Though it seems like a lifetime ago, it’s only been seven weeks since we returned from the Thrive Conference in California and flew to Uganda. A lot has happened between then and now, which “explains” why I haven’t “found” time to update this blog, but still . . . I’m a bit shocked to again be this far behind. So as to not overwhelm you, I’ll share about this space of time in a couple of posts, starting with a recap of our time in Uganda and Ethiopia today.
We continue to be so thankful for our ongoing partnership with ministries in these beautiful countries. It was our sixth year in a row serving in Uganda, and our second serving in Ethiopia. There’s something very powerful about returning over and over to the same place to build upon relationships as well as content. How we’ve grown to love these brothers and sisters!
Arriving in Mbale at nightfall on May 10 (Wednesday) after leaving Boston early on May 9, we wasted no time. First thing Thursday am, after a good African breakfast at the hotel, we were picked up by JP and Jill Robinson, Church of Christ missionaries who are actively discipling many national pastors through out the region. Members of their first two discipleship cohorts traveled from near and far to spend the day with us, for the second year in a row, to be trained in teaching Biblical marriage.
We were impressed to have such a great group of eager learners. Building on last year, we reviewed the Genesis 3 teaching of the “virus" that entered humankind in the garden when sin entered the world, and the Ephesians 5 passage which offers the antidote to the effects of the fall. We then opened it up for feedback on how to practically apply Ephesians 5, asking the men to write some ways they feel disrespected as well as some ways they feel respected, and for their wives to write some ways they feel unloved or neglected and the ways they feel most loved.
We were amazed at their honesty and we were also amazed at the number of shared concerns they have with American marital issues. In some ways the list of complaints was remarkably similar, and it other ways they reflected some of the issues unique to their culture. What was very clear is that the effects of the fall are alive and well in Uganda, just as they are everywhere.
We so appreciated our interaction with them. Some really wanted to know how to manage their problems without losing their marriages. Some wondered if their faith could survive the challenges of their marriage. All wanted to grow in both their faith and in their marriages.
We felt God was very much moving in the room. Our prayer that they would leave encouraged and more hopeful seemed to be answered. Several expressed great appreciation as they left; one said, “By teaching us these truths, you are teaching many more as we go back to our churches and teach our congregations.” All praise is His!!
Friday was filled with couples' counseling, working out of our “office” on the grounds of the Mt Elgon Hotel. Interspersed with a couple of breaks long enough for taking a walk and a dip in the pool, it also turned out to be a day of refreshment and renewal, which was just what we needed to be prepared for the next five days of ministry. The day ended with us sharing a meal with Moses and Rita Rose Katungye, both CURE employees and “chosen family.”
Saturday, May 13, we partnered with Pearl Haven by doing an all-day Marriage Seminar. In what we’ve grown accustomed to, our 9:30 am pick-up was achieved at 10:10, and the 10 am start to the conference was delayed until 11 am. As Patrick (one of the pastors at the church) said when he introduced us, “It’s typical for Ugandans to be late, but they want to finish on time.” :)
It was a great day (which, BTW, did finish an hour and a half late). The crowd (which at 10 am numbered about 25) swelled to around 250 by noon and when we got to the Q and A time, we have dozens of very good questions. They were fully engaged. We were so thankful. A good percentage of the congregation were singles, which we were delighted with. So much better to set Biblical expectations for marriage before you’re married than after. The singles asked many thoughtful and important questions.
Besides a great conference, it was incredible to be in Pearl Haven’s building, which continues to move towards completion. Since we were here last year, the roof has gone on and the “gallery” is almost complete. It’s HUGE! Seating for 2,000!! It’s crazy to think back to 4 years ago when the church “building” was merely blue (Costco) tarps strung together over white plastic chairs, with a stage in the front. They have worked long and hard and sacrificially to make this happen.
