Sunday, June 18, 2006


Decompression is a common experience following a plunge into another culture, particularly a society whose needs are as deep as those we meet in Uganda. You see and smell and touch and hear and taste those needs for many hours a day. Then you return to the comforts, luxuries, excesses, and trivial pursuits of our everyday life. For a short time everything back home looks different – too shiny, too loud, too sterile, too superficial. You feel judgmental about everything. We have too much. We complain too much. We want too much. We are too picky, too stingy, too uninformed or misinformed about the realities outside our suburban bubble.

But that doesn’t last long. It takes only a short time breathing the air of material prosperity before your soul adjusts to its previous state, discontent in all its comfort. I had not set foot on American soil before I was already returning to that state of soul deficiency.

For nearly two weeks I breathed the air of African poverty. The pastors with whom I studied had nothing compared to the pastors I know at home. Food, clothes, pens, paper, Bibles, education were nearly all luxuries to many of them. For a week we supplied those things before they boarded overcrowded busses to return to their villages and trading centers.

We “prayer-walked” in Kashanyarzi, where poverty and disease were palpable and stench-filled like Pasadena air. AIDS widows worked hard to scrub clothes in cold, dirty water, to prepare sparse meals over open fires, and to care for children who ran loose and naked about the assembly of one-room homes, dark like caves. A sign was scrawled over a tiny wooden structure with a padlocked door: “Birthing room. Do not urinate inside. 500 shilling fine.”

Small black children with runny noses and filthy hands followed us about the village of Omukafunda while their parents looked with empty eyes at the bazungu (white people) walking through their dusty streets, carefully stepping around the cow and goat dung on the roads. A group of women asked us to pray for them. Their men sit at a bar, unemployed and without prospect of work. What do you pray? How do you pray? What do you stand there in their presence and ask God to do for them, you who have never prayed earnestly for God to give you this day your daily bread because you already knew where it was coming from? You who have access to the best medical care in the world and who complain over rising insurance premiums – how do you ask for God to bring healing to the ravages of HIV and malaria to these who have access to practically nothing?

Then the British Air 777 lands at Heathrow and an air-conditioned bus takes me to the Holiday Inn. I begin to breathe the air to which my soul has become accustomed, and before long I have begun reentry. My room is too hot or too cold. The internet doesn’t work. My slacks are wrinkled from their two weeks in the suitcase. The buffet at the restaurant is too expensive. British food tastes bland to my Tex Mex palate. The next morning the process continues. The video screen at my seat on my flight home is “conked out” (to use the flight attendant’s technical explanation), so I am unable to watch in-flight movies. The headrest on my seat does not remain extended and is uncomfortable. By the time I land in Houston, the reversion to my culture and its ways will be nearly complete. In a few weeks of shopping at Kroger and eating out several times a week I will have forgotten the village of Omukafunda and its children. My whines will have drowned out their cries and I will be normal again.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Walking and Praying

Stephen Hawthorne describes "prayer-walking" as "praying on-site with insight." The idea is that rather than praying for ministries in particular areas at a distance, you walk through the area, keeping your eyes and ears open and your heart attentive to God. You pray for those you see as you pass through, observing the needs that become evident. You listen to the Spirit of God as you walk, and you converse with God and your prayer-walking partners as you go.

As we prepared to come to Africa, we knew that prayer-walking would be one of our activities here. We read Stephen Hawthorne’s book on the subject and talked about it. Andrea Stephens prepared a study guide for us on the subject. And we put our learning into practice. Some of the team met at Emerald Pointe on a Monday evening and "prayer-walked" the apartment complex. Some of us met on a Wednesday morning and prayer-walked the neighborhood around Whitcomb Elementary School.

So far we have had three opportunities to do prayer-walking in Mbarara. The first was done last Wednesday. A group walked from the edge of the city to the Bishop Stuart University, an Anglican school where Spencer Essenpries (an IMB Journeyman) is developing a ministry to students. This is the path walked by these students daily.

On Friday a team did prayer-walking on the campus of the hospital where Dr. Larry Pepper works. They prayed in the new AIDS clinic that will open in a couple of months. This clinic has been build largely by funds coming from your tax dollars (more on this later).

