Saturday, December 22, 2007

How Can I Express In Words Something so Close to me!

Africa was only a few days ago, but it all seems so far away right now. It’s not the same here and I know I don’t fit in with everything anymore. I’m not going to settle for what I used to be ok with. Africa was more than an experience this semester, it became home for me. The other students I met up with were the most incredible people I have ever met, and this semester they became family, and I miss them every minute.

I traveled to Uganda in the fall of 2007, with 37 other students from across the United States and Canada. Our semester was spent studying at UCU (Uganda Christian University), traveling to Rwanda and other places around Uganda, living amongst African families in Mukono and Soroti. One day a week one fellow student and I did our service learning project at Salama School for the Blind working with the children and the staff of the school. All of these experiences have played a significant role in shaping the person I am today and my ideas for my future.

The first experience while being in Uganda was traveling to the neighboring country of Rwanda for a ten day intense look into the 1994 genocide, where it is estimated that somewhere around one million Tutsi’s and opponents of the Hutu party were slaughtered in one of the worst mass murders in the history of this globe. I remember this experience almost as if it were yesterday, mainly because of the sights and smells I encountered along the way. The trip was filled with long days of travel and discussion. One of the two things that sticks out most in my mind was the trip to Murambi Memorial Center. This was an experience unlike any other. It was the place where 50,000 Tutsis were brutally beaten with clubs, stabbed, and even shot, by the Hutus. I can still to this day smell the awful stench of what I’m sure was the lime that preserved the many bones that were still present at the school, but what seemed like the smell of death. The Tutsis were convinced to go to such places by friends who told them it was a place of refuge and safety. Soon they would come to face the ultimate deception, when all were shot, clubbed, and even chopped up by machetes by the people that told them to come to such a place.

Sitting on the steps outside the center, I began to go through my thoughts, and I kept coming to the same place. Many of the people who were committing such crimes were those people that many looked up to; the priests, government officials, and even fellow family members. From this experience I tried to think of what my role would have been in such a tragic event. I often placed myself in the place of the Hutu priest who was supposedly following after God’s plan for his life, yet he was so easily influenced by the society around him, that not even his faith in God could stop him from participating in such a crime. Rev. Emmanuel Kolini, a Rwandan preacher said this about the church: “The church is made up of individuals who together comprise the church. The church is made up of people. When its people fail to live according to the gospel, then the church fails.” He also goes on to say, “When the church’s people are not living true Christian lives, then the church is powerless in society.” I think much of what I learned from the experience in Rwanda is best summarized by Mahatma Gandhi of India. He says, “I have never seen a Christian.” What was meant by his statement was that he had never met anyone living a truly Christian life. People often only pay lip service, they do not live out what they read, being the Gospel.[1] So how does this all play into my life now? Well often I think back to my feelings about the church’s role in the Rwandan genocide, and I can only try to be change the way I am living. It has been my goal since leaving Rwanda to truly meditate on God’s word, and what it means for my life.

Shortly after returning from Rwanda, right at the start of classes, I was placed in the home of an African family in Mukono, only a short walk from the University. For two weeks I lived with my Mom, the eldest son Ronald, and the youngest of all the children, Denise. The three other children were staying at their boarding schools, so were not present during the home stay. I remember my feelings during the two weeks, feelings of sadness, anger, and happiness. Being able to talk about to share about my day with all my family, as well as hear about their days, provided me a family away from home. Often what was difficult was coming home from school and just staring at the walls for hours until supper was ready, while my momma cooked, and my brother revised his work. This made me feel so bored. This was the first time in the semester, where I really began to notice the significance in the value of presence.

The value of presence was hands down one of the biggest values I learned while being in Africa. It seemed like all my experiences throughout the semester could all boil down to presence alone. Another place where I found myself staring right into the face of presence was during my home stay in Soroti. The rural home stay experience was one of the highlights for me during my time in Uganda. I was paired with another male from the group, and we stayed in what seemed like a castle compared to the other homes around the area. The long days would begin early, as soon as the rooster crowed, and end after the completion of a 1950’s movie about interracial relationships with the family. I would work from the time I awoke, up until around breakfast due to the intense heat surrounding the area. Breakfast was usually followed by a lot of interaction with my family, as well as preparing the next meal. Afternoons were the longest time of the day, as I often sat in one of the huts on the compound, mainly because it was the coolest places around, and just journaled my thoughts, and tried to get a little rest. The evening was the time I looked forward to just about every day. As soon as the sun began to set, Papa and my brothers would take us for a walk up some distant hill, or through what seemed like a never ending forest. It was during such times that I remember feeling as though I was again part of another family. As soon as I would get into bed, Bryce and I would debrief about out days, and what we would usually conclude is that even when we felt so useless and so bored, we were truly seeing the relevance of presence to the African person. It was enough for us to just be there amongst this family sharing our time, experiences, and laughter; they didn’t really ask us of anything else.