Sunday we spent from 8 until almost 2 at Pearl Haven, teaching at both of the services. We love partnering with this very alive and growing church. We find it to be such a funny contrast: when we speak on a Sunday morning in the U.S., we have very clear time parameters on the sermon time (with occasional threats of a “gong” or the floor dropping out if we exceed the time frame). It’s just not that way in Africa. :) The 8 am service loosely ended by 10:30 and the 10:30 service ended at 1:15. And no one seemed to be concerned about it. Here, people aren’t rushing off to the next thing: a sporting event, shopping, visiting someone, mowing a lawn. It’s the Lord’s Day, so they give a large portion to Him. Novel idea. :)
We were so thankful that both services went well and that our message on Jesus healing the paralytic seemed to be well received. We love worshiping at Pearl Haven! There is such a genuine spirit of worship through song, offerings, and teaching. The first service was very full (700) and the second had about 200 (mostly 20-30 y.o. singles) and in both, there was a heartening responsiveness. Pastor Wilberforce and Sarah continue to give Godly leadership to this growing congregation and seem to work tirelessly and endlessly.
Back to the hotel by 2, we decided to beat a threatening storm and get our walk in, which we successfully did. A late lunch by the pool with a few moments of relaxation prepared us for our evening opportunity. We were invited to speak at a Pearl Haven church plant on the subject of marriage and we had a lively time with Pastor Andrew’s congregation. Some good questions were asked after we spoke, which we take as a very good sign that people are listening. We’re always grateful for these opportunities.
On Monday, May 15, we had a long and wonderful day. We spent from 8-5 at the CURE Hospital and we loved every minute of it.
We started by speaking at the CURE chapel on the topic of their choice: parenting. Just as is true with marriage, there are uniquenesses related to parenting in this culture, but there are also many universal biblical principles which are consistent across the board. We were really thankful for a very responsive audience who really seemed to “get” and appreciate the teaching. Pastor Fred, the spiritual director at CURE Mbale, talked to us about doing an expanded parenting teaching next year. We’re excited at that possibility.
The rest of the day we were scheduled to counsel, and Pastor Fred had already booked 8 appointments of 30-45 minutes each. We started at 9:30 and by 3:30, having met with 8-9 couples/singles and having had only a 30-minute break for lunch (our choice to skip tea), I checked in with Pastor Fred to see what was left. He counted them off and said, “Eight more!” We ended up taking two more and then going back the next morning from 8 to 9:45 to do three more, then back on Wednesday at 8 am for two more. And then ONE more Thursday morning as we drove out of town. I guess you could say there’s a need.
We were so encouraged by the honest seeking of those who came to see us, but I’ll admit, we were very aware we were not dealing with American issues. Life gets complex and complicated very quickly in this country, which has primarily practiced unbiblical models of marriage and whose people live with deep levels of poverty and uncertainty. We just prayed for wisdom to navigate the challenges of culturally-driven acceptable behavior with Biblical truth. Our hearts broke for some who are in very difficult situations, with seemingly no “good” solutions. We prayed for mercy and deliverance.
Between appointments, as I walked to Pastor Fred’s office to get our next client, I saw a family—whose baby had passed that morning—sitting on the bench waiting for transport home. I felt compelled to connect with them, and ended up tearfully praying for the sweet mama who was so grief-stricken. Turned me inside out. The baby was 1 month and 2 days old, and had been born with hydrocephalus, spina bifida, and club feet. He was in very bad shape when he came to the hospital and was one of the few who was beyond “repair.” The mama did say that she had been so well cared for at CURE hospital and was so thankful for all they had done for them as a family. It was stark reminder of the life and death work that goes on here, which thankfully leads to life more often than death.
It was hard to quickly pull myself together for the next appointment.
I was able to pop in to the outpatient waiting area on our way to the car at the end of the day, long enough to greet some mamas and babies waiting to be processed. Their faces were mostly weary, but I know that for the many who will receive treatment and healing, the weariness will be replaced with joy.
It was so good to be with the CURE family and it felt very much like a “family reunion.” The long day ended too soon.
