Uganda: Nine Days in The Heart
This is my unedited, unfiltered, raw personal journal documenting an unplanned trip to Entebbe, Uganda over Summer of 2017. I resisted (most of the time) the urge to include reflections, since I believe it might take me some time to gain proper perspective on all I experienced. As I draw those conclusions over the next season of my life, I will be adding them to this work. For now, though, this is simply an account of what happened each day of the journey.
Day 1: False Start
Day 2: Waking Sleep
Day 3: Sabbath
Day 4: Deliberation
Day 5: Back To School
Day 6: Unexpected Rescue
Day 7: Become The Child
Day 8: The Valley of Dry Bones
Day 9: Washed But Not Clean
Day 1: False Start
My friend Christian has been living in Uganda for six months, serving as a missionary. He’d been through a lot over the last couple years and the work in which he was engaged was doing a lot for his healing process. Inevitably, though, he would have seasons of real crisis, and during one of those seasons, while in Uganda, he called me and asked me to come spend some time with him. It seemed completely unrealistic until the head of his ministry generously offered to pay the airfare. And just like that, with a few days’ warning and zero planning, I was off to Uganda for a week.
I flew out on a Wednesday. Except that I didn’t. I got to the airport in Fort Lauderdale and went through the painful ritual of saying goodbye to my family. Once I was through security, which required a bag search since I forgot to take my laptop out, I waited for a few hours to board the flight for the first leg of my journey.
My path began in Fort Lauderdale and would take me through Detroit, Amsterdam, Kigali, Rwanda, and finally to Entebbe, Uganda. The first plane was late arriving in Fort Lauderdale due to bad local weather, and this put me on edge since this type of trip really requires perfect timing to make the connecting flights. If just one of those flights was late, I would be stranded somewhere on the other side of the planet for at least a day.
So this first flight was already running late and I hadn’t even left Fort Lauderdale. It finally arrived and we boarded. We backed out of Gate 2 and started to taxi for takeoff. Quite abruptly, we turned left and heard the pilot over the intercom, “Flight attendants please prepare the doors for arrival.” What?! That was either the shortest flight to Detroit in human history or something is very wrong. As we pulled into Gate 9, one of the flight attendants came on the intercom, “Ladies and gentlemen, have any of you left a black bag in the forward lavatory? If so, please press your attendant call button. Thank you.” We all looked around, but no one was pressing any buttons. After about ten minutes, the flight attendants opened the airplane door and escorted two heavily armed and outfitted men onto the plane. They immediately entered the bathroom next to the cockpit with some boxes and equipment. My fellow passengers and I were looking at each other with deep concern. After what seemed like an eternity, the two men emerged from the bathroom carrying one of the large boxes with great care. They left the plane and the flight attendants closed and locked the plane door.
We’re all thinking the same thing, but no one was saying anything. The flight crew just got a bomb squad to remove a bag with unknown contents from our flight. The implications of that are about as scary as it gets. Except that wasn’t the last of our worries…
We finally took off from Fort Lauderdale and we were on our way to Detroit. If I was doing the math correctly, I think I had about twenty minutes between landing in Detroit from Fort Lauderdale and taking off from Detroit to Amsterdam. We were cutting it very close. Then, about twenty minutes into the flight, the plane suddenly dropped altitude and made a sharp, 180 degree right turn. We continued to drop like a freight elevator — not out of control, but definitely with urgency. Once again, this time as our ears were popping, we all stared at each other with that look of worry and confusion.
About ten minutes after the turn, the flight attendant came on the intercom, “Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has informed us that we have turned back towards Fort Lauderdale due to an unspecified concern with the aircraft. Please prepare for an emergency landing. We will give you more information as we have it. Thank you.” This can’t be happening. First a potential explosive device, and now we have absolutely no idea whether or not the plane is going to make it back to the ground without crashing. I’ve had a lot of scares over the years on flights, but this was a first for me. It was two firsts.
Fortunately, we finally made it back to Fort Lauderdale and landed safely. Unfortunately, I knew that the chances of making my connecting flights was now zero percent. I wasn’t going anywhere that day. After getting off the plane, I got in line to discuss changing my flights. It took more than an hour of waiting before I got to the desk attendant. She searched for several minutes to find alternatives for me, which she did for her airline, but she couldn’t search for the partner airlines with whom I was flying for part of the trip. She called them and was put on perma-hold. After what seemed like forever, she was finally able to discuss my needs with the other airline. The informed her that the flights for the following day were already sold out and the the first opportunity to get me going would be two days from then — Friday. Knowing I had no choice at this point, I booked the new flights. All told, I spent seven hours traveling that day, and ended up exactly where I began.
One small moment of serendipity in all of this came after I called Amy to come pick me up. She was tied up and couldn’t come right away, so I called my mom. She said she was actually on the way to the airport at that very moment to pick my dad — his flight from Charlotte had just landed. I was able to hitch a ride with mom and dad and free Amy up from having to come back down to get me. As I returned to the house I had this totally strange, almost empty feeling. I’ve never felt anything like it before. Obviously I was happy to see my family, but I guess I’d mentally prepared for this journey and to not be with them for a while, and there I was — not in the air over the Atlantic Ocean, and now sitting again with my family. It was surreal. It was a kind of bizarre depression I think. And I had two days to try and process it before I tried again to get to Uganda.
