If Home Is Where the Heart Is . . .

It's Sept. 12 and we're somewhere between Brussels and Newark, NJ.  As the 11th anniversary of 9/11 drew to a close, we boarded our flight from Entebbe, Uganda, closing out three incredible weeks of ministry and holiday in this central African country.

A million thoughts are swirling through my head as we make this long journey back to the States, where a good portion of our hearts reside.  But surely "home" is now also in Mbale, Uganda, where we have left part of our hearts.

Our last week in that country has been more vacation than work, so we travel home considerably more rested and relaxed than we arrived 3 weeks ago.  Though I did visit the hospital daily to hang out with precious mamas and babies, much of the week was spent relaxing, swimming, napping, reading, and hanging with Derek and Julie.  Sweet, sweet times with them, making it harder and easier to leave them.  Harder because we love being with them so much; easier because they are delighting in marriage and are fulfilled in their ministry work.  They are "better together" and that is so encouraging to see firsthand.

"Papa Paul" plays with Hadasseh, a little 3-year-old Ugandan orphan adopted
by Lexi, a young woman from Florida.

Mostly relaxing: Derek manages to enjoy the pool and take a business call.  :)

One of the highlights of this week was visiting "Overcomers Rehabilitation Center," a less-than-one-year-old private school for children with spina bifida.  One of the specialties of the CURE Neurological Hospital in Mbale is treating children who are born with this condition, which is considered a congenital defect of children born in poverty.  Though the opening in the spinal column can be surgically repaired at CURE, the children are typically paralyzed from the opening down, resulting in lifelong incontinence.  As a result, these usually bright children are refused admission to school, as the schools are not able/willing/equipped to deal with incontinent children.

The Spiritual Center Director of CURE, Miriam Ongom, received a vision from God regarding starting a private school for these children, who have survived the perceived "curse" of spina bifida as infants, only to be cast away by the time they are school-aged.  Without Miriam's school, the six students currently enrolled would languish in their huts, with nothing but a dismal future unfolding before them.

We first met her school children earlier in the week when they came to the hospital for a physical therapy session with Dr. Julie (Friesen Johnson!) and her colleague, Lucy (CURE's full-time physiotherapist.)  We fell in love with this little uniformed cohort of overcomers.  They played ball.  They recited their facts.  They laughed.  They did their exercises.  And they sang.  "Somebody touched me . . . it must've been the hand of the Lord."  Lustily and with conviction.  If you didn't know that the little silk purses around their necks held their catheters, or if you didn't notice the braces on their legs or the crutches under their arms, you would've thought they were any typical group of 4-6 year olds.

These children have come from all over Uganda to attend Sister Miriam's special boarding school.  Sister Miriam, who lives in Namatala, one of the largest slums in Mbale, has converted her rented home into a boarding school.  Not because it's a lucrative private school.  These children can't pay.  Not because she has so much excess money and time.  She works full-time to support her family of six sons.  Not because she has state aid, a huge board, and a list of benefactors.  At this point, she's doing this with the aid of two teachers and a "dorm" mom.

Just because God told her to do this.  Because these children, though considered "the least of these" by a society that has no purpose for their lives, are loved by Him, and Sister Miriam knows that He has a purpose for each of their lives.

We visited the "school" and had a deeply moving "sad-glad" experience.  I'll admit that it was initially hard to overlook the obvious symbols of poverty:  the dirt, the small room holding 3 bunkbeds for sleeping, the tiny school room, the smell of beans alone boiling for dinner, the "squatty potty", etc.  But all it took to see through a totally different lens was the children, who were happily working at their desks, learning to write and read, being taught by a beautiful Ugandan school teacher (who is willing to serve at ORC for much less than she'd receive in any other Ugandan school).  They lit right up when they saw that the "M'zee" had come with his wife ("M'zee" refers to an older man, who is considered wise and worthy of respect).  "M'zee Paul" had taught them "My God is so BIG" when they had come to the hospital on Tuesday, so they were thrilled when he led them in a chorus of this simple, profound song.  Precious moments.

The children from Overcomers Rehabilitation Center arrive at the hospital for physical therapy with Dr. Julie and Ms. Lucy.
Enoch, Anthony, Adijah, and Emma are in the front row, with Ruth standing behind.
All of these children had surgery at CURE in years past.

Dr. Julie tosses the ball, much to the delight of the children.

Sister Miriam stands in the "dorm room" of her little school.

The happy children with their teacher have just finished singing, "My God is so BIG!"

Miriam's school launched in March and they are beginning their 3rd term now.  She fully believes that this is just the beginning of a large boarding school which will meet the needs of many otherwise forgotten children.  Would you pray with us for her efforts - and ask the Lord if He is calling you to be part of the fulfillment of her vision?

Another highlight of the week was spending good chunks of time with my new friend, Janet, and her son Emma.  I referred to them last week in the blog:  Emma was born with hydrocephalus and was treated at CURE during its inaugural year in Mbale (2001).  He has had many complications and as a result, is non-ambulatory and confined to a wheelchair.  He was back at the hospital for the past couple of weeks for a shunt revision due to an infection.  His mother was widowed 4 years ago, about the time she had her second child, so she lives with her mom (who is disabled) as a single mom of two.