Tuesday, May 16th, was another super long but wonderful day. Sound familiar?? At least we don’t have regrets of not using pretty much every minute of every day. :)
We started with an early morning walk, knowing that was our only chance of getting some exercise. I love the early morning. Especially in Uganda. In the cool of the morning, birds (especially the pink-headed doves) sweetly sound the alarm that a new day is dawning and the pink sky slowly turns to blue. There is a stillness due to not much activity yet on the streets, but that is short lived as crazy bodas, vehicles, and many people soon fill the dirt roads. Lovely start to the day!
We got a ride to the CURE Hospital to get three more counseling appointments in before 10, when we had to be back at the hotel for an all-day pastors’ conference. It was great to be at the hospital even briefly, and the three appointments once again reminded us of how complicated life is for so many. We prayed for wisdom and grace and trusted that the Lord would do what we couldn’t possibly do.
Back at the hotel, Robby Keen (director of JENGA) had assembled a group of 24 pastors and their wives to join for a day of training in marriage. The group was hand picked as solid and strategic. Twenty-two of the couples had not been to our training workshop in previous years.
It was such a great day. A lot of good interaction and many “Aha!” moments as some were hearing for the first time a Biblical view of God’s design for marriage. At day’s end, they were so appreciative and so expressed such gratitude. We were very, very thankful.
That evening was very special and encouraging. Mackay (our driver) and his wife, Doreen, had arranged for us to speak for “P’moja”—a newly formed small group committed to developing community among a group of seven couples. “P'moja” is a Swahili word for “walking together” as in an intentional community. This was an outgrowth of Mackay and Doreen attending the marriage conference last year at Pearl Haven. Mackay felt the need to be in community with like-minded families to encourage one another along the way.
Mackay picked us up at 7 and surprised us by taking us, not to one of the member’s homes, but to "Cosy Corner”, a great little restaurant near the hospital. They had set up a banquet feast, which we all enjoyed together before we spoke. We were blown away by all the preparation and thought which had gone in to the evening. The food and fellowship were fabulous, but the true highlight was being invited to speak on God’s design for marriage, which was new information to several. They were very attentive, asked some great questions, and seemed genuinely delighted to be part of this “movement." These couples are really committed to not doing life alone and to being supportive of one another. They are driven by a very exciting vision which is being proactively launched. They asked us to be the Patrons (mentors) for the group and we agreed to, as much as we could from distance. We did gift each couple with a copy of “In Our Image”, the couples’ devotional we wrote which also has a small group component, and they decided to go through it as a group.
We returned to the hotel very tired, but bursting with delight. Imagine being asked to come alongside these young couples to help them understand marriage, parenting, and community in a deeper, Biblical view. We were thrilled.
Wednesday, our last day in Mbale, was exceptional. Starting with a counseling appointment at CURE, we met with a couple that is in a desperate place maritally. We were thankful they were willing to meet with us, but are very aware of the great limitations of a 45 minute session with a couple in such a tough spot. Only God . . . and that’s what we’re praying: for a “God only” breakthrough. Just to give you a tiny insight into some of the real issues here, one session started off with the husband saying, “You know, in Uganda, it’s okay for a husband to hit his wife.” We let him know that even if that’s okay in Uganda, it’s certainly not okay in a Christian marriage (or any marriage). Pray for this couple to be met by God in a very powerful way.
Back to the Mt Elgon Hotel for an all-day conference with the JENGA staff. JENGA is an NGO committed to social welfare concerns. Headed by the one and only Robby Keen, a Brit who is one of Derek’s closest friends from Africa, the mostly Ugandan group were most engaged, encouraged and encouraging. Lively interaction marked the day, which is no surprise for a team headed by the very lively Robby. Though not planned, a good portion of the afternoon ended up being dominated by questions about marital sexuality—and we were surprised and pleased by the openness expressed in their written questions. There is such a dearth of information and knowledge regarding these things in this culture, especially within Christian circles. For many, it was likely the first time some of these subjects had ever been publicly discussed—and they hung on every word.