Those two days were a mix of waiting and working to take advantage of the extra time before the trip. I’d already gotten my ducks in a row before I tried to leave on Wednesday, so in one sense I felt like I really didn’t have anything to do. In another sense, work is never done, so I looked through my to-do list and decided I could knock out a few things before the next flight took off. It turns out I was able to accomplish some extremely important tasks on that Thursday. I’m actually grateful I had the time.
Day 2: Waking Sleep
Friday came and it was time to try this again. Jacob had already left to spend the night at his friend’s house because they were going on a road trip the next day, so I’d already said my goodbyes to him. Except that he needed cash, so we drove over to his buddy’s house to give him the money and I got to say goodbye again. It was a bit hectic. Amy and Morgan were leaving to drive to Tampa for a few days, since the boys were both going to be away. She decided she would pack the car, drop me off at the airport and just continue on to her parent’s house across Alligator Alley and up the west coast. And she also decided that, for the first time ever, she was going to bring the dogs with her to Tampa. So we left the house with a packed hatchback, complete with two little dogs in their kennels and an apparently bad case of anxiety. They both howled and barked almost the whole way to Jacob’s friend’s house. The stress level was off the scale. Here I was trying to come to terms with saying goodbye to my family, AGAIN, and getting mentally prepared, AGAIN, for a thirty-hour journey to the other side of the planet, and now I had the dogs going completely crazy as I was trying to drive. This wasn’t starting off well, AGAIN.
We got to Jacob and gave him some money. Earlier that morning, Amy and I were discussing an issue Jake was having with a friend and some teenage social media silliness. I felt like I didn’t have enough time before I left for Uganda to work through it with Jacob so I didn’t want to bring it up. But as soon as we saw him, Amy asked him about it. So there we were, standing in his friend’s front yard, getting ready to say goodbye, and now we’re having to discuss this issue. It was just all wrong. I worked hard to communicate the seriousness of it but in a way that wouldn’t make my departure seem disingenuous. We chatted for a few minutes and said our goodbyes for a second time that week. Off we went to the airport, dogs and everything.
Thankfully, the dogs had calmed down a little bit for the rest of the drive to the airport. I said my goodbyes to Amy and Morgan and headed into the terminal. Getting through security was easier this time since I remembered to take the laptop out. Once at the gate I noticed through the large windows that bad weather was approaching. Again. The weather was actually worse this day than it was on Wednesday, and the stress levels began to rise again, contemplating the idea of missing the connector and having to go through all of this a third time. Needless to say, the flight was late again, but this time we took off and flew to Detroit and landed with enough time to make the flight to Amsterdam.
I think I was so mentally and emotionally exhausted from everything that had happened to this point, I just passed out once we were in the air and finished with dinner. It’s laughable that one could be so fatigued this early on a trip, especially one that would have me living in third world conditions for a week. I hadn’t even gotten close to Uganda, and already I was totally drained. I slept for the large majority of the flight — about six hours. By the time I woke up, we were an hour from landing in Amsterdam. I read a little, listened to some music, and before I knew it, we were on the ground in the early hours of a beautiful morning in the Netherlands. I only had an hour layover before the next flight, so I grabbed a small breakfast and a bottle of water and went in search of my next gate. It ended up being on the absolute other side of the airport, which required me to walk at least a mile as I navigated from one terminal to the next. I got all the way to the end of the last terminal and still couldn’t find my gate. I finally asked a desk attendant where the gate was and she informed me that I needed to go all the way back to the beginning of this terminal and then go downstairs and all the way back down the same direction to the end. I finally found it in what seemed like the basement of the building. Quite odd to be honest.
As I was waiting to board, I realized that though I’d had all my boarding passes on Wednesday, this time around I’d only been given boarding passes for the first two flights, and I was sitting there in the gate for my third flight without the documents necessary to get on the plane. I approached the desk and asked the attendant to print my boarding passes. When she did, I noticed immediately that my seats for the next two flights were not the same ones I’d paid extra to secure before the trip. I’d paid nearly two hundred dollars to ensure I would be sitting in aisle seats the whole way to and from Uganda. Yes, I know. That seems ridiculous. But for me it’s a necessary provision on flights this long. I’ve had to crawl over too many people to get up and stretch my ailing back to resign myself to a middle or window seat. It was worth every penny. Except now the airline was not honoring my purchase, since I wasn’t technically on the flight for which I booked the more expensive seats. She charged me an extra 30 Euros to secure the aisle seat to Kigali and Entebbe.
Finally they began the boarding process. I quickly discovered that though we were lined up to scan our boarding passes, this was only to get on a bus that would take us out to the tarmac where we would actually board the plane. It was chaos trying to get from the bus to the stairs to get on the KLM Airbus A330–200. People were pushing and shoving and arguing. It was a mess. Eventually we all got on and settled in. But the plane just sat there not moving. The captain then announced on the intercom, “Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for choosing KLM. I need to inform you that the plane has been damaged during the loading process in the forward hold. I’ve personally inspected the damage and I feel it is necessary to be further inspected by an engineer and then repaired before we leave. The damage could potentially affect our fire suppression system and I want to make sure we are safe to fly before we take off. Thank you for your understanding.” W-h-a-t?!?! I can’t believe this is happening!!! Damaged fire suppression system right before we fly from Amsterdam to Rwanda?! I can’t even put into words the stress and frustration I was feeling at that moment. We sat on the tarmac for an hour and a half before the captain addressed us again, “Ladies and gentlemen, the engineer has inspected and repaired the damage and we have been cleared to begin our flight. The tower will have to work us into the order of take off but we should be moving shortly. Thank you again for your patience and understanding.” A half hour later we taxied and took off.