The underlying importance of presence can be best defined by John Taylor in his book, The Primal Vision. In it he says, “The Christian, whoever he may be, who stands in that world in the name of Christ, has nothing to offer unless he offers to present, real and totally present, real and totally in the present.” Later on in the book he goes on to say, “A humble reverence that never desired to manipulate or possess or use the other is always a feature of the face-to-face encounter of true presence, and therefore it flourishes in silence.[2]” It was only after reading this that I could ever have hoped to really understand the aspect of presence in Africa. It was often through those quiet boring times staring at the wall in a small Mukono home, or sitting in the cement hut in Soroti, that the value of presence came to be real. For me to be amongst those people was enough. Just to offer an ear to hear, and a hand to hold, and a heart to love, was really all that I needed to do.

While I continue to reflect on my experiences in Uganda as well as try and give you a glimpse into my journey then and now I am reminded of one amazing day back in November of 2007. The weekend was to be three days of lectures and discussion on the AIDS epidemic in Africa as well as involvement in the lives of those that are immediately affected by the crisis that is killing thousands of people everyday. On the last day of the weekend, the group all traveled to Lowero, Uganda, where we spent the day playing with children who were all suffering from HIV or whose parents had died of the disease. Of the 20 or so children that we spent the day with only four were free of the virus. I can remember the one child who I spent most of the time getting to know. Matthias was a 6 year old boy who was suffering from HIV alongside his only other living relative, who was his 4 year old sister. The two were under the care of one 16 year old girl who was forced to grow up faster than the average teenager. At 15, Harriet was made into the head of a household of 7. She herself is actually healthy, yet she struggles to meet the needs of all the sick children in her care. Matthias was just like the average child of his age. Full of energy and enthusiasm, but at the same time was looking for someone to just love him and take care of him. He seemed like a boy despite everything being against him was going to look at the world straight in the face and show that he was different. Just at the age of 6 I could tell he had so much promise for a good future. When I look back at the few hours of one day I got to spend with him I learned one of the most important lessons in my life. I learned that being compassionate for those that are sick is not just feeling sorry for them while sitting in your above average home. Being compassionate is much more than just praying for the innocent child who was never given a fair chance at life. Compassion is something every follower of Christ is called to, but it’s not until I truly understood what compassion was, did I realize I was so far from showing this true compassion.

It wasn’t until after my experience hanging out with Matthias that I was able to finally know what compassion was. Henry Nouwen provides important characteristics of a compassionate person in his book titled Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life. In it he says:

Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those that are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.[3]

This is what I have been missing much of my life. I simply thought watching the commercials of children who are starving, and choosing to sponsor them was showing deep compassion. I thought reading the articles in the newspaper and feelings anger for the turmoil around the world, for the thousands of innocent people who were being killed, was showing compassion. I was so far from the truth. Compassion is going to the place of the one that is sick and suffering along with him. Compassion is going into the life of the starving child and experiencing what being “hungry” really means. Compassion is spending the day with a child suffering from AIDS and feeling his pain as much as one can, and showing that child love through a hug or just through sitting in silence. Compassion is not something that should evoke anger with God. God is the only one who truly understood what real compassion was when he walked the streets of the world.

I remember leaving Uganda so well. The day I left the campus of UCU had to be one of the most heart-wrenching days of my life. So much emotion overflowing in one day. Instead of saying goodbye to all my friends at the university, I reminded myself I was only saying I’ll see you later. How can I ever thank the people of the university and Uganda for the lessons they taught me that have shaped me into the man I am today. It was only after listening to a genocide survivor talk about revenge being a game that I realized what true forgiveness is. It was after listening to another survivor or the Rwanda genocide talk about how she is unable to share with us her experiences during the genocide because it was still so painful, that I realized the pain humans can evoke on others. It was living amongst two families in two very different places that I began to really understand the value of presence in one’s life and suffering. It was while sitting on the steps of an orphanage with a sick 6 year old boy that I began to understand compassion. It was watching a blind albino girl worship that I really began to know what never losing faith meant, while at the same time what true love for God looked like. It was during the many hours just sitting with my friends, that I realized we are all in the same place along this thing road called life. It is only when we take the road together life gains its full meaning. It was back in that semester in 2007, that I realized what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus Christ!

- “As a Christian community we are people who together are called out of our familiar places to unknown territories, out of our ordinary and proper places to the places where people hurt and where we can experience with them our common human brokenness and our common need for healing.”- Henry Nouwen, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life.

[1] Kolini, Emmanuel, True Reconciliation in Rwanda: Address to Students of Uganda Christian University, Kigali: Rwanda. (April, 2006)

[2] Taylor, John, The Primal Vision, SCM Press, London, England. (1963)

[3] Nouwen, Henri, Mcneill, Donald, Morrison, Douglas, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, Doubleday Publishers, New York, New York. (1982)