It was a delightful conference in every way and we were so thankful for the ways God met us. Discussing these two days which Robby organized, we all agreed there was an anointing on both conferences, attributable only to the hand of God. All praise is His. We wrapped up that time by lingering with Robby over a delicious Indian meal at Landmark Restaurant. Back to the hotel to pack and prepare for the all-day drive to Entebbe the next day.
Our last morning in Mbale started with a 6 am walk. Knowing it would be a long day in the car, we enjoyed the cool of morning, the multi-colored sky, and the quiet stillness of our final morning here. Back at the hotel, we flew into high gear to finish packing, to distribute tips and gifts, to settle our bill (complicated by the charge machine not working), to inhale breakfast, and to be curbside by 7:50 am to be picked up by Moses to go to the hospital.
We only had an hour and a half to spend there, but we packed quite a bit in. Shocking, I know. We started with a 45 minute counseling appointment—and can I say again how much it rips our hearts out to hear the stories of hard working people who seem to have such huge obstacles in life just to live. We pray that the Holy Spirit will take our paltry offerings to these precious people and multiply them.
We went immediately off to the hospital ward, where I had been longing to be all week. My heart could not hold back the tears as I went from bed to bed, looking at these "littles" with such big problems and seeing in the eyes of their mamas a genuine mixture of pain and hope. It was seeing an 11-year-old girl with an inoperable brain tumor who, after a month of being at the hospital, is being sent to hospice care, that really undid me. I prayed with the mama, who demonstrated a stoicism common to Africans in the face of grievous loss. They accept that God has ordained this number of days and they must carry on.
That stoicism does not exist in me. I wept.
Another bed I visited had a little boy about 6 who had a spinal issue and he was accompanied by his dad who had on a well-worn San Diego Charger’s Gates jersey. :) In honor of my mom, I’m sure. Who would’ve thought?
Thankfully, the vast majority of the children who come to CURE Mbale leave in much better shape than they come in. This hospital is working “miracles” in the lives of otherwise hopeless children and we are so thankful to be able to encourage them in any small way we can.
Each time we’re in Uganda, we’re increasingly aware of so much suffering we’re shielded from in the States. Please understand my heart in saying this, but it’s embarrassing to think of how much time and money are currently being spent in the US on making sure that a person who is gender-confused has the right bathroom to use, when you’re in a country in which bathrooms are oft time scarce, and diseases related to improper places of human waste disposal are rampant. To think that most of these children who end up at the CURE Hospitals are there with significant physical issues due to the poor diet of the mother and child, or due to unsanitary practices, is both convicting and heartbreaking. It’s so easy to take for granted all we have and to be unaware of all we don’t have to worry about as a result. Humbling.
It was really hard to say good-bye to the many wonderful staff at CURE. Their deep love for Derek and Julie is extended to us and they really do feel like family. They are so gracious.
Off with Mackay at 9:30 am: destination, Entebbe Airport, a 5-7 hour trip, which this time was 7 hours. He drove through Tororo to avoid having to drive the very torn up Jinja Road, and the highlight of that was seeing baboons on the road as we drove though a forested area. A tiny safari. :) We did stop in Jinja for about 25 mins to get some coffee and beads, but that was our only stop. A huge rain storm hit not long after we left Jinja, and for the first time, we drove the Kampala Road and saw nary a person. Usually the roadsides are filled with people milling about, selling their wares, doing business, etc., but they were all hiding to keep out of the rain, which was so torrential the streets were flooding. As usual, Mackay did a masterful job driving and we safely made it through the storm, though it did slow us down significantly.
Our hoped for stop at the market in Entebbe was scratched due to the late hour, and we pulled into the airport exactly 2 hours ahead of our flight. We thankfully made it to the lounge for 30 minutes, allowing us to consume some g-nuts and samosas before boarding the flight. We hadn’t eaten since 7 am and were ready for some sustenance.
The flight to Addis was great. Seated in our row was a young 27-year-old Syrian lawyer who had been doing business in Kampala. He was clearly extroverted. :) When he found out we spoke on marriage, he had numerous questions for us which eventually led to him saying that just the day before, his girlfriend of 2 years jilted him via “What’s App.” Not by explaining why she wanted to end the relationship, just by not responding to him. He was obviously very hurt and it seemed to help him to process it. He was quite a character. When we told him we’d like to send him a book about marriage, he was all over that and seems very eager to keep in touch.
