Two weeks ago, this was the view out of the plane window as we made our approach to Entebbe, Uganda. If you look closely, you’ll be able to see the Nile River snaking her way across this beautiful country. Even if you don’t look closely, you’ll see the Glory of God in this magnificent sunset captured by camera.
And thus it began. In some ways it seems as though we blinked, and now we’re returning home…and in other ways, it seemed like much longer ago than two weeks that we witnessed this spectacular scene. Six full days of travel (to and from US, and within Uganda) and nine full days of ministry. We return home changed by the things we have experienced, the people we have served, and by the God who has met us. And we are more convinced than ever that “our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness."
Our first time in Uganda in the post-Derek and Julie era, we had a certain amount of trepidation as we commenced this journey. Since they had always taken such good care of us logistically, practically, and otherwise, we truly wondered how we would manage without them.
We found out quickly that when you’ve impacted people there as deeply and positively as have they, you will be well-taken care of on their coattails. How humbling!
And so from the moment of our arrival, when we were met at the Entebbe airport by the driver Nelson from the Boma Hotel, we were greeted and treated as though we were well-loved family returning home. The crew at the Boma couldn’t have been more effusive about their love for the Johnsons and about how deeply they miss them now that they’re in the states. They wanted to see photos of Nathan, whom they had known since his birth, and of his new baby sister, Rachel, who they are eager to meet. This record played over and over and over every day we were in Uganda.
And as a result, we had no need that was left unmet.
We flew to Uganda seven hours after returning from California on a red-eye, Monday, May 9, and landed late on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the 11th, we spent the whole day getting from Entebbe to Mbale (western to eastern Uganda), made quite difficult by the impending inauguration of President Museveni the following day. Road closures and increased traffic delayed our pick-up near the airport by 3 hours and increased the normally 5-hour trip to Mbale to 8 hours. It was quite harrowing at the end as we traveled in complete darkness, but our wonderful driver Mackay safely delivered us to the Mt. Elgon Hotel just after 8. The strangeness hit us strongly that we were at a hotel and not at the Johnson compound. We missed them terribly the whole time, but not because we were not well cared for.
We hit the road running. JP and Jill Robinson, dear friends who are serving with the Church of Christ, picked us up bright and early Thursday and we were off to speak at an-all day marriage training for church-planting village pastors who are being discipled by JP and his Ugandan counterpart, Dennis. It was truly an exciting day for all as it included the wives (who are not part of the discipleship program) and they seemed genuinely pleased to be included in this unusual day. It was the first such training for these local village pastors on marriage and they were fully engaged all day. The Robinsons did a great job organizing the event, which was held on the grounds of Livingstone International University (LIU) and we all deemed it successful at day’s end as we debriefed over a lovely meal at the Robinsons' home.
|The church-planting village pastors and wives at the marriage training hosted by the Church of Christ|
and organized by JP and Jill Robinson (far right)
|JP and Jill are completing their fourth year in Mbale and will return after a 2.5 month furlough in the states this summer. They facilitated our time in Mbale and we are ever so grateful.|
Sleep felt very good that night!
Up and at it early Friday, prior to starting our conference for JENGA, Robby Keen drove us over to the CURE hospital to indulge our desire to make contact with the many we love there. It was brief, but so so sweet to exchange many hugs and even to see a few babies. What a great way to start the day.
The balance of the day (9:30-5) was spent at the hotel where we spoke for JENGA, an NGO dedicated to serving the community in many different ways. Led by one of the Johnsons’ closest friends, Robby Keen, a Brit who defies his heritage save his accent (he is a wild one), the JENGA team spent from 10-5 hearing about God’s design for marriage, why it matters, and how to live it. It was a lovely group that seemed to really feel their time was well spent.
|Robby Keen welcomes the JENGA crew to the all-day marriage event in a meeting room at the Mt. Elgon Hotel. |
|At day’s end . . . |
everyone has enough energy to muster a smile for the group photo.
|We were warmly hosted for dinner that evening by Joseph and Nada Eid and their children Manna and Naseem. All our evening meals were provided by those who love Derek and Julie.|
For the third day running, we had an early start for yet another all-day marriage seminar, this one hosted by and held at Pearl Haven Christian Center. What a joy to return to this thriving church, pastored by Wilberforce and Sarah Okumu, and to see the progress they’ve made on completing their 10-year-in-process church building. Some of you will remember that H.I.M. raised $20K for Pearl Haven after our trip last year, which we sent to them so they could “raise the roof. Though not yet finished, much progress has been made and the roof should be on within the next two months.