This morning I was free to participate in one of the walks. Three groups of us walked down the hill from University Baptist Church and into the village of Kashanyarazi. Jenna and I walked with Aloysius, who preaches in the Runyankore service at UBC.

The village is made up of brick buildings covered in plaster or cement with tin roofs, each about 15’ x 60’. Some were slightly shorter. Each building was divided into apartments about 8’ x 8’. Some had wooden doors that could be locked. Some had only a sheet hung in the doorway. In the "courtyards" separating the buildings from each other there hung colorful garments drying in the warm morning sun. Outside the doorways sat women peeling matoke or washing clothes in red plastic basins. Small charcoal stoves boiled water for cooking red beans. Children ran and played, in various stages of dress, pointing at the bazungu (plural of mzungu, white person).

Aloyisius knows many of the people in the village and does not meet a stranger. We approached people and simply asked if we could pray for them. One woman went into her room and came out with a bench for us to sit on while we listened to her story and prayed. At another home, the woman brought out a red, white, and blue mat for us. We were invited into four other homes, where our hostess offered us the best seat in the room. We stopped where a group of men were gathered. One lay on his back in the sun on a straw mat. Another worked hard repairing old shoes to resell. Another fellow was removing dried red beans from their hulls.

We heard the same heartbreaking accounts from one after another. No job. A job that doesn’t pay enough to make the rent payments on the 8’ square room. Abusive husbands. Husbands with more than one wife. No money for the school fees for the children. HIV infections. Pregnancy and HIV. Had we visited every single dwelling, I sensed we would have heard the same stories repeated often. The sad eyes and downcast faces told the story of life in this Ugandan village.

The tragedy of poverty is not just a financial matter. No money means not enough food. It means no money for education for children. It means no money for healthcare. It means parents who do not have time to give to their children. It means dealing with survival issues day after day. It means being stuck generation after generation in the same hole.

At the top of the hill stands University Baptist Church. A few hundred yards below is life being lived at its rawest. I prayed as we ascended the hill to return to the church, asking that God would make that church a source of life, like Ezekiel’s vision in which the life-giving river flowed from the Jerusalem Temple into the desert, changing everything in its path.

I thought about University Baptist Church back home. I thought about the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of people who live only a short distance from the place where we gather to worship – the families at Emerald Pointe, or the Pakistani and Afghan families living in apartments in the Whitcomb district. I prayed that we, too, like UBC Mbarara, would be a source of life from Jesus Christ, flowing from us to the valley below. I remembered what Jesus said: "A city set on a hill cannot be hidden."

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Saturday Evening. Mbarara, Uganda

The first week of our work here was finished yesterday at noon. Sixty pastors completed a study of the Gospel of Mark and produced eight teaching and preaching outlines. Thirty men and women dealing with HIV/AIDS produced 175 greeting cards that will be sold in the states to provide support for their ministry called "Go, Make Disciples." More than a dozen AIDS patients received visits in their homes, and often a handmade blanket made by people in Houston. Some have received Christ as Savior. Several areas of Mbarara received the focused praying during prayerwalks by teams of people, including Bishop Stuart University, the Mbarara University Hospital, and the Kampala International University's new extension campus in Busheyni. Thirty women gathered for a working women's Bible study and worship each evening. Students at Bishop Stuart University and pastors at the conference heard the testimony of one of our American astronauts.

At the end of a full week we traveled a few hours to the Queen Elizabeth National Park and witnessed the beauty of God's creation -- mountains, valleys, natural lakes and channels, herds of elephants, schools of hippos, herds of cape buffalo, groups of warthogs, flocks of Egyptian geese and Crested Cranes, and scores of other species of birds. We enjoyed the fellowship of a dozen friends and fellow believers around an abundant table. And now we have returned home, popped corn and broken out the dominos (the game, not the pizza).

Tomorrow morning we will gather for worship with the University Baptist Church in Mbarara. I will be preaching from Hosea 6:6. In the evening, Pamm will teach regarding personal integrity in a believer's life and the rest of us will be leading small group discussions. We'll do that each evening through Wednesday. The mornings will be spent visiting in the homes of AIDS patients and more experiences in prayerwalking.

