Monday, July 10, 2017

A Tribute to Grace

After living in Africa for years, it’s easy to become immune to certain tragedies.  As horrible as it sounds, suffering is so common that you don’t always react to news of death, violence, or trauma.  Sadly, it becomes numbingly normal.

However, I’ve always prayed that God would keep my heart soft and protect me from becoming jaded – that He would break my heart for specific people so that my spirit would always remain tender.  When God brought me to a woman named Grace and to her family, I knew I would never grow hard-hearted in their presence.

Before meeting Grace, I was introduced to four blind women – an elderly woman probably in her eighties, her middle-aged daughter (Stella Rose), and Stella’s two young daughters.  I was horrified when I saw their living conditions and even more horrified when I found out that Stella’s brothers had completely shunned her and offered no help to her, the elderly mother, or the young girls.  They were treated almost like lepers, and no one seemed to find any value in them.  Their story was unlike any other I’d heard in Africa, and after my first visit to their compound, I left with tears in my eyes.  Their reality was absolutely unfathomable.

Pastor Robert, my Ugandan ministry partner, searched and searched until he could find someone – anyone – who was involved in helping Stella Rose and the others.  After doing his homework, he found the treasure we’d been waiting for – Grace.  Grace was the sister of Stella Rose (and the daughter of the elderly woman/the aunt of the two blind girls).  She lived in a different village than her blind relatives and went to great lengths to travel between her home and her blind relatives’ home.  Though a widow herself and a mother of four, Grace did everything in her power to care for her mom, sister, and nieces.  Despite barely being able to keep her immediate family afloat, she made every sacrifice she could to support Stella Rose and the others.

When I met Grace, two things were utterly clear.  First, she was absolutely genuine.  Grace loved God, and Grace loved people.  She had the purest of hearts and wanted nothing more than to care for her family.  Second, Grace was an unsung hero.  She sometimes walked for hours to move between her home and Stella’s home when she didn’t have enough money for transport.  Grace knew the cost of caring but never questioned if it was worth it.  She simply loved – tirelessly, fearlessly, gracefully.  Everything about her was beautiful.

I remember the first day I met Grace, and I remember her face when she heard my name.  Since people in Uganda often struggle to pronounce Caitlin, I usually introduce myself as Katy, a far easier name to pronounce in the local dialect.  Ketty is the Ugandan version of Katy, so that’s become the name I am known by.  When I told Grace my name, her face lit up and she told me that her daughter was also named Ketty.  From that moment on, she called me “my daughter” and greeted me as such for the rest of her days.

Over time, I got to know Grace better, got to see more of her heart and love for her blind relatives, her children, and really everyone she interacted with.  I got to visit her home many times as well as see her at Stella Rose’s home.  Grace loved to spoil my friends and me with delicious food she prepared, despite having so little herself.  She travelled to my village numerous times, including a visit for the best Christmas celebration I’ve ever experienced.  I got to know the real Ketty, Grace’s adorable daughter, and my friend Connie fell in love with Grace’s youngest son, Daniel.  We saw how much Grace loved her kids and enjoyed getting to know such a precious family.

Despite our good times together, I could see the toll life was taking on Grace.  After losing her husband, struggling to provide for her children, and taking on the burden of caring for her four blind relatives, the emotional drain was evident.  Even when Grace smiled, I could see that she felt like the weight of the world was on her shoulders.  Sometimes, she would  make an escape from reality by daydreaming about my African wedding.  We would laugh as we planned my one-day wedding in the village.  Though I had no prospects when these daydreams began, we had so much fun laughing about what my dress would look like, how many goats my husband would have to pay for my dowry, and what types of food we would prepare for my wedding feast.  Even though the image of a white girl getting married in the bush was quite amusing, I was serious about having an African wedding.  For years, I dreamed that one day Grace would help me design my dress and that we would get to celebrate in my village together.

A couple of years ago, Pastor Robert, my friend Natalie, and I introduced a microloan program to a few select individuals, and we immediately invited Grace to be a part of it.  People were given loans of 200,000 shillings to start a business (or grow an existing business) and had to pay back 20,000 each month.  Instead of paying interest, the loan receivers had to pay their own transport to attend a monthly meeting where everyone who’d received a loan was to share business ideas with one another.  Unfortunately, most of the people who received loans skipped the meetings and did not make timely payments.  One person even took the loan money, ran off with it, and never spoke to us again.  But there was ONE person who came to every meeting and paid back her loan every month on time.  Can you guess who that was?  And can you guess who had the furthest and most expensive commute to the village where we held the meetings?  Do you know who did whatever it took to keep her word and honor her commitment to the loan program?  Our dear friend Grace.

Because of Grace’s faithfulness to us, the program, and her word, we decided to give her extra money to boost her business.  We surprised her one day at her home and gave her enough money to buy a bale of clothes in Kampala to help grow her secondhand clothes business.  With not an ounce of entitlement, Grace took the money, got on her knees, and asked us to pray for the money.  Her desire for business growth was motivated by one thing – wanting to provide for her family.

I don’t know many people who have the integrity, honesty, and sacrificial love this woman had.  In a country where people are poor, desperate, and tempted to steal, it can be difficult to find such a pure heart.  Yet, for some reason, the Lord gave me the privilege and honor of being a friend to this treasure.
*          *          *          *          *

When I arrived in Uganda for a visit about a month ago, I couldn’t wait to see Grace.  I’d heard that she had fallen sick and was staying in Mulago Hospital, the biggest hospital in Uganda.  Mulago is located in the capital city about eight hours from the district where Grace lived (and where I used to live and now visit each year).  I knew something was really wrong if she’d travelled all the way to Mulago for treatment.  When I found Grace there, I was struck by how thin she’d become and how desperate she looked.