I’ll be honest and say I wasn’t looking for another counseling session. :) I really wanted to sleep. But it was SO clearly orchestrated by the Lord, we embraced it and we’re now praying for fruit. He lives in Damascus and gave us his card, expressing his hope that we stay in touch.
No problems getting through customs at the Addis airport, and no problems connecting with the CURE driver to get us to the hotel, but then it fell apart. The hotel had no record of the reservation made by someone at CURE, so after 45 minutes, we were told there were no rooms available. :( Fortunately there was a suitable replacement hotel nearby which we quickly settled in to for the few short hours until our early morning pick-up.
After getting settled so late Thursday night, we wakened to rain the next morning, which meant that not getting up even earlier so we could walk was a very good idea. After a solid breakfast, we were picked up at 7:30 to go to CURE Hospital, Ethiopia, where they specialize in orthopedics. We were privileged to speak at their staff chapel and quite honestly, had quite a bit of trepidation about it after hearing from Mesfin (the Spiritual Director for CURE Ethiopia) that only 40% of staff are believers. Though attending the chapel is not mandatory, we had no idea of who would turn out for it. As it was, about 40-50 were there and it was a wonderful time. We spoke out of Mark 2, the story of the paralytic, which seemed to have a lot of application at an orthopedic hospital that cares for children who mostly can’t walk. God met us and we felt a strong message was delivered and well received. All praise is His.
It was wonderful to reconnect with a number of the staff we spent the weekend with last year, and especially Adey Abate (the executive director- a delightful woman) and the orthopedic surgeons, all from the UK, and all with engaging personalities and hearts. This hospital is filled with so much joy as children’s lives are literally transformed through increased mobility. Many big smiles everywhere, in spite of the deeply painful surgeries so many of them must endure. It’s a great work.
The pastor’s conference was held from 9-4:30 and again, we had many trepidations because we really had no idea what to expect. The day unfolded in a way that exceeded any expectations we had. The pastors were so receptive, so engaged, so appreciative. We had great dialogue at times, great questions posited, and a deep sense of our spirits being in sync. The subject of marriage and family is not dealt with very openly in Ethiopia, yet the problems and challenges are just as real and disabling as they are in America. We were very thankful for genuine openness and authentic transparency by the lay pastoral couples who carry deep concern for the families struggling in silence and isolation due to the taboo nature of such issues. It was deeply gratifying to see how the Lord directed the day.
Our teaching was broken up by two tea times and one lunch buffet all prepared by the CURE kitchen. They did a phenomenal job. Everything about the day flowed so well.
Just as we were leaving, about 30 Brownies and Girl Scouts from the International School showed up (with their leaders) to present the hospital with over $1,000. they had raised by selling cupcakes. It was so cool to see these elementary school children so excited about helping the children. They had brought cupcakes for each child at the hospital as well, and as we drove off, they were making their way to the ward to present them to the children. It was very touching to see what a great encouragement it was to the CURE staff to receive this gift from the hearts of these young ones.
We were driven back to the hotel, where we quickly changed in to walking clothes before we could give in to the temptation to take a nap. We decided a 5:30 nap would be a bad idea for the night, so off we walked. How we miss the dirt roads of Mbale which, though they’re not empty of people, bodas, and cows, are still relatively calm and quiet. Not downtown Addis. Think of a very congested, dirty, smoggy, noisy, car-overfilled, people pouring out of everywhere, downtown area . . . and you’ll begin to get a glimpse. You almost don’t want to inhale, because the air is so thick. Still, it was good to get some exercise and we made sure we returned to the hotel before dark. Sleep came easily.