I thought the six hours of sleep on the trans-Atlantic flight would’ve been enough to refresh me so I’d be able to stay awake for the eight hour flight to Africa. That was important, since I would be arriving in Entebbe in the late evening. I thought if I could stay up for this flight, I would be tired enough to fall asleep upon arrival and wake up the next morning refreshed with minimal jet lag. But alas my body started to shut down again and I found myself passed out for nearly seven of the eight hours to Rwanda. I woke up as we made our approach to Kigali, local time 9:00PM. Our stop in Rwanda was only to drop some passengers off, pick up some new passengers and top off the fuel. We were on the ground for a little over an hour, but those of us heading to Entebbe were required to stay on the plane.
While I waited for the short hop to Entebbe, I walked around the cabin and chatted with other passengers and with the flight crew. I ended up in a really fascinating conversation with one of the flight attendants about the history of Rwanda and how well the nation has recovered from the 1994 genocide. I even convinced her to let me step out of the plane for a few minutes so that I could say I’ve actually been to Rwanda! I went out and snapped a quick photo with Safari, the little stuffed giraffe Morgan let me bring along as a memento. I usually bring a small stuffed animal of Morgan’s when I take long trips and take photos of it in different places to show her when I return. It’s our little daddy-daughter thing that connects us while I’m so far away.
Once the new passengers were aboard, we took off from Kigali and made the very short, half-hour jump to Entebbe. I was finally there. I stopped to think about just how crazy and unexpected the last few days had been and then realized that my trip was really just now beginning. I couldn’t find words to describe my thoughts. We all disembarked and I was met with that smell. Africa. For those who have been there, they know the uniqueness of it. It triggered in me a deep, tear-filled nostalgia for this land that I have come to love deeply over the course of my life. We navigated the maze past the yellow fever document checker and to the immigration office. I waited in a line for about fifteen minutes only to find out that I was in the wrong line. That meant I ended up being the very last person from our flight to make it through to ground transportation after waiting in the correct line. But at last, I was through and out and suddenly standing face to face with my friend Christian. In Entebbe, Uganda.
We greeted each other and he introduced me to Josh, a young Ugandan who was on the ministry team with Christian. We walked through the parking lot to their van and started off through the city to our destination. The air was cool and damp since it had just rained. The city streets were dark, but filled with people flashing before our headlights, walking, biking, and riding motorcycles that zipped in and out of traffic. Car horns were blaring an atonal fanfare that could’ve been signaling the entrance of some deranged king. Everything about the moment screamed Africa. It was the ultimate expression of “the ordinary becoming extraordinary.” To my eyes, it was a feast of culture and poverty and life and hurt and survival and joy. To everyone else, it was just another Saturday night. We followed the bumpy dirt roads through the busy city and ended up at Calvary Chapel Entebbe, Christian’s main base of ministry. We pulled the van onto the property and parked. We walked through to the back of the land and found ourselves at a dock on Lake Victoria — the largest lake in Africa and the second largest body of fresh water on the planet.
There at the dock awaited James, the team’s hired boat operator, and his boat, and a stranger named Patricia who was apparently hitching a ride to some other place. The boats in Entebbe are old and long and narrow and wooden with a very pointy bow that rises up high from the water. They’re fitted with a small outboard motor, maybe 15 horsepower. Some planks that stretch the short distance from starboard to port serve as seating. And here, in the dead of night we climbed into this boat to make the two-mile voyage to our final destination — the farm that Christian calls home. We chugged slowly across the lake with only the sinking city lights to illuminate our position. The boat — all the boats for that matter — had no lights. Eventually we were miles out on the lake with no light at all. It was impressive that James knew which direction to travel.
After about twenty minutes, we arrived at the farm’s private dock. We climbed out of the boat and bid goodnight to James and Patricia. Walking across the property we made our way to one of the two main buildings, which is where Christian explained I would be staying. The house was made up of several rooms separated by partial walls: the center room was a kitchen, which was flanked on the left by Josh’s room that he shared with his wife Michelle (an American) and their baby boy Davin. On the right side of the kitchen was the guest room — my quarters for the duration of my stay. Christian walked me in and said goodnight. I settled in and changed my clothes and climbed into the mosquito-net adorned cot. I thought it might be difficult to sleep since I’d slept so much on the two long flights, but I was wrong. I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow and I didn’t wake until 6:30 the next morning.
Day 3: Sabbath
After waking up to a cool, cloudy daybreak I heard voices coming from the patio of the house, which was situated off the kitchen. I climbed to my feet and ventured a gaze out my window: my first real look at Uganda in the light of day. My room overlooked the banks of Lake Victoria and I could see the city on the far shore. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I can’t compare it to what I’ve seen in Southern or West Africa. It was so different. It was it’s own place, unlike any other on earth.
Once dressed, I followed the voices out of my room, through the kitchen and out onto the screened porch where I met the rest of the team of Americans living at the farm and serving in the ministry. There were Caleb, Jessica, Nolan, Hannah, Micah, Anthony and Josh’s wife Michelle with little Davin, all eating breakfast on a Sunday morning. They greeted me with warmth but continued on with their breakfast. I sat down on a couch across from the table and Micah handed me a cup of coffee. I sat there sipping and observing. It was clear that these young people, none over twenty-four except for Josh who was a very young twenty-six, were all family; if not by blood, then by time and proximity.