After visiting her in Mulago, Pastor Robert, my boyfriend Tim, and I made the long trek to my former home, Soroti District.  We were relieved that shortly after, Grace was transferred back to Soroti and placed in a hospital there.  With papers from Mulago in hand, she lay in the Soroti hospital, unsure of what the medical papers meant and even more unsure of what to do next.  We couldn’t find a single doctor in the hospital to answer questions, so I took a photo of the Mulago paperwork and left to do some research.  Pastor Robert drove with Tim and me to speak with a doctor at a better hospital who confirmed that Grace had cervical cancer.  He let us know that there was only one radiation machine in all of Uganda – and it was broken.  Then he gave me advice that broke my heart:  “Make her as comfortable as you can until she dies.”  And there it was.  A terminal diagnosis.  A void of hope.  A death sentence.  I cried the whole car ride home, knowing my time with Grace was quickly running short.

I couldn’t wrap my mind around Grace dying.  It simply did not make sense.  What about Stella Rose and her girls?  What about Grace’s four children who had already lost their father?  What kind of reward was this for all of her hard work and love?  It hardly seemed fair.

Days later, my friend Connie arrived in Uganda with a team from her church that was eager to meet Grace and pray for her.  On our final day in Soroti, we found out that Grace had returned to her home since the hospital staff wasn’t really doing anything to treat her.  Pastor Robert, Tim, Connie, the team, and I spent our last morning in Soroti traveling to Grace’s home.   I asked the team to wait outside while Robert, Connie, Tim, and I went inside Grace’s one-room home to greet her.  When Grace saw us walk in, she immediately started crying.  It is rare to see a Ugandan adult cry, so right away I knew things were bad – really bad.  It was evident that Grace was in pain and had lost hope of overcoming her sickness.  Yet, despite her pain, she still welcomed us with the same love as always.  “My daughter,” she greeted me, “Come sit on my bed next to me.”  I cozied up close to Grace on her mattress while we chatted and asked her how her body felt that day.  She was in terrible pain and continuously shifted around in an attempt to alleviate the discomfort.   Tim and Robert briefly stepped out of the room, and Connie and I had a moment alone with her.  She looked at us, her adopted girls, and said to us with such genuine affection, “You people really love me.”  We smiled and told her that we did very much.  After having so many Ugandans confuse handouts and money with love, I was once again refreshed by Grace’s understanding.  Love didn’t mean receiving stuff.  Grace knew we loved her simply because we were with her – because we sat with her and held her hand and prayed for her.  We had nothing we could give that would fix anything.  All we had was love, and she knew it. 

We eventually asked Grace if Connie’s team of friends could pray for her, and she only had one hesitation – she didn’t have anything to serve them.  Even in her dying days, she was worried that she had nothing to cook and serve for her visitors.  In her most vulnerable and ill state, Grace was still thinking about how she should be taking care of other people.  We assured her that she didn’t need to provide anything, just to accept the prayer of friends.  Gratefully, she allowed them to enter, and they prayed for her.  They stepped out of the room afterwards, and Connie and I said our goodbyes.

I’ll never forget my final moment with Grace.  She looked so frail and hopeless, and I knew there was a good chance I would never see her again.  I kissed her on the cheek and told her I loved her.  And I really meant it.  I got in our car, and as we drove away, tears poured out of my eyes.  I hoped Grace would miraculously be healed, but I guess deep down I knew that would be the last time I would see Grace.

We drove to the capital city the next day, and shortly after, I flew back to America.  After being in California for ten days, I received a message from Pastor Robert that Grace had passed away.  I read the words I’d been dreading.  Grace was gone.

Worries flooded me.  What would happen to Stella Rose and her girls?  What would happen to Grace’s children who had now become total orphans?  How would life go on after Grace?

Maybe it’s selfish, but I also started thinking about my dreams of one day picking out a wedding dress with Grace and realized that would never happen.  I thought about other dreams we’d dreamed together and tried to digest the fact that none of them would ever come to pass. 

Nothing can lessen the pain of losing Grace.  No one can take her place.  And nothing will be able to prepare my heart for the void of her presence the next time I step foot in Uganda.  When I think about going back and her not being there, I feel like I’m crumbling.  However, the loss of Grace does not mean a loss of her memory or a loss of the affect she’s had on my life and on the lives of so many others.  She has served as such an inspiration of what it means to truly love.  Grace was a shining example of her name.  She lived it out so well, and I am forever grateful for the grace and love she showed me and so many of my friends.  I will miss her voice greeting me “my daughter,” but I will remember the Ugandan mama who loved me so well.  I will remember the times she cooked for me, made me laugh, dreamt with me, and encouraged me.  I will remember the sacrifices she made to take care of her family.  I will remember her smile and her warmth, her fiery tenacity, and her deep love for God.

Looking back now, I wish I would have served Grace more.  I wish I would have done more to help her carry the burden of taking care of her relatives.  But it’s not too late to serve Grace.  Even though she has passed away, her family is still here.  Their needs are great, and there’s nothing Grace would desire more than to see them fully taken care of.  We don’t know how to tackle this long-term, but we know we have to start somewhere.  Grace’s family needs our help.  Her blind relatives and her four children are in serious trouble if someone doesn’t step in.  So, we are beginning with an online fundraiser to raise money for Grace’s family.  Donations will go towards the needs of those she left behind.  This is not because we are trying to be heroes or carry a burden that is not ours to carry.  It is because helping each other out is what family does. 
If you are moved to give, that is wonderful.  If you aren’t able to give, it’s free to say a prayer for Grace’s family.  They certainly need it.  I do too.  My heart is grieving.  So is Connie’s and Pastor Robert’s and so many other peoples’…
So, to a mother, sister, daughter, and friend who has loved so well, we honor you.  Grace, we are moved by your life, your heart, your love.  Thank you for showing love until your final day with us.  You will be greatly missed. 
To give to Grace's family, click here:

When Grace was healthy and full of smiles

Connie and my last visit with Grace <3

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Ruined for Normal

For those of you who have been following my blog, you’ve probably noticed that there’s a huge gap between my last post in June and this current one.  Normally I love to write, but for some reason, I’ve been at a loss for words ever since I moved back from Uganda.  It’s strange, because I usually articulate whatever I’m feeling best through writing; but unfortunately, I haven’t genuinely been able to identify what it is that I’m feeling lately.  It’s hard to describe something in eloquent language when I have no idea what I’m actually trying to describe.