Around 250 attended the Saturday conference, including “our” driver Mackay and Doreen, whom we invited after he asked what we were doing in Mbale and expressed interest in coming. The day went very well, after we adjusted the speed of our speaking to facilitate the translator. Though most Africans know some level of English and many are fluent English speakers, most would profit much more by hearing it in Lugandan. One of the highlights of the day for us was having a break-out session with the singles in attendance, which numbered about 70. We presented some material then opened it to written Q & A, and it was lively. We LOVE addressing issues facing singles, especially today as the cultural rules and expectations continue to change. It’s very security-producing for this age/stage group to be reminded that the clarity of God’s heart for them hasn’t changed and won’t change and they can hold on to the eternal truth of scripture and design. Paul and I were at the Bam Supermarket early Monday morning and a young woman approached us, identifying herself as having been at the singles meeting during the marriage conference. “It helped me so much,” she said. “I’m content to trust God’s design and to wait for His best. It was so clear and so helpful. Thank you!” What a gift from God to hear of how He was working. To Him be the glory!!
After our third long teaching day in a row, we had the “night off” and bravely walked into Central Market in downtown Mbale to buy some avocados and mangos so we could have a quiet light supper in our room and retire early. Central Market is a huge, multi-level, (now) indoor “farmer’s market” consisting of locals bringing their goods to sell from their little booth. It’s a bit overwhelming to the uninitiated. Fortunately we had been there several times with Derek and Julie through the years, but I’ll admit it felt a lot different without them. Unusual (and somewhat offensive) sights, smells, and sounds combine to make it an outside-of-comfort-zone experience, but we navigated it, achieved our purpose, and made it back to the hotel before dark. Whew! And the avocado was well worth it.
|The crowd is gathering at Pearl Haven for the all-day Saturday marriage/singles conference.|
|The singles met for a special session|
in the “upper room” in the early afternoon.
|Mackay and Doreen came to Pearl Haven for the first time to attend the marriage conference and the three of us were given a tour of the ongoing construction of the church.|
“And they’ll look sweet, upon the seat, of a motorcycle built for six!”
Back at Pearl Haven on Sunday for the packed first service and a much smaller second service, Paul preached on “Ten Things Matthew 19 teaches us about Marriage.” He did a great job, says his adoring wife. We always love to be with the congregation at Pearl Haven, especially for their worship through song, which is always robust, heartfelt, and alive.
The congregation at Pearl Haven continues to grow—in knowledge and in size.
The congregation holds their hands towards us as Wilberforce speaks a blessings over our work and travel.
|Hanging out with Pastor Wilberforce and Sarah Okumu, who lead the work at Pearl Haven. They are very kindred to us.|
Home from church just after 2 (after leaving the hotel at 7:30 am), we were refreshed by a walk and a short time at the pool before going to the Olupot home to help celebrate Neese’s 7th birthday. Dr Olupot is a highly trained and respected MD/PhD at Mbale Regional Hospital, specializing in infectious diseases, and his wife Harriet works at CURE Hospital. They are deeply loved by Derek and Julie and the favor is returned. We were truly honored to be invited to join the festivities and loved having yet another insight into Ugandan culture. Her birthday was not only celebrated with the typical children’s games, foods, and cake, but it also had a spiritual dimension, lead by the pastor of their church. We took it all in and enjoyed every minute of it.
Neese’s 7th birthday party…
just before the cake cutting, the guests eagerly encircle her.
