An entire day of flights, a dozen hours spent in airports, four hours lost without contact in Rwanda, and three hours bouncing in the back of a van landed me in the heart of Kabale, Uganda’s most south-western district. To say that I fell in love immediately would be an understatement. Lush, green hills contrasted against winding paths carved into the rich, red soil begged me to stay and soak up every aspect of this beautiful country. I was more than happy to make this place my home for the next five weeks. I quickly discovered that the Ugandan people were even more incredible than the land in which they lived. They were made up of nothing but smiles, gracious and welcoming hearts, outstretched arms and dedicated souls. When the pastor told my team that our only job was to play with the kids, help out in classrooms, and show the people of Kabale that their brothers and sisters in Christ from halfway around the world were pulling for them, I couldn’t have been happier! What could be easier than spending time enjoying the company of my new friends?
As has often been the case, I had underestimated the gravity of the task before me. I had spent time in developing countries before traveling to Africa, but it seemed so much easier to measure the type of work my teams and I did in Ecuador and Guatemala. It’s easy to see a pile of cement blocks shrink as you carry them to the third floor of a school under construction, or to notice the fresh beauty in a property that is now free of debris. It is not as easy to see a difference when you hug a child with a scraped knee and tell him you love him, knowing he will return home to parents who don’t understand the importance of nurture. Standing in-between a teacher and a four year old student who is misbehaving feels futile when you know the teacher will return to her own means of punishment as soon as you leave.
The first several days I spent the entire drive to the orphanage with my eyes glued to the passing buildings and people, and each day the same questions ran through my mind. “God, what can I possibly do to further your kingdom here? There is so much need and hurt and I’m only one person. I can’t make a difference in five weeks.” Before I had time to listen for an answer we would arrive in a dirt lot to be greeted by grinning faces and waving hands, and new motivations would prompt the same question to emerge. “God, what can I possibly do to further your kingdom here? There are so many men and women serving you and your people. Between the pastors, missionaries and dedicated team of house parents how could these children need me? They see the hope of Jesus every day, regardless of my presence.” It only took a few days of me pestering God before He got fed up, and every time I doubted my role, He replaced my thoughts with a much simpler one. “Love my people.” That shut my overly-analytic mind up pretty quickly. Despite all my training and preparation for the trip, I had forgotten the greatest and most basic commandment: love God and love God’s people.
When I slowed down to think about it, the direction really was as simple as that. Some days it was as easy as I prayed it would be. When I walked into my classroom each morning and sixteen voices chimed in unanimously begging their white friend to sit by them, it was easy to show them the love of Jesus. When Innocent would wrap his fire damaged, three fingered hand around my wrist to get my attention and offer up a high-five, I couldn’t help but look into his eyes and smile in the most genuine way. When Edward would pull up in the morning to pick us up and greet me saying, “How are you my friend Christine? I am very happy to see you.” or when Dorothy would tell me I was welcome every time we arrived anywhere, it was so incredibly easy. But sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes I was tired because the dent in the middle of my bed felt like a valley, or I had seen one too many spiders crawl across a desk the day before to fall asleep quickly. Sometimes my stomach hurt from eating potatoes and rice and bread day after day. Sometimes I missed my favorite people from back home and couldn’t help but wonder if they were missing me too. But one of the most amazing things about my God is His constant nature. My feelings change and my thoughts jump around and my love doesn’t seem to stay long enough when situations around me are uncertain. His feelings and His thoughts don’t change, and His love is here to stay. And regardless of where I am at, His request is always the same: love my people. So when I am tired I remember that I am blessed to have a bed and a mosquito net that keeps most of the bugs out, because love dwells on what it has rather than what it does not. When my stomach hurts I remember to thank the woman who cooks for me every day even though she has eight children to wash clothes for and clean up after, because circumstances do not hinder her love. When I miss my favorite people from home I stop to love those around me because already they are some of my favorite people and all too soon they will be the ones I am missing. I was surrounded by so many examples of selfless love that it would’ve been difficult not to reciprocate it. Time and time again humility would punch me in the gut as I realized Africa did not need my love, I needed Africa to teach me how to love.
As my team was preparing to head back to the US we filled out a questionnaire to help process the trip. One of the questions asked what we would change now that we were returning home. My answer was ‘nothing’. I had spent the last five weeks loving God’s people and intended to spend the next five weeks and every week after that doing the same. I won’t pretend that I do it perfectly. I still get impatient and worn out and caught up in a consumer-driven society, but now it only takes one little word from God to slow me back down again to the pace of African society, which is sure to leave room for relationship and reflection. He only asks that I love His people. And I do.
What were you created to do?
“And I will show you a more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” 1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:3