Despite this frustrating mental and emotional block, I finally decided that I’ve got to start somewhere.  So here goes…

I guess I’ll begin by saying this.  Sometimes we think we know what we want, and then when we get it, we find out it’s the opposite of what we’d hoped for.  When I was still living in Uganda, one of the things I longed for most was the ability to do things without being noticed.  I constantly drew unwanted attention simply because I looked different than everyone else.  My exterior attracted curious strangers to me, and it often took extra time to get simple things done because of so many people approaching me.  Some days I would think to myself, “If only I could go to the market without anyone noticing I’m different, life would be so wonderful.”

But today, as I walked into a large store to go grocery shopping, I had a revelation.  I got exactly what I wanted….and it doesn’t feel right.  Why?  Because now I appear to fit in, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  With long hair and skin freckled from the sun, no one questions that I could be from California.  Nobody looks at me and assumes I’m an outsider.  I fit the role.  I look “normal.”  And that’s precisely what bothers me.  I appear to belong, but in my heart, I don’t.  My heart and mind are filled with memories and homes and villages and cultures and faraway lands that no one here can understand.  I dream about different countries at night and have to remember where I am when I wake up.   My Facebook newsfeed is in at least four different languages.  I randomly sing worship songs in Ateso and Luganda in my car when no one can hear me.  And it still feels more normal to fetch water at the borehole with my village buddies than to drive to a job in California every day.  Even though I look the same as others, I feel so different than them.  My grid for normal was shattered a long time ago.  In Uganda, I thought I wanted to look like everyone else.  Now I have what I asked for, and it feels like a fa├žade.  Inside, I’m screaming, “I’m different!  Can’t you see??  Normal isn’t normal anymore!  My heart is forever changed!”  Yet, on the outside, strangers see a typical American woman and pass me by without notice.  Being unknown doesn’t feel as good as I imagined. 

Thankfully, people who actually do know me are very aware of the fact that I'm kind of a weirdo.  They know that I’ve always been someone who marches to the beat of her own drum.  But many still do not realize how much my time in Uganda affects me on a daily basis or how much I miss life overseas.  Those who have not spent time with me on the mission field cannot fully understand how truly chaotic the cadence of my life was during the past few years.  I’m convinced that the longer you get used to such an unconventional lifestyle, the harder it is to fit back into a traditional one.  The ebbs and flows of missionary life certainly shook me at times but weirdly made sense to me.  I found purpose in the trials and beauty in the unexpected adventures.  I miss that life of whimsy and sudden surprises.  It wasn’t easy; don’t get me wrong.  But it was FULL.   I’ve been back in California for five months now, and sadly, I can probably count on one hand how many moments I’ve had where I’ve felt I was able to do something truly meaningful for someone else.  Nowadays, I spend most of my time battling California traffic to and from work, working two jobs to just barely stay afloat financially, and squeezing time in with friends every now and again.  So much of my life is self-focused; I’m in survival mode to pay my bills and get things done. 

I understand on a cognitive level that I can’t expect every day here to produce the same feeling as traveling to remote villages to share the gospel, praying for people with AIDs, or implementing sustainable projects for elderly widows.  In terms of feeling satisfied and purposeful in my work, the bar was set pretty darn high in Africa.  In my head, I understand that working as a personal trainer with affluent people in Orange County can’t produce those same dramatic feelings of satisfaction.  But in my heart, I long to experience that satisfaction once again.  I long to actually do something to transform another human being’s life.  I long to take risks to love other people the way Jesus did.  I am ruined for this normal life, this monotonous routine of working and paying bills and impacting people on only the tiniest, most subtle levels.  I’ve seen the other side, and I’m not content with this.  There’s more, so much more. 

I want to experience “the more” in America, and I believe it’s possible.  However, I have no idea how to get there.  When the majority of my time is spent at a job where I’m not supposed to discuss religion or politics or anything controversial, I wonder…how do people find deep meaning in these surface level relationships?  If anyone has figured it out, let me know.  I’m all ears.  Seriously, I am.

Fortunately, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person with doubts or questions.  I was listening to Davy Flowers’ version of “Do You Know The Way You Move Me?” today, and the words really resonated with me:

“I thought I’d be a little further along by now; I thought I’d be more mature, have more to say, feel deeper things…but it’s very, very, very weak to me…but do you see?  Father, do you hear me?”

Sometimes, I feel like I should be further along.  I should have this all figured out way better than I do.  If I could be a missionary in Africa, I should be able to be a missionary in my own country, right?  If I could make a difference among people with such large cultural and language barriers, how much more should I be making an impact where I can easily and openly communicate with others?  Why is this so difficult?  Why is there so much emptiness in the mundane?  I feel like I’m working and working and working all the time but not really getting anything done.  Will it always feel that way?

This dissatisfaction with the ordinary invites deep, penetrating questions that are hard to wrestle.  It makes “normal” life kind of painful.  It makes me scream, “I don’t fit in here!” from the depths of my soul even though my exterior suggests otherwise.  Yet, despite the pain such dissatisfaction brings, I’m not sure I want it to go away.  I wonder if perhaps this tension can be a good thing.  A few weeks ago, a client of mine mentioned that she didn’t like to see poor people when she was on vacation.  I foolishly assumed that it bothered her because she was distracted by the poverty and ended up feeling compelled to help out rather than to simply rest.  However, as she continued talking, I realized she just didn’t want to see poor people – period.  She didn’t want to have to look at their dirtiness or poverty or acknowledge their existence.  If feeling satisfied with life here means working a 9-5 and saving up for vacations where I can pretend poor people don’t exist, then I don’t want to feel satisfied.  I’d rather feel this constant, heart-wrenching pull between opposite worlds than feel settled but view the world the way that woman does.