Monday…we met with a dating couple who wanted to talk through the challenges of a cross-cultural relationship…and then had time for a walk and a swim before the muzungu (white) missionary community came to the Mt. Elgon Hotel to spend the afternoon with us leading a discussion on balancing marriage, family, and ministry…especially in a different culture. We’ve known many of these for a number of years now, so it was really a sweet reunion. Over tea and cakes, we had a very fruitful time together and only wished it had been longer. The hearts are willing, but the challenges are real. This is a wonderful group of ex-Pats.
|Most of the “muzungu” missionary community who gathered for tea and talk Monday afternoon.|
That evening we had the pleasure of dining with Mackay and Doreen’s family in their home. We were treated like royalty as they presented a spread of local Ugandan food, made in their home, in honor of our visit. We loved being with their family,and being entertained by their adorable daughters, Maya, Martha, and Marcella. It was a night we won’t soon forget.
|The Mwebingwa family plus one: Sirene is on the far left and she has joined the family since her parents’ death.|
Tuesday! Time is flying and we’re unable to slow it down. Having the morning off helped a bit. We were thankful for a few hours to have extended quiet time, a long walk, and a short time by the pool before welcoming local pastors with whom we’ve met each time we’ve been here since 2012 for ongoing marriage training. Many of these were at our very first event held at CURE Hospital in 2012 and then attended the retreat H.I.M. hosted in 2013. We love the continued connection with these dear folks. They also came to the Mt. Elgon Hotel for the afternoon, beginning with lunch and continuing with an ongoing discussion on marriage in Uganda. It was so good to be together.
|About 42 familiar pastors and their wives joined us for the afternoon for ongoing training. It was another sweet reunion.|
We managed a second walk that afternoon to visit the Johnsons’ former compound (now inhabited by new CURE Hospital Executive Director Tim Erickson and his wife, Kiera, and their 3 little ones.) It felt so strange to be there on one hand, as with the exception of the Johnsons not being there, not much had changed. Their guard John and his son Farouk (who were like family to the Johnsons and subsequently to us) were there, their dogs Jack and Lemon were there, etc. It was a most happy reunion with John, Farouk, and the dogs. Farouk, who had not expected our arrival, just kept saying, “It’s a miracle! It’s a miracle!” The day wrapped up with a sweet time of fellowship and food with Chad and Katie Allen and their three littles. Chad is the CFO of LIU and they are a warm, hospitable family.
|John, Farouk, Jack, Lemon, and Paul . . . a very happy group.|
|Chad, Katie, Graham, Molly, and Finn welcomed us into their home Tuesday night for dinner.|
Finally…Wednesday. CURE Hospital! We had been looking forward to this day long event since arriving, and this was the day. Tim had kindly invited us to speak at chapel from 8-9 and then added a special chapel from 12-1. In between the chapels, we met individually with those who wanted our counsel. The morning and afternoon “slots” were all booked and we had some very precious moments with some very dear folks. The chapels went well and it was just so good to be face to face with many we’ve grown to love so deeply since our first visit to the hospital in 2009. The chorus of “we miss Derek and Julie so much” was constant and not surprising; they both invested greatly in that place and those people for 5-8.5 years. It was a day full of celebration and grace.
One of the highlights for us for having a private visit with Sister Florence, the recently retired director of nursing for the hospital. It would be hard to find a more impressive woman! When she was a young nurse, almost twenty years ago, her sister died, leaving her three daughters orphaned. Sister Florence adopted the girls, forsaking her own desire to be married in order to focus on the needs of these precious but traumatized young girls. The youngest is now 20 and all three are following Christ and doing well. Sister Florence has done her job, both at the hospital and with her daughters, exceedingly well. It was a privilege to sit and talk with her about the past as well as her future plans.
Salt of the earth. Life upon life. Gifts of the journey.