Saturday began for us at 6 am when we got up to walk, hoping to avoid the craziness of overcrowded sidewalks and streets. And that we did. In the cool of the early morning, there was maybe one tenth of the activity there was yesterday at 6 pm and it was a welcomed relief. The Islam call to prayer could be heard loud and clear, with devoted Muslims stopping to look towards the mosque, and we passed numerous homeless people still asleep on the sidewalks, huddled beneath their tarps or tattered blankets. Otherwise it was a much more pleasant walk, though when we blew our noses upon returning to the hotel, we discovered our noses were full of soot. :( I’d wear a mask if I lived here.
After breakfast, off to CURE Hospital for the second day of the pastor’s conference. Thankfully, I can report that it was a truly great day. Our subjects included premarital counseling, marital sexuality, and temperaments. None of the first two areas are talked about much in Ethiopia, and sexuality isn’t addressed at all. We felt God gave us sensitivity to address this very important but “kept under wraps” subject in a way that was not uncomfortable and that was very enlightening. All agreed that the silence about sexuality was creating many, many problems and that the church needed to lead the way in making changes. Afterwards, Mesfin said, “You spoke in a way that maintained the holiness of sexuality but also gave us very practical teaching on it.” We were very thankful.
At day's end, the appreciation expressed by those attending (all of whom do family and marriage ministry in their churches) was overwhelming. One lady told me today was her 40th birthday and she could not think of a better birthday gift than the conference. She said it changed her life. So very humbling to be a part of this kind of kingdom work. All praise is His.
In between sessions, we got to visit the newly opened Rehabilitation Center for the hospital and interact with the children. As I mentioned earlier, this is such a happy place. The children wear big smiles, in spite of having casts on their legs, enduring surgeries, etc. There is such hope! When you’ve not been able to walk, or you’ve walked with considerable disability, and your life is being changed at this hospital . . . I guess that accounts for the smiles. CURE is doing a wonderful work there and around the world.
Back to the hotel just after 5, and off walking we went. Saturday’s traffic is much less, making it more pleasant to be out, so we took advantage of reduced chaos and got a few more steps in.
The grand finale of our 2.5 weeks in Africa (or 5 weeks, when combined with our 2.5 weeks in South Africa) was speaking at a small International Church by invitation of Dr. Mary, who is the Chief Medical Officer of CURE Ethiopia. The group was started years ago to provide a “family church” experience and in the years since, others who are just looking for an intimate, multi-generational church community experience have found a home here. Comprised of 8 to10 families, most with 4 to5 children, they come from all over, including the Netherlands, the UK, America, Switzerland, and South Africa. We enjoyed our time with them so much. It actually reminded us of family camp in a small way. Paul did a sermonette for the kids after worship, and then we spoke to everyone 8 years and over during the “sermon” time. We talked about the importance and priority of marriage and family and were very thankful for the number of teens who made sure to let us know they really appreciated the “talk.” A homemade pizza lunch followed. It was really a lovely time.
We spent the next couple of hours counseling one of the couples (pre-arranged) and when they left at 4:30, we relaxed and worked in the hotel lobby until the shuttle took us to the airport.
And just like that, our Africa trips came to a close.
So much to process . . . so much to consider. “Ethiopia” really wants us back next year, for a much longer period of time . . . and so does Mbale. CURE Malawi and CURE Zambia also have issued invites, so we’ll see how this all sorts out. Our hearts for Africa expand with each visit.
For now, we are most grateful for how the Lord met us, used us, and taught us. We felt His strength and wisdom as needed and left with hearts overflowing with gratitude and awareness of His faithfulness.
The only unwanted thing we left Africa with was a stomach bug which invaded Paul’s gastro-intestinal system, making it impossible for him to retain any food consumed. This was the first (but last) time we traveled without Cipro, so he was fairly miserable for about 4 days before we returned home and got the needed meds. He was better very soon after, thankfully.
And so we close the 2017 chapter on Africa, so very grateful for the opportunity to serve globally with full support from Home Improvement Ministries. Thank you for partnering with us in this strategic ministry focus. We couldn’t do it without your prayer backing as well as your financial partnership. We are truly grateful.
The sun has set on our time in Africa in 2017 and we are beyond grateful for God’s faithfulness.