We've not had much time this week to be reflective about what we are doing, but that time will come soon enough. For now, God has been present, the work has been fruitful, and the workers feel both fulfilled and a little tired.


Friday, June 09, 2006

The rest of my brain arrived this morning (Wednesday) and I managed to make it through an entire day without fading into that state where your eyelids turn to lead and you receive unwanted visions in the middle of the afternoon.

Today (Wednesday) was a full one for the entire team. Kelli, Jenna, Courtney, Diana, and Andrea accompanied Spencer on a prayerwalk between the edge of the city and Bishop Stuart University and around the university campus where Spencer is seeking to disciple students. They climbed a high hill that overlooks the city and prayed for the kingdom of God to come fully in Mbarara.

Pamm went with Naboth and others on Words of Hope visits in the morning and is now teaching the women’s Bible study meeting in a large pavilion with a thatched roof on the campus of the University Inn.

Melinda worked with her Go and Make Disciples group, helping them learn to make greeting cards. Twenty-two of them produced eighty beautiful cards to be sold in the states. The people in this group are Christian believers who are living with HIV-AIDS. They work to help prevent the spread of the disease in the country. The sale of the cards will provide their group with some income to do their work and to minister.

Patrick and I continued to teach at the Pastors’ Conference, leading four sessions through the day. The pastors have been incredibly responsive to the experience. Aloyisius, a young pastor who leads a Runyankore-speaking congregation at UBC, translated one of the sessions for me. As we were talking through the material, preparing to teach, he asked: "Do you want to know what the men are saying about these sessions?" That’s a loaded question. "Sure," I said, "tell me."

"They are saying that these are very good and that they are very happy to be here and that they will take the things you and Patrick and Skip are teaching them back to their churches. They like this very much." That was good to hear.

Patrick and I went to lunch with Barry Wilks and two of his children, Jared (12?) and Sarah (10?). Sarah interviewed Patrick about space travel the entire time, asking really good questions. I learned a lot listening to his answers. She has a great future as a journalist.
At this moment Patrick is at Bishop Stuart University speaking to students. I wanted to be able to go hear him, but my last session at the pastors’ conference did not finish in time. Tonight he’ll be making that same presentation to the pastors, and all of us will go with him.

Tonight we expect the power to go off at 7:00 PM, for 24 hours. We have not yet had to deal with the planned power outage because a major trade show has been going on here in the city, and the power has been left on for several days in a row. Power will return at 7:00 PM tomorrow night.

That Wednesday’s report from Mbarara. More later, when power is back.

Addendum: Posting has been more challenging this year. I'll do the best I can. We have now (Friday morning) completed our first week with great success. We're on our way to visit a game park today and tomorrow. Sunday we'll be leading worship and beginning our university student conference in the evening. I'll probably not be posting again until Sunday or Monday. All are well, healthy, and still getting along.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Plan B

Col. John "Hannibal" Smith of the A-Team used to say, "I love it when a plan comes together." That is not very often.

An old German proverb observes that "Man proposes; God disposes." I used to know how to say that in German and it rhymes there also. The biblical form of that idea is found in Proverbs 16:9: "In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps." The secular version is more like "the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray" (or something like that). I think the Scottish poet, Robert Burns said it better and with an accent, but I can’t Google it right now.

However it is said, the experience is clear. We make plans and then we adjust. Sometimes, by the end of the story, the plan can hardly be recognized. Such was our journey to Uganda. For "the plan" read the previous entry. For the reality, read on.

We did take off from Bush Intercontinental on time, and landed at London Gatwick a bit earlier than expected, around 10:00 AM. But the guy with the sign waiting to take us to the bus didn’t show up. Actually, it turns out he did show up – twenty-four hours earlier. So we waited a while, phoned the bus company, discovered the mistake, and arranged for a bus to be sent out.

When we finally made the transfer to Heathrow, expecting to go through "fast check-in" to leave our bags, we caught another snag. Patrick Forrester went through three customer service agents trying to find one who would actually consider taking our bags in the morning for our evening flight. At 2:45 PM they finally took our bags, but by then it was too late to make it into Central London for lunch and get back again for our flight. So we found an Italian restaurant in Heathrow, ate, passed through security, located the Starbucks, and sat reading, napping, or playing 42.