The day ended all too quickly. Our time in the ward wasn’t long enough, but sufficient to remind us of the incredible work being done by the folks at the hospital. What a privilege to be connected with this ministry and with these people.
|Part of the staff we successfully corralled for a photo after the second chapel … How we love these!|
|One of the precious little ones who has undergone the ETV treatment for her fairly advanced case of hydrocephalus.|
|This sweet mama has her hands full with her non-mobile son and her baby with a good view from her back.|
It was very hard to pull ourselves away from the hospital but we had a dinner date at the Mbale Resort Hotel with Wilberforce and Sarah, and Mackay. This spontaneous invitation to dinner was extended by the manager of the hotel, Isaiah, who is a very close friend of Mackay. After Mackay had related to him high praise for the marriage conference at Pearl Haven, Isaiah extended the invitation for us to be his guest for dinner. Isaiah let us know how much Derek and Julie had impacted his life as well during their time in Mbale and he was very interested in partnering with us on future trips. He wondered if we would consider using his hotel for some future marriage event. Only God knows where this will lead. For now, we know we had a fabulous meal at this hotel and another strong connection was made. Praise Him!
Isaiah, Mackay, Wilberforce, Sarah, and us
just before dinner at the Mbale Resort Hotel.
What a lovely way to spend our last night in Mbale. Back to the Mt. Elgon Hotel to pack and be ready for an 8 am Thursday pick up. We managed to do an early morning walk in the drizzle, which abated before we made it back to the hotel, making way for a beautiful rainbow straight from heaven. It actually left us both speechless as we were drenched in the hope of His promise and the reality of His presence.
|Our last morning in Mbale: what an incredible start to the day!|
Our trip to Entebbe Thursday was full of unexpected delights! We stopped at the new Endiro Coffee Shop on the road to Jinja and were delightfully surprised that Gloria, the very smart entrepreneur behind the now 4-stores-strong coffee shop “chain”, was there! We had such a nice visit, and of course heard, “We miss Derek and Julie so much!” She admitted that beyond just loving them, they were very faithful customers at her Mbale store and she also is missing their business. :)
Gloria, owner of the Endiro Coffee Shop chain, was so kind and generous to us. Best cappuccino I’ve had in a long time!
Next stop…to repair a flat tire. The same one that was repaired a week earlier gave up completely. But in no time, Mackay had replaced it with the “donut” and off we went.
Jinja was up next, and we made a very brief stop to get some coffee, etc., and then were on our way to Mackay’s parents-in-law, who live between Jinja and Kampala. Remarkable people! Now retired, they farm their large piece of land to supply their family and friends, and extend hospitality to all who come by. We thoroughly enjoyed connecting with them.
|Mackay’s parents-in-law, Mr. Atim and Margaret: he had a career with UNICEF and other NGO’s and she is a retired school head-mistress. Amazing folks!|
We finally arrived at the Boma around 5, we were in the pool by 5:05 to be refreshed in the last waning streams of sunlight, which lasted long enough to get in a walk to Lake Victoria, all the while viewing the setting sun. A relaxing evening, delicious dinner, and to bed, exhausted.
Next stop: Ethiopia!!
|A first for us: leaving the airport at Addis Ababa!|
Invited by CURE to conduct a marriage seminar for the leadership team at their Addis Ababa Orthopedic Hospital, we were both excited and apprehensive about this event. It was an intimate gathering of eight couples, most of whom are doctors of some sort, and we wondered what their expectations would be and if they’d feel that giving up their Saturday in such a way would be “worth it.”
We were delightfully surprised and aware of God’s faithfulness as the rapport between us developed. By conference end, we felt we had eight new couples who had become friends. Because of the size of the group, there was plenty of interaction, time for questions, etc. We were so impressed with their sincere expressions of wanting to build in to their marriages and families, and of recognizing their vulnerability to imbalance given the immense need for their medical services. By the time it was over, there was talk of doing it again next year. :)
The hospital’s medical director later wrote:
“It was a great time. Very practical and doable. They were great presenters. Never a dull moment. Sensitive to everyone's different cultures and personalities. But most of all, I found them to be very genuine. They offered help that was both important and addressable. Not pie in the sky—I could never be like that—kind of advice. Would recommend it anywhere and if they come next year, we will encourage all the married hospital staff to attend.”
One of the highlights of the day, unrelated to the conference (which was held on the SIM compound), was the “yard sale” run by the children of the compound dwellers. These enterprising young ones had it on their heart to raise funds for a pediatric rehabilitation center, so they baked cookies and gathered some candy and gum to sell at their “yard sale.” Loved seeing their hearts of compassion!