Everyone was dressed up and ready for church. After breakfast I was introduced to the toilets which were a series of holes in the ground, separated by short wooden walls. It was a better-constructed version of the one in that horrific scene in Slumdog Millionaire. Fortunately I never had to use it as a hiding place… I found out that the farm had no plumbing and only the once-per-day for an hour generator-provided power, which they chose to use in the evening. Water was ported and stored in a moderately sized cistern tower and gravity fed to a few spigots around the property. Drinking water was imported daily by boat in large containers. The living conditions were truly third world, but kept clean daily with pride by those who lived there.
We eventually walked down to the dock and boarded James’ boat to head over to church. Crossing the lake again, I was amazed at how cool and refreshing the weather was, especially considering that we were less than .02 degrees off the equator. Looking south from any point on the farm or the boat ride to the city, I could literally see the southern hemisphere. How the weather stayed between 60 and 75 degrees from morning ’til night in the dead of Summer I still can’t figure out. I can only imagine that the enormous Lake Victoria might keep this particular region cooler than the surrounding areas.
When we landed at the dock at Calvary I could hear music in the distance. We walked across the dusty field towards the buildings and found our way to the sanctuary. It was small but filled with the smiles and laughter and singing of a congregation full of joy and love for Jesus. The team split up to make sure they weren’t seen to be huddling together — a very insightful strategy that I’ve always been careful to employ under such circumstances. I was impressed by their relational and cultural sensitivities. Christian and I sat together and began to worship God in song with the church. After worship, a man took the people through some announcements related to the body life of Calvary Chapel Entebbe. Included in the announcements were some peculiar comments on several couples who were planning on getting married soon. It turns out that in order to get married in a church in Uganda, a couple must present themselves to the congregation for an entire month, allowing anyone and everyone to protest their union, for any reason. If the couple survives the month, they are permitted to marry. Very interesting, indeed. It made me wonder how many weddings would take place if this were required in the US…
After announcements, Pastor Isaac stood up to speak. He is the local Ugandan pastor who is about to become the lead pastor as Pastor Craig, the American who planted the church 11 years ago, is planning on repatriating in the next few months with his wife. Pastor Isaac didn’t preach, but he did introduce an American named John, who was their guest preacher that morning. I’d met John just minutes before as we were making our way into the sanctuary, but I wasn’t aware until that moment that he would be preaching. On a personal note, I was perplexed by his message, especially in this context. He preached through the entire letter to Titus, and admonished the church to be faithful to God’s Word and reject any cultural influence that might distort the Gospel. A biblically faithful message to be sure, but it just felt like “the white man’s stern rebuke of the wayward African church.” It felt condescending. I hate to admit my sense of judgment of this man I do not know, but I found out I wasn’t the only one who came away from his message with these feelings — several on the team sensed it, too.
After church we spent some time in the courtyards greeting people. I found my arms filled with a very happy, doting little girl who did not want to be anywhere else than around my neck. She just smiled and giggled and clung to me until her sweet but apparently deaf and disabled mother came to take her home. After meeting many people and staff at Calvary Entebbe, including Pastor Craig’s wife who shared with me her thoughts and feeling about moving back to the US after thirteen years in Entebbe, Christian and I walked to the street and found transportation to take us to a cafe to have our first of what would be many long, deep conversations about his life and situation and decisions he would have to make in the very near future. This was my main purpose for coming to Uganda, and I was ready to serve however the Holy Spirit would lead. But before we could relax at the cafe we would have to get there. The mode of transport we used throughout my time in Entebbe is known as the Boda. The boda is a motorcycle and it is anything but relaxing.
There are tons of bodas in Entebbe and they zip through traffic like it’s some sort of real-life video game. You can fit the driver plus two passengers. Or three. Or however many you think you can fit, as long as the driver gets paid. Entebbe is a city on the smaller side, but it is definitely a city. Despite the distance from one side to another, to travel by boda costs less than a dollar in most cases. Christian and I hopped on one together, drove clear across the city, and we paid 4,000 shillings, at an exchange rate of 1 US dollar to 3,500 Ugandan shillings. The experience, however, is priceless. Equal parts amusement park ride and terrorist hostage situation, the boda ride will make you think about how much you love your family, who are fully expecting you to return home in one piece.
Fortunately we made it without incident to Victoria Mall where I exchanged some cash and we sat down for our first of many deep dive conversations. We spent two hours sipping fruit smoothies at Java House, one of several swanky cafes around town. The smoothies were delicious. The conversation was revelational. After that, it was on a boda once again to race back over to our side of the city and meet up with the guys from Christian’s ministry team for some lunch. Another harrowing adventure.
The guys had heard about a street food vendor called Musaka Boys which is situated down a narrow pass between two thoroughly rotting buildings. Today was the day they would take the risk and try it out. At the end of the alley sits an open-air “kitchen” framed by four crumbling cement walls and fitted with stone ovens. Whole, dismembered pig legs sat in a pile on a wooden table against one of the walls. The meat is cut into large chunks and roasted in the ovens. When served in the adjacent cubby space with benches and a low, square table, the roasted pork was accompanied by sliced fresh avocado, tomatoes, onion and some sort of bland, dry root. It was, without a doubt, the best pork I’ve ever eaten in my life. We laughed and chatted and I got to hear some stories from the team. A perfect Sunday lunch.