Emma, Janet, Julie, and another little patient share
a few moments in the ICU ward after Emma's surgery.

Janet is one of the most beautiful, courageous women I have met.  I sat with her for about 30 minutes during Emma's surgery, sharing life stories and praying, and was so impressed with her heart for the Lord and her awareness of His presence.  "God is good ALL the time" she began, and I finished, "And ALL the time, God is good."  She loves her Emma, even though his needs are so great and her culture rejects him.  She inspired me greatly.

The hospital is expanding as we speak.  Construction is underway to add a ten-bed private ward, a new Physiotherapy Lab, and a third "theater" (operating room.)  Completion is expected in November.  It's very, very impressive to be on the hospital grounds - a beautifully landscaped "sanctuary," gated from the surrounding impoverished village, but providing life and health, spiritual and physical, to those living in such villages.  It's a remarkable work.

Interacting with the hospital staff was another highlight of our time in Mbale.  Led capably by our son-in-law Derek Johnson, the staff of over 100 are truly delightful.  Possessing the gracious spirit of Ugandans, they are appreciative, warm, respectful, and servant-hearted.  They so genuinely appreciated our teaching on relationships, and many expressed how much it had impacted their lives.  Many said it had really changed the way they looked at marriage and family.  We loved every minute of interaction and look forward to being with them again.

"M'zee Paul" and "M'zee Emma" share a bond as the two "M'zees" of the hospital.
Emma has been married for 30 years and has raised his three children for Christ.
He's a remarkable man of God.

Sister Harriet, Sister Esther, and Sister Miriam are three key players at the hospital.  Wonderful women of God, dedicated to serving Him and these precious Mamas and babies.

We also enjoyed connecting with the missionary community in Mbale and others who are friends with Derek and Julie.  Bob and Martha Wright (and their five children!), are missionaries in Karamoja, a remote and rough region in the northeast corner of Uganda.  They were in Mbale for much of the time we were, and we had several great times with them.  We had dinner one night with Yusef and Nada Eads, and four of their five children and enjoyed a Palestinian feast prepared by Nada.  They fled Palestine over 20 years ago and have made their home in Mbale since.  They're very involved in the Christian community in Mbale.  Another night we had dinner with JP and Jill Robinson and their two kids.  The Robinsons were married 15 or so years ago by our dear friend, Jay Abramson (of Valley Community Baptist Church of Avon, CT), and began their missionary career in Mbale in April.  We attended their ecumenical Bible Study one Sunday night and got to meet many others there.  It gave us good insight into Julie and Derek's world outside of the hospital.

Dinner with the Wright family from Karamoja.  We really enjoyed
these guys and admire the work they're doing in a very tough setting.

No safaris or sightseeing tours on this trip, but on Saturday, Derek did drive us up Wanale, a mountain just behind their town.  It was a beautiful drive through the waterfall strewn landscape.  The hillsides were terraced with small farms and we were enthusiastically greeted by small children from the small villages dotted along the road.  We were captivated by all the sights and sounds.   Derek regaled us with tales of riding his bike up their arduous dirt road, which planted a vision in my mind for our next trip.  :)  Great day.

On the Wanale Road, the friendly children paid a visit when we stopped to photograph the waterfall.

Just about the time that we were tuning out the incessant sounds of roosters crowing through the night, and dogs barking their heads off, and birds contributing their special songs to the symphony of the night; and just about the time the sometimes noxious odors of people and poverty were becoming somewhat normal; and just about the time walking into the ward at the hospital didn't cause me to automatically burst into tears; and just about the time it was second nature to not swallow any tap water . . . it was time to pack and go.  

But we weren't quite done.  We were privileged to have two more ministry opportunities before we boarded our flight home.  We drove to Kampala on Monday, the 10th, and spoke that night at the Family of Destiny Church in NTinde.  Pastored by a dear friend of Pastor Wilberforce, we were invited to speak on marriage to their young marrieds, so we did.  We were in cross-town Kampala traffic to get there for longer than we spoke, but it was a wonderful night.  We've been invited back.  Pastor Thomas said, "You have only served up an appetizer tonight.  We want you to come back and serve a full meal!"

The following morning, very early, we were invited to speak to the Christians in Parliament.  We had the privilege of addressing this group 3.5 years ago when were were here, and considered it a great honor to have another opportunity.  We mainly encouraged this group of faithful men and women in positions of influence to use their appointments to strengthen marriages and families in Uganda, using scriptural truth as their guide.  They've also invited us back.

Pastor Wilberforce, MP Charles Angine, and Patrick
helped make it possible for us to speak to Parliament.

We've said yes to all these invitations.  What makes it a bit easier to leave part of our hearts in Uganda is that God has made a way for us to return in March.  :)  We are most grateful.

So as we head home, we carry with us much less luggage, and much fuller hearts.  We'll be processing these weeks for months to come, undoubtedly, but we know we've been changed by these experiences.  We have greater confidence than ever in God's design for the family, and a deeper awareness that He will bring about His purposes in spite of cultural distortions.  

And we know that a heart can be divided . . . in a way that doesn't decrease it, but expands it.  Only God can make that happen.