Please don’t get me wrong here.  I’m not trying to judge anyone who makes good money or works a conventional job in America or goes on vacation.  (In fact, I would totally take a vacation right now if I could!)  We all have different callings and spheres of influence.  I have friends who feel deeply called to share God’s love in Hollywood.  I know people who hang out with celebrities, do photo shoots for models, sing on the radio, etc., and they are lights in some of the darkest places in this nation.  They are bringing God’s love to a group of people who are physically rich but spiritually starving.  I’m not saying we cannot be impactful or useful in America.  What I’m saying is that I often think about the ministry I’m wired for and wonder if God’s calling for my life will ever allow me to feel fully settled in the U.S.  Is that wanderlust meant to keep me from getting too established?  Is that compassion for the poor meant to keep me dissatisfied with building my own riches and watching others do the same?  Is that burning heart for Africa meant to compel me to do something powerful and unconventional?  I hope so.  Otherwise, I guess I’m just crazy.

I wish I had a beautiful, succinct way to wrap up my scattered thoughts, but I’m still wrestling through them.  I don’t have it all figured out yet; I don’t know the answers to the many questions bouncing around my mind.  Fortunately, God does.  I really don’t know how people walk through the uncertainties of life without the assurance that someone far greater than us does know what’s going on.  Even though I don’t really feel settled in my current circumstances or environment, I know that I am eternally settled in the unchanging love of the Father. 

And perhaps what’s even more comforting to me is the fact that God sees who I really am.  I’m reassured by the fact that He is not fooled by my skinny jeans and ankle boots.  He sees far beneath the illusion that I fit in here and is deeply aware of every battle I am facing.  He understands my wild heart and my discontentment with normality.   He sees me frantically stirring about day in and day out; and I can picture him looking over me, smiling like a loving father and saying, “Oh my restless daughter, just wait.  Just wait.  You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”  And maybe that’s all I need right now – the simple assurance that He sees my mess, my confusion, and my frustration.  As I search for meaning in the midst of the mundane, I know He loves me the same in the adventure and in the monotony. 

So, as I continue to struggle for the right words to say, I suppose I’ll finish up with the words of someone far greater than myself:

“Lord, you have examined me
and know all about me.
You know when I sit down and when I get up.
You know my thoughts before I think them.
You know where I go and where I lie down.
You know everything I do.
Lord, even before I say a word,
you already know it.
You are all around me—in front and in back—
and have put your hand on me.
Your knowledge is amazing to me;
it is more than I can understand.
Where can I go to get away from your Spirit?
Where can I run from you?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there.
If I lie down in the grave, you are there.
If I rise with the sun in the east
and settle in the west beyond the sea,
even there you would guide me.
With your right hand you would hold me.
I could say, “The darkness will hide me.
Let the light around me turn into night.”
But even the darkness is not dark to you.
The night is as light as the day;
darkness and light are the same to you.
You made my whole being;
you formed me in my mother’s body.
I praise you because you made me in an amazing and wonderful way.
What you have done is wonderful.
I know this very well.”

Psalm 139: 1-14, NCV

Monday, June 8, 2015

And This Is How It Goes...

It’s like this every time.  It’s no different no matter how many times I repeat the process.  Uprooting myself from American comfort and flying halfway across the planet always, always, always feels hard.

Maybe this would surprise some of you.  It’s still hard for you after all this time?  Really?    Yes, it really is.  Despite several people’s assumptions that I have some sort of uncanny ability to be completely unaffected by jarring, drastic change, this is not actually the case.  I certainly am able to adjust more quickly than I used to, but leaving home never comes without a wide range of emotions.  I am a missionary, not a robot.  I feel many things.  Unfortunately, bravery is not usually one of them.  I still get scared and nervous when I don’t know what to expect or when I leave familiar things behind.  The details are never fully sorted out when I travel to a developing country, and more often than not, I don’t really know what I am getting myself into.  Somehow, things always works out, but that has nothing to do with me or anything within my control.  It’s like God repeatedly tells me to jump off a cliff and then catches me in a net every time.  Even though the safe landings give me more confidence the next time I jump, they don’t remove the frightening feeling of falling. 

They don’t make the leaving process easier either.  I am always a little baffled when people seem to think that simply because I am called to Uganda means that giving up my American life to live there must be a piece of cake.  No sweat.  If God called you to go to Africa, it must be super easy for you to turn your back on your life in America.  God called you, so you must love every second in Africa.  It must be no sacrifice for a person like you.  Ummmm, I don’t even know where to start with these kinds of comments.  Here’s the deal.  I love Uganda.  I love the work I get to be a part of there.  I love that God has privileged me by calling me to partner with Him in this beautiful nation.  BUT I love my life, friends, church, family, and culture in America too.  To pretend that leaving my home doesn’t affect me at all is utter fakeness.  Again, I’m a missionary, not a robot.  I have feelings.  I get sad.  I get scared.  I get hurt.  I miss people.  I miss comforts.  I cry. 

Every time I prepare to leave America, it hurts.  There is an ache in my heart that mourns the loss of my home country.  Knowing my physical comforts are about to disappear is hard.  Knowing my emotional comforts of familiar friends, family, and culture is harder.  I dread those moments when I will do that last load of laundry in a machine, take that last hot shower, eat that last American meal - I never want those comforts to end.

Before I travel to Africa, I always feel a weight on my chest that is a physical reminder of the sacrifice ahead.  I know the price I am about to pay - sleepless nights with mosquitoes eating me alive, bucket showers, hours of washing clothes by hand, bumpy roads, and cramped vehicles.  I know exactly what I’m getting into.  Of course, there are beautiful, wonderful adventures ahead as well.  And yes, the good always outweighs the bad.  However, there is still a sacrifice to reach those beautiful, wonderful adventures.  Going to Africa means transitioning from a world that gives me warm fuzzies to a jarring world that makes me come alive.  Coming alive is good, but it’s not painless.  No woman would tell you giving birth didn’t hurt despite the joy of seeing her new child come to life.  Africa is like new life for me - beautiful and exciting - but it comes with birthing pains.