We all grabbed bodas back to the church where we met James and his boat once again, this time to take us back to the farm. Sunday afternoon and evening were slow and relaxing as we all sat together on the patio. It was a perfect time to really get to know Christian’s team — where they’re from, why they’re here and what might be next. The openness with which they shared was endearing and we became instant friends. We finished the evening with a great dinner prepared by Michelle, Jessica and Hannah. I finally found myself back in my room trying to sort out the sensory overload I’d experienced during my first day in Uganda. Little did I know, this day would be on the lower end of the stimulation scale.
Day 4: Deliberation
I rose the next day once again to a cool, damp, beautiful morning. It had been cloudy since I arrived and so I still didn’t get to see the sunrise. For the team, Monday provides a break from all their work, since they teach at the church on Sundays. Some decided to stay at the farm and catch up on reading and rest while others chose to take the boat across to the city for some shopping and hanging out.
Christian and I went across and found ourselves at Cafe Java (yes, a different, but no less posh cafe) in the city. After an hour and a half of coffee and smoothies and stage-setting conversation, we decided to cross the street and get lunch at Gately, a beautiful oasis of an outdoor restaurant. Walking through the striking, stained wooden gate we were met by a lush garden filled with flowers and trees and fountains. We sat down at the best table in the house, primarily because we were literally the only patrons. As we settled in, the manager came to greet us. After a few minutes of chat we figured out that we’d both spent time at a tiny but beautiful cafe in St. Francis, South Africa called The Rambling Rose. The two eateries share some uncanny characteristics that were stirring in me warm memories of my friends at the bottom of the continent.
I ordered Margaret’s beef curry from the expansive menu, and Christian ordered penne pasta, which turned out to be spaghetti. That’s typical in Uganda, he told me, that you shouldn’t always expect to get exactly what you think you ordered. In either case, my dish was phenomenal. It came with the most incredible chutney I’ve ever tasted. At Gately we began to sink deep into the discussion I’d come to have with Christian, and we spent more than six hours that day sitting, talking, arguing, agreeing, laughing, pondering and reflecting on all that he’s been through over the last three years. It was one of the richest conversations I’ve had the privilege of experiencing, and it gave Christian remarkable perspective on much of what he’s endured. Without a doubt, the Holy Spirit was present and active with us.
We finally decided we should head back to the farm, and we met up with the rest of the team who were in the city back at the dock at church to catch the boat. When we arrived, everyone was in good spirits and seemed rested and grateful for the relaxing day. We sat down to another fresh and wonderful dinner, filled with hilarity. The team definitely love each other and love spending time with each other. To close the day, I was about to sit in on their most intimate time together, their Monday evening worship and Bible study.
After dark, they got the fire going in the fire pit situated between the three main buildings. We gathered around as Josh played the guitar and led us in singing praises to Jesus. I had a moment… just listening to them sing, I looked up at the sky and for the first time since my arrival in Uganda two nights earlier, the clouds were gone. I saw every star. All of them. We were far enough away from the city to give us an unpolluted view of the heavens. I couldn’t stop thinking that all I could see was this glorious African sky, filled with stars that are so small and so far away, and that God, Who is so much bigger, was right there in our midst. One by one, the team members shared a verse and a reflection. Some inspired response and others simply agreement. I felt comfortable enough to offer an occasional affirmation, which seemed to be well-received.
We finished the night with a few more songs of worship and said goodnight to the team. Christian and I stayed by the dying fire and picked up on our earlier conversation where we left off, talking well past midnight. The clouds unnoticeably tucked the stars in for the night as we found yet another level of insight and revelation about this journey he’s been trying to navigate. Exhausted, we finally decided to place another pause on our discussion and head to bed.
Day 5: Back To School
I was beginning to align with the rhythms of my hosts, waking early, reading the Scriptures, dressing and gathering on the patio for coffee and breakfast. Today I was invited to join Anthony, Jessica and Caleb as they spent time serving in two schools in the city. After coffee (and my first of what would be only two heart attack-inducing, ice-cold showers) the four of us got the boat over to the church. When we arrived, the church’s school was filled with nearly 400 students ranging in age from 3 to 16. All in uniform and bright-eyed, we were greeted by each as we passed through to the center of the campus. I watched as each of the team members went their separate ways, already knowing what the day’s tasks held for them.
I decided to follow Jessica into Teacher Harriette’s classroom: a large space with a corrugated roof, slab floor, long, low tables with small chairs, and walls filled with handmade charts, color wheels, vocabulary tables and grammar guides. They were actually beautifully crafted and rivaled anything I’ve seen for purchase on teacher websites. I found out that Teacher Harriette made all of them herself. Inside the classroom sat 45 (I counted) young students probably 5 or 6 years of age. They were busy working on a writing assignment, although they couldn’t help notice when a second muzungu (Ugandan term for white person) tried to sneak into their room. I found Jessica sitting at the teacher’s desk in the corner using a box cutter to endlessly sharpen crudely constructed pencils. Every minute or so, a child would walk up to her with a broken one and silently exchange it for one she’d just made ready to use. Teacher Harriette sat in a student chair in front, facing her pupils. Occasionally she would sternly bark out orders or questions to her students. They were exceptionally well-behaved and though Teacher Harriette seemed a little harsh at times, it was clear that she loved them deeply, and that they loved her.
