It didn’t take me long to figure out there were not enough items to give to the people there – especially shoes. Soon enough we were out of everything. I watched how people in our group took it emotionally as they too discovered that reality. J-Jeff later told me the giveaway is always the best day and the worst day; since people would have to cope with not having enough. I figured it out soon enough that I realized we could have brought ten times as many things and we still wouldn’t have enough for everybody, which was both sobering and in a weird way – reassuring. We didn’t pack or plan poorly – the needs were just that great. But the people there didn’t seem to mind. They were happy to see us, saying, “webele” (“thank you”) with large smiles.
With my small group we talked about our day and about the abundance we are so used to experiencing. We also talked through the difference between relief and development – the idea that relief is necessary, because the needs were great; but development was needed to change the situation that made relief so necessary. My observation so far is that the people we have encountered in Uganda are hard-working, grateful, and realistic about their expectations. We have much to learn.
Worship was at the end of the day today. We read Jesus’ words, “Come to me all who are weary and carrying burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28). How fitting.
18 July – Perspective
We drove two hours today to Kambaala to see a health clinic run by Father Ponce, a classmate of Father Woody’s from seminary. The people who worked in this health clinic were overwhelmed with gratitude for our visit, and long introductions and speeches were included as part of a day’s worth of “webele.” At the end of the day a few in our group were a little put off by how over the top it all seemed, but to those we visited, today was a big deal. We were the first Americans to visit. The totes we brought full of supplies will really help their efforts.
One of them said, “just think what we can do once we have electricity!” It wasn’t a sarcastic complaint one of us would have made, but real optimism and confidence that they really were making a difference. This health center serves about 5,500 people. Eight out of ten patients who come for treatment first present symptoms of malaria. Since St. Michael’s participated in the ELCA Malaria Campaign last fall this was of key interest to me. After lunch we were given a tour of the grounds, including a new pump well at the bottom of the hill that will serve the community with clean water. A little can go a long way.
At the end of our day Father Ponce invited us into his family home, where we met his mother and several of his ten siblings. It was both an honor for us to be there as much as it was for him to host us.
As we processed our outing at the end of the day once back at St. Kizito, we talked about how our trip fit into the other pilgrimages that have taken place since 2001. We tend to think of “our” accomplishments when it comes to ministry and/or mission, but there is always a context of relationships that set us side by side with others. Perhaps another group will return to Kambala, and maybe that group will not include any of us on that trip. That detail won’t matter; because the visit will be about continuing the relationship of those who first came and saw the work being done, who brought supplies to help support it, who visited the pump well, and who sat in Father Ponce’s house as friends. Continuing those relationships and making new ones is just as (or perhaps even more) important than how many bricks we stack or rooms we complete. I’m remembering that fish story in Luke 5, where the fishermen have to call another boat over to help lift the nets because the load is too heavy for anyone to lift it alone. This is the mission we share – to help lift each other’s nets after we encounter Jesus.