And so this is how it goes.  Every time.

The night before I leave for Africa, it’s always hard to sleep.  My mind is racing with thoughts.  I know the trip will be long and exhausting.  Flying there alone just might be the worst part. 

Whenever I arrive at the airport, I dread that initial moment of aloneness.  I usually go to the airport with my dad, and after I hug him goodbye, I know what awaits - a walk from his car to the airline desk - alone.  That is my first moment of being by myself and always the hardest.  I usually look back once and then stop myself from looking back again, because it’s too hard.  I check in and walk to my gate, feeling anxious and overwhelmed.  I just want the long flights to be over.  Even though I fly WAY more than most people, flying still freaks me out every time.  Flying at lightning speed in a little tube through the sky never seems like a good idea to me, but I know it’s the only way to get to Africa unless I want to be on a ship for months.  So I say a little prayer, board the plane, and hope for the best.

I usually can’t sleep during my first flight.  My mind is racing, and I can’t keep up with the many wild thoughts.  I already feel a million miles from home.  The accents surrounding me on the plane (usually European) make me feel like I’ve been away from America for a long time.  It hits me that I’ve really left.

After I land somewhere in Europe for a stopover, the exhaustion hits.  I always wish I’d slept during the previous seven hours on the plane, but unfortunately it’s never been possible.  I get my bearings straight and find my gate.  Honestly, it sounds weird, but I can usually smell my gate before I see it.  Uganda.  Pure Uganda.  I’m telling you; you could blindfold me and tell me to find the gate headed to Entebbe in any airport.  I would find it.

So at my gate, I wait and wait some more.  Now this waiting feels like an eternity, because I’m doing everything in my power to not collapse on the floor, fall asleep, and miss my flight.  That would cause some problems that I really want to avoid.

At long last, they announce my flight, and I can’t wait to start boarding.  Even though I’m always scared to board my first flight, my fear of flying somehow disappears before the second flight.  I’m too exhausted to think about anything except conking out on the next plane.  I finally fall asleep, and this leg of the journey goes by quickly.  A nap and a movie later, the plane has already begun its descent into Uganda.

And then we land.  This is when everything changes.  The SECOND I get off of the plane, I am overwhelmed with joy.  Grinning from ear to ear.  Scared, anxious, exhausted missionary me is gone.  As soon as I hit the ground, a switch flips inside of me, and I am suddenly elated and energized.   It’s weird how happy I feel.  Maybe I’m too sleep deprived to remember feeling homesick or afraid.  I’m not sure.  I walk to the customs line, almost skipping happily.  I end up last in line without fail.  Every.  Single.  Time.  But I don’t care.  We all have to wait for our baggage afterwards anyway.  I finally get to a visa window, and it takes about twenty seconds to get stamped in with my handy dandy visa.  I feel like a local.  I belong here.

And that’s how it works.  That’s how it goes.  I leave America scared, I travel exhausted, and I arrive in Africa elated.  Even though I dread such a long trip to Uganda every time I leave the States, I always end up feeling thankful for the journey afterwards.  I see purpose and benefit in traveling for many hours.  The time in the sky allows a needed transition to take place along the way.  Having time to get over my fear, becoming exhausted enough to change my perspective, and feeling the excitement of hitting the ground - it shifts me from a place of uncertainty to a place of confidence.

So why do I share this?  I’m not entirely sure.  Perhaps just to be let you into my genuine thoughts and debunk the myth that only people who are courageous or adventurous or wild are called to the mission share my journey with you because I can.  And I suppose, I share because I want to let you know that you can also do things even if you’re afraid or uncertain or overwhelmed.  It’s crazy to me when people tell me I’m brave and even crazier when they tell me they could never live a life like mine.  God uses the weak to shame the wise; He can use anyone.  It’s not about having courage.  I am not a fearless person.  Far from it.  I don’t find it easy to leave home.  I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.  But I DO know that God is good, that God has called me to Uganda, and that God is strong where I am weak.  He is brave where I am scared.  He is steadfast where I am uncertain.  

He is strong and brave and steadfast for you too.  And so we trust in Him.  We agree to go on an adventure with Him.  We admit our fears, we deal with our exhaustion, and we find our excitement.  And this is how it goes...

Friday, May 8, 2015

Forever Homesick

In 2011, I wrote a blog entitled “Home Is Where My Sleeping Bag Is.”  Little did I know, four years later I’d still be toting that same tattered sleeping bag around the globe.  My fluffy blue companion has now traversed nearly thirty countries, and if it could speak, it would have wild stories to tell.  Spending the last few months in Oakland has been an interesting addition to my travels.  In some ways, it feels more like another stop on the journey than it feels like home.  Yet, I suppose at this point, anywhere could qualify as home.  I almost don’t know what that word means anymore.

In Philippians 4:12, Paul says, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want" (NIV).  

In a way, I understand exactly how Paul feels.  I believe I can learn to be happy in almost any environment.  Throw me into a jungle, a village in the middle of the bush, a crime-filled ghetto, or a laidback beach town.  I’ll find something to like.  Feed me delicious American food or feed me rice and beans every day.  I’ll be okay.  I am a chameleon who can fit in anywhere; yet somehow that translates to not really fitting in anywhere.  I don’t quite know where I belong, because to belong everywhere means to belong nowhere.  (Only another nomad can truly understand why that makes perfect sense).

I never planned to be a vagabond and really don’t think this lifestyle is sustainable long-term.  But for now, it’s just kind of the way the cookie has crumbled.  God has given me both the opportunity to travel as well as a heart that is able to fall in love with different cultures easily.  This is a gift, but it’s also the most challenging part of my life to manage.  I perpetually feel pulled in a million different directions.  I have family in Connecticut and New York, a church and community in Southern California, ministry connections all over Latin America, missionary friends scattered throughout the entire globe, a current job in Oakland, and of course a ministry in Uganda.  