I stood next to Jessica for nearly an hour while she whittled away at those pencils. Watching her reminded me for some reason of the story of Ruth in the Scriptures. Jessica was a friend of Christian’s from high school. Christian’s sister’s best friend, in fact. She’d gone through some very difficult years back then, though I only knew her by name. She would say that back then she was about as far away from God as anyone. Something happened just recently though. She met up with Christian less than a year ago, and they discussed the mission program with which he was involved. Jessica was right at a crossroads in her life and she made the decision to join the team and give up her life in South Florida in hopes maybe that she would find God. As I watched her joyfully sharpen those pencils, I think it is God Who found her.
Teacher Harriette shared with me that she’s been teaching for ten years, first in a very challenging public school in Kampala, and then at Calvary Chapel Christian School in Entebbe for the last five years. She is brilliant, resourceful, kind and inspiring. Around 10am, the kids were ready to go outside and play. Before we dismissed, Teacher Harriette led her students in a sparkling medley of chants and songs, I think on behalf of my visit. Forty-five bright, smiling faces belting out English and Lugandan songs, clapping hands, stomping feet, spinning around and finishing with the sweetest sound of laughter I’ve ever heard.
Once out on the playground, I was swarmed by kids. Within seconds, both my hands were full of tiny fingers all grabbing to get my attention. “Teacha Adam!! Come play weet us!!!” I was defenseless against them. We ran and twirled around all over the grounds. My hands were perpetually held by flanking little ones who were just content to be by my side. Every once in a while, I’d catch a sighting of Jessica who was more mobbed than I. The children could not get enough of her light blond hair. At one point, about twenty kids tackled her to the ground in a fit of laughter and a thousand tiny hands started rubbing the top of her head. I thought she might be in trouble so I stood by, ready to step in. Turns out she was just fine — she was a total pro in handling herself and all those children.
An hour of playtime passed like seconds and in a blink, the students were all back in their classrooms. I found Caleb and Anthony who had prepared a plate of lunch for me. We sad in the shade of a nearby tree and savored the tastes of the different roots and potatoes that were also prepared for the students. One item on the plate made me pause after the first taste: silver fish. A pile of tiny minnows that looked like they’d been roasted. Eyeballs and all, down my gullet they went. Caleb hadn’t tried them in the three months he’d been in Uganda. I looked at him and said, “They’re very fishy, bro. Very, very fishy.” He looked at me with a little grin of displeasure. “Yeah, this tastes like cat food, man,” I said. He laughed. One of the men on staff was standing there and he said he normally feeds silver fish to the dogs and pigs. Awesome. Needless to say, though I’ve never refused food that’s placed in front of me, I found a Ugandan friend who was more than happy to finish the rest of my silver fish.
The friend of which I speak was Bwanika, a twenty-three year old Ugandan who was deaf and could not speak. He communicated through his permanent smile, elastic facial expressions and lots of wild and intricate hand gestures. He had a sign language all his own, and I learned it pretty quickly. Or, I felt like I did. It’s possible that whenever we spoke we both were thinking two completely different things, but we got along extremely well, nonetheless. He was easy to spot day-to-day because of the bright red Ferrari F1 shirt he wore. I knew before we even met that we would be fast friends. See what I did there? I liked his shirt so much, I asked him to trade with me later that night. I gave him a Calvary Lacrosse shirt in exchange for his Prancing Horse adorned polo.
After lunch, Anthony, Caleb, Jessica, Teacher Grace and I ventured out on the two mile walk through the city to Ebenezer School. Another primary school, this one also taught the Bible, but the facility was nowhere near as developed as the Calvary school (keep in mind the Calvary school had no power, wooden walls, no glass in the windows and very little space for the number of students in each. Corrugated roofs with the occasional translucent square of plastic provided the indoor lighting.) Ebenezer on the other hand, was pieced together by materials that looked salvaged. Classrooms were virtually open-air. The two story building we eventually found ourselves in actually swayed with the movement of the occupants. The walk to the school took us through a series of back alleys in Entebbe, where we found countless children in varying degrees of dress — some with clothes, some without. I spotted an unclothed infant sitting in a small black bucket on the side of the road with no adult anywhere to be seen. When you pass a child in the street, the customary greeting is, “Bye! See you!” Along with a wave or a high five. We greeted as many as we could on our way through the neighborhood. Anthony occasionally called out a specific name as we passed by, as he has no doubt developed relationships with a number of the children he’s encountered on this path. I inquired to Anthony, “Is it difficult to serve students in one school, and then in another, only to pass by so many children in between living on the street and not enrolled anywhere?” I could see his answer in his desperately sad eyes. Much of my experience was wrecking, and although I’ve told myself I won’t try to process it all too quickly, I can comfortably say that my time in Uganda has given me an overwhelming sense of inadequacy as I encountered poverty at a level most people in the US could not possibly fathom. I surely couldn’t until I saw it with my own eyes — South Africa and Ghana aren’t even close.
The students at Ebenezer were just as lively as those at Calvary. When we arrived, the three team members quickly split up and entered different classrooms, Teacher Grace was with Jessica. I decided to follow Caleb and see what he did. He entered the classroom to bright cheers and smiles — I learned later that these three have been serving in the same classrooms, with the same students, since they arrived in April. The relationships they were making could be felt just by standing in the back of the small room. Caleb brought his guitar for the first time on this particular trip, so he was curious to see how the students would react. As he set himself up at the front of the room, the students all crowded him in anticipation. I found a chair at the back and waited to see what would unfold. Caleb led them in a series of praise songs, to which every student knew every word. They sung and shouted and danced and embraced and laughed. I looked around and I didn’t see a fog machine or lighting rig anywhere, and yet I was witnessing pure, raw Jesus worship in its most powerful form. This wouldn’t be the first time I would fight back tears.