The flight from London to Entebbe was delayed two hours by mechanical problems and so we arrived in Uganda at 7:00 AM Monday morning rather than the scheduled 5:40. Kelli Hancock was waiting for us, having arrived the day before. The two hours delay, however, made our timing perfect to be caught in the worst thunderstorm I can remember just as we were loading our eighteen bags and nine carry-ons into the three vehicles that would take us to Mbarara. The rain was coming down in buckets and was being blown horizontally at about 40 mph. All of us were soaked to the bone. Six hours later we were in Mbarara, and by 3:00 PM I was teaching the first session of the pastors’ conference. All our luggage arrived intact. I wish I could say the same about my brain. It was a struggle to get through the first session and workshop, but I guess I did.

After dinner at the Pepper’s home, and a little orientation to the week, our team went to the Rikhea Guest House where we are staying. In no time, I was in a cycle of sleeping deeply and waking unexpectedly. That continued until 7:30 this morning when I woke out of a dream in which I was having lunch with Don Bateman. He was asking why I was not in Africa and I was explaining that I had been there, but had to return to preach on Sunday, but I was going back on Monday. He wanted to know why I had scheduled the trip that way, and I could not explain.

After breakfast at the guest house, Patrick and I left with Barry Wilks to return to the church for a day with the pastors. I taught two sessions today and led two workshops on preparing sermons. Patrick led two workshops on preparing teaching outlines. Melinda began her work with the Go Make Disciples, making greeting cards. Pamm stayed home to finish preparing for her women’s Bible Study, which is going on as I write (6:15 PM). Diana, Jenna, Courtney, Kelli, and Andrea made Words of Hope visits to AIDS patients. I have not yet heard the details of how everyone’s day went, but we will debrief in a while. All are in good health, keeping positive attitudes, and are gradually adjusting to the time difference.

Today I met Pastor Mahekenya Joseph (photo above). He is Congolese, and a refugee from the latest war. He and his wife and five children have been living in a refugee camp not far from Mbarara for three and a half months. He has started a church in the camp that is thriving. He told me his story and showed me photos of his family. The photos from his home in the Congo show him proudly standing with his family in front of their vegetable garden, holding some of the produce – beets, carrots, cauliflower, and corn large enough to make a Texas farmer envious. The smiles on their faces contrast with the somber photos of the same family taken in front of the white canvas tent that has become their home in Uganda. Joseph is a carpenter. He also had photos of the beautiful furniture he had made back home.

Thank you for your prayers. We have only begun the work here. More tomorrow.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

In four and a half hours we begin our voyage to Mbarara, Uganda. We'll be taking off about the time the Saturday night congregation begins to worship together. Nine and a half hours to London. We'll be landing at Gatwick about two hours before the earliest risers back here are stirring. A bus will be waiting for us, taking the nine of us and our eighteen suitcases (half of them weighing in near the 70 pound limit), nine carry-ons will make the trip to London Heathrow where we'll check in, leave our carry-ons at Left Baggage, and catch the Heathrow Express into Paddington Station. Shannon Hopkins, a missionary working with the emerging church, will meet us there. We'll spend the afternoon getting lunch and visiting parts of the city before boarding the Express and heading back to Heathrow. Our flight to Entebbe leaves at 7:30 PM, about the time folks at home are paying their bill at Lupe Tortilla's and heading home for a Sunday afternoon. We land in Entebbe at 5:30 AM on Monday, as the night owls here at home are heading for bed on Sunday night. Five hours later we'll be in Mbarara courtesy of Larry Pepper and Barry Wilks who'll be there to pick us up. About two hours after we arrive, Patrick and I will get started with the pastors' conference.

You'll be sound asleep. So will we, likely. But before you hit the sack on Sunday night, remember to pray for us. We'll let you know how things are going. Thanks UBC for the privilige of being free to engage the work of God in Uganda. We will take your greetings to UBC Mbarara, the Peppers, the Wilks, and those who serve on their team.