Of all the different directions my heart is pulled, the tension between America and Africa is by far the most drastic.  When I’m in America, I yearn for Africa.  At night, I see my sweet friends and children in my dreams and feel sad when I wake up and they’re not there.  And when I’m in Africa, I dream of America – of familiarity, friends, and family.  When I experience lack in Africa, I sometimes feel frustrated and desire comfort.  Yet when I’m experiencing excess in America, I feel choked by the first world’s abundance.  My body, mind, and heart are not always in the same place.  Some days, I am physically present in one world and mentally present in another. 

There’s just something about Africa that gets in your blood.  It’s hard to understand for someone who’s never been there.  I certainly never imagined I could love such a difficult place before I moved there the first time.  Oh Africa, it drives me crazy, but I’m addicted to it.  There are days in Uganda when I want nothing more than to walk down the street without drawing the attention of every person in the village – every stare reminding me of how obviously different I am.  Blending in and having privacy is a luxury I seldom experience in Africa.  Yet, being noticed can also be a gift.  It is common for curious young children to greet me on the streets and burst into giggles when I greet them back in their language.  I can’t help but to smile when I hear those squeaky little African voices singing the word “mzungu” as if it’s a song when I pass by.  But then there are plenty others who I’d prefer didn’t notice me or even acknowledge me at all.  I will never learn to feel comfortable with strange men gawking at me, following me, or touching me as if it’s their right.  I hate the fact that I know exactly which intersections to avoid crossing and that I’ve had to learn those lessons the hard way.  The men who laugh and mock and make disgusting sexual remarks to women who pass by will always bother me.  Yet, as twisted as it may sound, I am weirdly satisfied when I beat these guys at their own game.  When I am able to make a sassy comment back to a mocker in his tribal language or outsmart a taxi guy trying to rip me off or grab a pickpocket’s arm before he gets away, I feel an odd rush of adrenaline.  There are moments when I think to myself, “Yesssss.  I’ve finally got it.”  Uganda’s chaos really makes no sense at all, but somehow I kind of understand it.  I’ve learned to function within a wild system – to recognize that it’s absolute madness yet somehow feel completely at ease inside of it.   

On the other hand, America offers me a culture that makes sense in a totally different way.  Life is orderly and efficient.  The predictability simultaneously bores me and brings immense comfort.  One of my favorite feelings in the world is walking into Target after being in Africa for several months.  I love that I can buy a block of cheese, a bathing suit, a greeting card, and a grill in the same place.  This type of efficiency does not exist in village life.  An errand I could finish in an hour in America could take an entire day in Uganda.  I’m not exaggerating.  Chores that I dread completing in Uganda take just minutes in America.  It feels like a miracle that I can throw disgusting, smelly clothes into a washing machine, and thirty minutes later, they come out clean without me doing anything besides pushing a button.  Oh, sweet America, I love its magical machines.  And I love that electricity never goes out, hot water is always available, and food can be kept cold in a fridge and then instantly made hot in a microwave.  I love that I can choose the variety, speed, and temperature of my food virtually every time I eat.  I love that I can walk around and no one stares at me.  I love that I can wear shorts, show my thighs to the world, and it’s not taken as something offensive or sexual.  In America, I’m so free to dress, speak, act…to live like I want to. 

Then again, this freedom is America’s worst enemy.  Everyone feels so entitled to whatever the heck they want.  At times, first world culture suffocates me – the entitlement, the materialism, the obsession over smartphones, the lawsuits over the most ridiculous things.  But the worst part is how easily I get sucked back into this world – how in a matter of weeks, I can go from bush woman to the girl who feels entitled to hot showers, instant food, clean laundry, and high-speed internet.  It frightens me how easily I can forget the simplicity of the world I’ve come from and get sucked right back into a culture of overindulgence.  It seems like we Americans never believe we have enough; we always want something else.  I’m just as guilty as anyone.  But I’ve seen the way the other side lives, and it’s undeniable that we have way more than enough.  Americans have so many privileges and freedoms that many people in the world do not have.  We are far more blessed than most of us recognize. 

But on the other hand, America is broken too.  These past months I’ve spent working in the inner city are proof of that.  I can’t tell you how many lost, hungry, drugged-out-of-their-minds people I’ve interacted with throughout this season in Oakland.  The United States is full of poverty – sometimes spiritual poverty, sometimes literal poverty, sometimes both. 

Now this leads me to perhaps my biggest struggle with Ugandan culture.  It seems to me as though the majority of people in Africa believe America is some type of dreamland with no problems.  It is commonly believed that all white people are rich.  I work long days in California, sometimes fifteen hours, and I make pennies.  My goal is to be able to pay my bills, and it hurts me when Ugandans look at me like a never-ending supply of money.  Even when I am outside of Africa, the demand continues.  My inbox of endless manipulative emails (often from people I barely know) asking for money makes me feel diminished to nothing more than a bank, and I hate it.

Yet at the same time, Africa has given me far more than I’ve given Africa.  The developing world has taught me much more about generosity than the first world ever could.  I’ll never forget last Christmas, families from the village who had close to nothing showering me with gifts – literally laying whatever they had at my feet.  More often than not, when I visit a village, I leave with more than I arrive with –whether it’s groundnuts, freshly laid eggs, a chicken, or a sack of sweet potatoes.  Giving out of lack is something that I know moves the heart of God, and experiencing such generosity will never cease to humble me.  Receiving such pure love makes me feel like the richest person in the world.  I can’t stay away from Ugandans for too long; their hearts always draw me back to Africa. 

This wild tension between different cultures both drives me crazy and makes my heart come alive.  There are parts about Africa and America that I can’t stand and parts that I can’t survive without.  Parts that make me feel right at home and parts that make me dreadfully homesick.  And when I add in every person, ministry, and church I’ve gotten connected to in other countries as well, the tension just gets crazier.  I miss so many places.  I am happy where I am, but I miss where I am not.  My heart beats for nations.  I belong in more than one world. 