After the music was gone, Caleb settled in and began to teach the students about Jesus through the story of Daniel and the lion’s den. It was a straight forward approach, very much aligned with Caleb’s no-nonsense personality. I’d spoken with him earlier about his path and his dreams. He grew up in Belize as the son of missionaries, so he was quite used to many of the sensory inputs he was experiencing in Uganda. It was certainly a different context, but poverty is poverty and hurt is hurt and the need for Jesus is the need for Jesus, no matter where you might find yourself in the world. Caleb is, without a doubt, called to ministry. The form in which that takes will require him to discover the freedom we have in Christ to use the gifts He gives us for His purposes and glory.
At the conclusion of his lesson, he scratched a memory verse on the primitive black board at the front of the room. As I watched him continue to write and the verse grew longer and longer, I couldn’t help think the passage would be far too lengthy for these young pupils to commit to memory. Oh I was so wrong. Once the verse was on the board, Caleb began to lead the students as they saturated the space with repetitive, liturgical reading. After a while, the students began to sound like they were singing the verse — they had discovered an ebb and flow of inflection that created a very clever and creative rhythm. Then, Caleb returned to the board and erased seven or eight words. They began to recite the verse once again, but this time they made their way through by both reading what was on the board and reciting the missing pieces from memory. He continued this process until the entire verse disappeared from the board, yet they all continued to repeat the verse over and over. Several students volunteered to stand before the class and share the verse completely from memory. Finally, one young girl stood up and rewrote the verse perfectly on the board. Caleb instructed them that he would return next week and ask them to recite the verse together without any aid. This all took less than ten minutes. I was astounded. More smiles, more embracing and more dancing as Caleb closed the time with another song.
While all of this was going on in Caleb’s class, Anthony was up the very rickety stairs, just above us, leading what I could only imagine was a contest to see who could stomp through the floor boards the quickest… Dust was continuously sprinkling my head and arms throughout the hour we were there. When each of the team members had completed their time with their students, we all met back up in the courtyard of the school and ventured in reverse along the path on which we game, back through the alleyways, back past the school-less children and trash-filled gardens. Goats and cows and chickens and dogs roamed free, creating a slow motion obstacle course for us to complete. We arrived back at Calvary Chapel and the Calvary school to wait at the dock for our boat back to the farm.
While we were waiting I met a young man named Denis. I found out that he had just moved to Entebbe from Kampala, about an hour to the north. I also discovered that Denis was a phenomenally talented musician as he sat by the dock with a guitar and serenaded us with his original songs of worship. I was so moved by his wispy, powerful voice and soulful finger picking. I asked him if he’d allow me to film him playing one of his songs from start to finish and he obliged. Later that night, I plugged in my headphones to listen and, since I was alone in my room for the evening, allowed my tears to flow freely. It was pure beauty, “Zion! Is where I want to be! Zion, is the place I want to be, yeah. Zion is where I want to be. There’s no place like home.”
After the boat took us home to the farm, we enjoyed another raucous and delicious dinner together, except that Josh and Michelle were back in the city to celebrate their second wedding anniversary. We took turns playing with Davin before the girls put him down to sleep after the sun had set. Tuesday night meant wifi router privileges and Christian fired up the Internet for an hour so that the team could call family, catch up on social media, news and email. I called Amy and my brother Matt to let them know I was safe. The router and the generator were turned off at 11 and it was easy to unplug myself too at that point and head to bed. Each night I tried to read a little, and throughout the week I was able to read half of a book called The Calculus of Friendship, half of The Homiletical Plot and about a quarter of The Reason For God by Tim Keller. I also read a chapter of Hebrews each night. This particular night I read the book of Ruth again because for some reason, as I mentioned, Jessica kept reminding me of that remarkable story of redemption.
Day 6: Unexpected Rescue
I awoke in the morning to the familiar sound of a petulant rooster roaming about the farm. This time, though, I blinked my eyes open to find him hopped up on the step of my door, staring right at me. “If I’m up, you’re going to be up too, buddy!” My African rooster dialect is a little rusty, but I’m pretty sure that’s the translation. The morning gave me my first real East African sunrise, which gave way to a brilliant blue sky as we gathered for breakfast and prepared to cross the lake. While the team worked once again with the teachers and students at the Calvary school, Christian invited me to join him at the weekly pastors’ meeting in one of the buildings that shared a wall with Teacher Harriette’s classroom. The men in the room were pastors of churches all over Entebbe and they committed to gathering once per week to pray together and discuss God’s Word.
I was in awe at the humility and beauty on display as they worshipped together without instruments. The collision of their singing with Teacher Harriette’s children reciting their math tables made for a wondrous sound that had me completely mesmerized. The pastors engaged in a vigorous discussion on the role of women in ministry and the definition of deacon. I was impressed by the simultaneous agreement and respectful challenges they each brought to the table. In the end, I’m not sure anyone would have claimed their view changed, but clarity abounded at least for where they all stood on the matter. At one point, as I sipped my porridge tea (it is as it sounds), I couldn’t help but contribute a small insight to the passage in 1 Timothy 3 and why Paul’s use of architectural metaphor was so important to understanding the role of the Church in regards to the integrity of the Gospel. I should’ve probably kept my mouth shut…
At the conclusion of the meeting, Christian, Josh and I were supposed to go to pastor Craig’s house to pick up some yams and other items for the farm. But before I could exit the room, Pastor Isaac approached me and requested a word. Christian had already left, and so I was on my own for this one. Pastor Isaac, if you recall, is taking over as senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Entebbe and he is a wonderful, wise, focused man. So why he leaned in and asked if I would preach at their worship service later that evening I will never know. I was stunned. Christian and I planned on spending the rest of the day continuing our conversation and so if I said yes, I would be rejecting the very reason I came to Uganda. But if I said no, I could jeopardize the trust between the Americans and the Ugandans, as a declination might be seen as disrespectful.