We returned to the hotel near the airport and walked about the city before calling it a day.
The “Yard Sale” and the young entrepreneurs running it.
|The marriage conference attendees.|
A stellar group of servant-hearted people.
Sunday, after attending church services at St Matthew’s Anglican Church with several of the CURE families, we toured the CURE Hospital. What an amazing place and even more so are the incredible people who make it happen. We were privileged to be toured by Dr. Tim Nunn and Dr. Rick Gardner, the two orthopedic surgeons who work here. Both men are highly skilled, highly trained physicians who are pouring their lives out for “the least of these.” We were so touched by their personal connection with their patients as they stopped to check in with them during the tour, which was happening on their day off. It was evident immediately that they are deeply loved by these young ones whose lives are literally being changed by them. Hope givers. Life changers. Jesus with flesh on.
This hospital is so different than the Mbale hospital in some obvious ways: neurosurgery in Mbale and orthopedic surgery in Addis Ababa; the Mbale hospital deals largely with babies, while the Addis hospital treats older children; the Mbale hospital sits on a sanctuary-esque compound with many single story buildings, and the Addis hospital is terraced on a hillside and is currently building a huge rehabilitation center on their large property. They are also so much like each other. Both are clean, peaceful places of hope and healing, physical and spiritual, staffed by caring, sacrificial, highly professional medical teams, and filled with patients and their parents who are full of smiles as the never-thought-possible becomes possible. We met a 14-year-old girl who had been born with such deformity in her legs and feet that she had never walked. After 7 months of operations and procedures at the Addis hospital, she took her first steps on Friday, with the aid of crutches. The doctors showed us a photo of her first steps and the joy on her face was unmitigated by the fact that she still has months of therapies and treatments ahead before she’ll go home. I asked Dr. Rick (who is completing his 3rd year at this hospital) if he saw himself here for the long haul and he said, “I can’t imagine practicing anywhere else.” A heart (and hands) fully surrendered.
|What a welcome to the hospital!|
Dr. Tim Nunn (left) and Dr. Rick Gardner (holding his son Ben)
flanked the 14-year-old girl who took her first steps on Friday, after 7 months of work at the hospital.
Smiles, smiles everywhere!
We left the hospital so filled with hope and joy for these patients and their families, and with such awe and appreciation for the medical and support staff who bring help and healing in the name of Jesus. We also left with both a degree of sorrow, having been told that 2,000 children are on the waiting list for this CURE hospital now, and deep gladness knowing that thousands of children have already been treated here since its beginning in 2008.
Our hearts were once again enlarged, and we are committed to pray for this work and for these people, who have given up lives of comfort and entitlement to serve those who would otherwise go unserved.
We walked the streets of Addis after we left the hospital, taking in more sights, sounds, and smells. Our compassion for these people was temporarily suspended when Paul realized he had been pick-pocketed by the little 9-year-old beggar who bumped into him and managed to take off with his wallet, which was deep in his front pocket. It returned—our compassion—though the wallet and its non-monetary contents did not. They are now in a trash heap somewhere in Addis Ababa. Choosing to be thankful that we weren’t harmed and that everything lost is replaceable, we began to pray for the little boy who at such a young age engaged in such an evil.
To the airport for our flight home that night, we flew Ethiopian Air to Frankfurt, Germany, and Lufthansa to Boston. We couldn’t have asked for better or easier flights, thankfully, and gratefully were home in Bedford before dinner time.
We’ll be processing the trip long after our bodies are readjusted to Eastern Standard Time.
God has met us. He has used us. He has allowed our hearts to be broken “by the things that break His heart.” He has shown us His power. His mercy. His grace. His generosity.
He has amplified our hope in nothing but Him.
All praise is His as we seek to proclaim that our hope is truly built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
"My Hope is Built on Nothing Less"
by Edward Mote, 1797-1874
1. My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus' name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
2. When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale
My anchor holds within the veil.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
3. His oath, His covenant, and blood
Support me in the whelming flood;
When every earthly prop gives way,
He then is all my Hope and Stay.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
4. When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, may I then in Him be found,
Clothed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne!
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.