To be perfectly frank, I don’t always know how to manage all of this.  Sometimes having a foot in more than one place completely overwhelms me.  Practically, I don’t know what it looks like long-term to have a calling to multiple locations.  I know that my musings might cause some people to judge me as scattered or spread thin, but I'm just being honest.  I'm learning as I go, and it can be pretty challenging to try to balance it all.  But then I remember that my love for Africa and my fascination with the inner city and my excitement for the jungle and my heart for nations didn’t come from me.  God gives us desires and callings and dreams that are way too big for us to handle on our own.  He wants us to live a life that is impossible without Him showing up.  Jesus himself said that those who leave their family and home for the sake of the gospel will receive a hundredfold homes, mothers, brothers, sisters, children, and lands.  Perhaps being pulled to different lands and people is actually a biblical concept – and even a gift from God.  So, in the midst of questions, I choose to believe that God is in this.  And I’m confident that when He pours His love out, it won’t run dry or spread thin.  There’s plenty to go around, and I’m happy to be a vessel He can pour it through – wherever that happens to be. 

I can let the contrast of my life overwhelm me, or I can embrace it as a gift.  As I wrap up my season in California, I sincerely view it as a gift – the people, the food, the culture, the laughter.  Serving in America has been an absolute treasure.  As I leave the States, I know that I will be homesick for the place I’m leaving behind but also confident of the gift that lies ahead.

Though it's true that I am forever homesick, I suppose it's also true that I am forever home.  

Monday, February 2, 2015

A Memoir of Gratitude

Sometimes I write to vent when I’m frustrated.  Or I write because I’m overwhelmed and need to process.  But today, I’m simply writing because I’m thankful.

I believe that we are responsible to share whatever we’ve been given.  So whenever God gives me a good, happy story, I can’t keep it to myself.

If you’ve been following my blog, you probably already know a lot of the background info leading up to my latest story...

First moved to Uganda in 2006.  Fell in love with a missionary dude.  Dreamed of moving to Northern Uganda with him.  Things fell apart.  Got my heart broken.  Bounced back and moved on.  Fell in love with a nation.  Moved back to the States after a year.  Blah blah blah.  Couldn’t stay away from the third world for too long and ended up back on the mission field.

I guess a part of me knew I wasn’t done with Uganda when I first left it in 2007.  I was too in love with the children there to never return; however, I thought visiting every once and a while would suffice.  On the contrary, this was not enough for Jesus.  When He called me to move back to Uganda in 2013, I knew I needed to give all of myself, but I was kind of scared to do so.  Though I couldn’t deny God’s voice, the fleshly part of me was less than thrilled to jump back into the environment that had almost crushed me seven years prior. 

Fortunately, God sent me back to Uganda with many promises – really good ones in fact.  Knowing ahead of time that some pretty specific things would happen in Africa made moving across the planet – again – a little bit easier.  I felt God’s reassuring voice. 

I am bringing you back to Uganda to redeem dreams that were stolen years prior.

You will finally reach your “Promised Land.”

You have an inheritance in Uganda…

After experiencing God’s faithfulness for many years, I had no reason to doubt He would come through for me.  The more I reflected on what God had spoken into my heart, the more excited I got to return to Africa and see those promises come to fruition.  I started becoming impatient and couldn’t wait to land in Africa and experience everything sort of magically fall into place - immediately.  When I landed in Uganda, I was prepared for a wonderful, smooth, easy season of ministry.  My heart was bursting at the seams.

Unfortunately, the promises didn’t come instantly, and my hopes for a smooth season of ministry were almost instantly crushed.  In fact, the first six months back in Uganda were some of the worst months of my life.  Again, many of you know the story.  No matter what I did for the ministry I was volunteering for or how hard I worked, I was told I had failed.  Miscommunication resulted in deep, painful wounds.  Constant music blaring outside of my house deprived me of the opportunity to sleep at night.  I was struck down with a horrible mystery illness for a month.  I was backstabbed and robbed by one of the boys who lived with me.  I was arrested, threatened, and harassed.  You get the drift.  I was miserable. 

For a while, I was angry.  I kept asking God, Why did you bring me back to this place?  I thought this was supposed to be a season of redemption.  And then I was just sad and hurt – so defeated by ministry that I contemplated quitting missionary life altogether.  By the end of six months, the only thing I felt was pure exhaustion.  I think my body was too weak to try to be angry or sad.  After being diagnosed with a gazillion different freaky tropical diseases, my priority became having a pulse.

But then, something miraculous happened.  My body healed up, and my heart started to follow.  By September, everything began turning around.  My friend Pastor Robert invited me to move to Northeastern Uganda to work with his ministry, Mercy Seat.  He worked out in the bush – in real Africa – in the setting I had dreamt of so many years ago.  Suddenly, I realized working with Pastor Robert might be part of the redemption God had been talking about.  The doors for working in Northern Uganda that had slammed shut in 2007 started opening again.  So, I decided to move from the capital city of Kampala to rural Soroti.  That’s like moving from Manhattan to Kentucky.  Though it was a sacrifice in some ways, it was also the beginning of fulfilled promises.

As I worked alongside Pastor Robert, God showed me that the way I’d dreamt of “doing ministry” back in 2007 could have created massive damage to the local culture as well as to myself.  He gave me a new ministry strategy that entailed empowering local leaders to pursue their dreams for a transformed Uganda.  I was privileged to launch a new ministry called Link.Launch.Love. that channels resources from the western world to small, grassroots ministries in Uganda.  I’ve found my niche being a bridge builder and a voice for my Ugandan friends.  By writing and speaking about what’s happening on the ground in Uganda, resources have begun to pour in, and countless people have received assistance.  Pastor Robert’s ministry, Mercy Seat, has built a house for a family of blind women, started a microloan project where eleven people have either started businesses or boosted existing businesses, paid school fees for a once child-headed household…and lots more.

And two of the boys – well, I should say men – who I helped take care of eight years ago in Kampala enlisted my help to start a ministry they’ve named Hope for the Lost.  These young men had been eager to return to their villages of origin after living at an orphanage in Kampala for years, but they had no resources to get started.  Because of people’s generosity, now they do have resources; and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of these guys’ dream.

I didn’t know that when God said He’d redeem broken dreams they could be this good.  I never imagined lives could be changed so quickly and so beautifully.  Oh, I could share stories of my sweet Ugandan friends for hours.  Like Stella Rose, who is blind but has learned to recognize my voice and now greets me by name whenever I visit her.  Like Grace, who has called me her daughter since the first day I met her.  Like Margret, who hasn’t stopped smiling since playing games at our Christmas party.  Like Papa Mzee and Opio, who are obsessed with my chocolate cookies.  It would take endless pages to write about all of the families I work with, but I want to highlight a couple of them.

Jamila’s story cannot go untold.  Jamila is a widow who’s lost not only her husband but every single child of hers except for one daughter.  She works tirelessly in swampy rice fields every day to provide for two of her grandchildren that she is raising.  Both are infected with HIV.  Obviously, Jamila is no stranger to loss.

My friends at Mercy Seat and I had been praying for Jamila and asking God to show us something for her.  While praying for Jamila, I saw a vision but didn’t know what it meant.  In the vision, Jamila was approaching a treasure chest.  Inside the chest, she found a mirror.  When she looked into the mirror, she saw the reflection of a young woman’s face.  I wasn’t sure if it was Jamila when she was young or if it were her daughter. 

Weeks later, Pastor Robert, my friend Natalie, and I went to visit Jamila.  During a previous visit, Jamila had told us that she’d heard her dead daughter calling out to her in the night.  She’d gone to the mosque to seek guidance, and the leader failed to mention that this encounter was straight up demonic.  Jamila remained confused and told us that she had been searching for truth for a long time.  Though I’d had the vision many weeks before, I knew it was now time to share the vision with Jamila.  I asked her if she thought it had anything to do with her daughter who had died.  Stunned, Jamila explained that she had recently looked through a bag her late daughter had left behind.  Inside the bag, she’d found two things - money and a mirror.  As Jamila realized that this matched the treasure and mirror I’d seen, she was amazed.  To be honest, I was kind of amazed too.  I had no idea the vision was literal.  Jamila asked me how I had seen the treasure and mirror before she’d told me what she’d found.  I told her the vision came from the Holy Spirit.  Natalie and Pastor Robert jumped in, and we shared the gospel with Jamila.  Shortly after, she told us she wanted to accept Jesus as her savior.  So in the dirt, we prayed together, and Jamila gave her life to Christ.

The same day, we went to visit Stella Rose and her family.  She, her mother, and her two daughters were all born blind.  One of her daughters had also lost her ability to speak a few years ago, and it’s common knowledge among the villagers that this girl “went mad.”  Weeks prior, we’d prayed for all four blind people, and it seemed nothing had happened.  However, when we went to check on the family, they reported that the daughter had been SINGING earlier.  Yes, the once mute girl was singing the words, “Jesus is my rock.  Jesus is my rock!” 

As if these moments weren’t enough to completely undo me, I received one of the best gifts of my life while serving in Soroti.  One morning, I went to Amoroto, the main village where Mercy Seat works.  I thought I was going there to visit some of our families’ homes; however, when I arrived in the village, our friends were all gathered together in a big group.  Pastor Michael, a local leader in Amoroto and one of the most humble people I’ve ever met, organized a meeting to honor us for our work in his village.  Afterwards, he pulled Natalie and I aside and escorted us to his property.  He explained that he’d put a portion of his land aside and was offering it to me as my official Ugandan inheritance.  He wanted me to have the land so that I could build my very own hut and stay there whenever I wanted.  Anyone who knows me knows that it’s been a longtime dream of mine to have a hut in Africa.  (Yes, I realize that’s a weird dream for a white girl from Connecticut, but that’s beside the point.)  Often, when foreigners try to purchase land in villages in order to build, they are ripped off for their skin color.  I never in my wildest dreams expected to be given a plot for free – especially from a family who owned so little.  Land is often the most valuable possession a father can offer his children in Uganda.  Therefore, when Pastor Michael handed me a paper offering me the land as an official inheritance as his daughter, I was moved beyond words.  To top things off, his children, who could have been jealous that this land wasn’t added to their own personal inheritances, were all smiles as they welcomed me to their family. 

I came home and could barely wrap my mind around what I’d just been given.  As I prayed, I didn’t have words sufficient to express the gratitude I felt in my heart.  I only had tears.  While crying out of pure joy and thankfulness, God reminded me that He hadn’t brought me to Uganda just to do something for Him; He’d brought me there to give something to me.  If I hadn’t believed His plan was better than my own, I would have missed out on major blessings.

So there you have it.  After getting ready to throw in the towel, I experienced life coming together miraculously.  I finally got to work out in the bush and see God moving mightily there.  I launched a ministry that I actually believe in with all my heart.  I gained a Ugandan family.  I was handed a literal inheritance in my promised land.  And my broken dreams for ministry were not only restored but handed back to me a million times better than what I ever imagined.

I never want to forget this season of my life.  I think it’s really important to write memorials of gratitude to refer back to when life gets crazy.  Even though things are going really well at the moment, I know there will be valleys again in the future.  Documenting God’s faithfulness can be a good reminder during tough seasons.

I also want to encourage anyone who is going through a rough patch right now.  I know it’s hard to keep fighting when circumstances are brutal.  It honestly scares me to think how terrifyingly close I came to giving up last year.  I was too sick, too tired, too discouraged and beaten down to think I could keep going.  The enemy tried to take me out.  And he almost did.  But after taking what I thought was my last punch, I realized I needed to get back into the ring.  So I did.  Weary, afraid, frustrated – I went back.  And in my weakness, the Lord gave me everything He’d promised.  He redeemed everything that had been lost, making beauty from ashes in His awesome perfection.

God’s promises do not always come to fruition in our time.  They do not always come without a battle.  But they do come, and when they do, they are always worth the wait.

So if you’re in a battle, keep fighting.  Keep pushing.  You will make it.  And soon you will have your own memoir of gratitude to share.