The other night at our fireside Bible study, Christian mentioned, as a way to encourage his team to be bold and willing to serve under any circumstances, that he once declined to speak when asked during his time in Cambodia a year earlier. He shared his regrets and advised his team not to make the same mistake. With that thought pressing into my mind, I accepted Pastor Isaac’s invitation with a humble heart. Time to pray and find a message in my archives. Christian was initially put out by my sudden and now unavoidable speaking responsibilities but he quickly recalibrated and grew in anticipation since he realized in all the years we’ve known each other, he’s never heard me teach publicly. He told me Pastor Isaac’s invitation was surely inspired by the small pearl I shared during the meeting. Me and my big mouth. Anyway, we hopped on the boat and headed back to the farm for another explorative albeit abbreviated conversation so that I could prepare for the evening service. When we arrived, Pastor Craig was finishing up an attempt to repair the solar power supply, but shared that it still needs work.
One interesting item that I should include at this point is the visitor we received during our discussion that day. An unknown boat pulled up to our dock and a woman wearing nothing more than a bra and panties crossed the dock and began walking up the property towards the buildings, where Christian and I were sitting. He looked at me with the funniest expression of shock and confusion and then looked back at the woman. Back at me, back at the woman. Back at me, back at the woman. I shrugged my shoulders and told him I was just visiting so he better not expect me to have an explanation. Christian walked out of the patio towards the woman, calling out to her, “What are you doing here?” She replied with a smile, “I am here to please you!” My jaw was on the floor. Did this woman just show up to our home and proposition us with… well… you know! Christian yelled back, “But I don’t know you!” Of all the responses… I absolutely lost it and started to howl uncontrollably with laughter. Christian called out to her, “You are trespassing on private property! You must go now!” I know I have the tendency to squeeze stories within stories, but I must mention that Christian has this funny thing he does: when he’s speaking English to a Ugandan, he puts on this accent that sounds like an attempt to parrot the locals. It’s not even close, especially since he’s basing it only upon aural input without any regard for phonetic construction or even the pervasive British influence on language and word spelling in Uganda, but he says Ugandans understand him better when he does it. Uh…. Ok? Anyway, back to the prostitute. Yep! She got the message and finally returned to her boat where a man was waiting to take her away. I’m sure some of the jokes and alternate endings we came up with should never be repeated, but we definitely got a huge laugh out of it in either case.
After our new friend had shoved off, we chatted for another hour or so and then I hid in my room for a while, dusting off a message I’d given a few times on Paul’s shipwreck in Acts 27 and the connection between that experience and some of the things he said in his letter to the Philippians. I spent some time praying and trying to decide on a story to share in my message. I narrowed it down to two. One was nautical in nature and thus easily tied in to the passage of Scripture. Plus, boats are a central part of daily life in Entebbe, and so I felt like I had a winner. On the other hand, this particular story lacked a punch to the mouth… it had no heart stopping moment to captivate those with whom I was speaking. I thought of another story that does have that gut-wrenching moment, but on the whole, while I knew I could align its implications with the teaching, very little of the story was directly relatable to the congregation. Even as we boarded the boat to head back over to the church, I was unsure of which story I would choose. Nothing like waiting ’til the last minute to finalize a message that might have eternal implications.
James, our trusty boat pilot, was unavailable due to the impending birth of his son, so another man came to pick us up. He was quiet but friendly and we loaded up. The team weren’t planning on going to church that night, but when they heard I was speaking, they all decided to join us. I was equal parts flattered and terrified. It became clear during the course of our conversations that Christian had referenced many of our discussions over the years of our friendship as he took his team through their initial training a few months back. Much of what they discovered was paradigm-shifting in many ways, so I sensed that they were expecting something grand. I had too much of an ego not to care about this, though as we crossed the lake I found myself praying feverishly that God would rescue me from my self-interest and align my heart with His perfect will. Around about the time we were half way across the lake, I began to think perhaps I should have been praying for another type of rescue…
Without notice, the boat motor suddenly stalled. I looked at Christian with inquisitiveness. He raised his eyebrows and turned around to find out what happened. We both watched as the driver opened the fuel tank and looked up at us with a shrug and a bit of indifference. The boat had run out of gas. We were more than a mile from any shore, completely isolated, with absolutely no way of dealing with it. Bwanika, who was with us because he told me he really wanted to hear me preach (yeah… I don’t get it either), immediately reached for the hand-carved boat oar underneath our seats and handed it to Christian. Christian just started to paddle, but it was an utterly futile attempt. Even as he stroked, the wind and the waves pushed our drifting boat off course and pointed us towards the open waters (did I mention that Lake Victoria is the largest lake in Africa with a diameter of 160 miles?) Invisible panic started to set in. The boat had actually been late picking us up, so we were already pressed for time. Now it’s beginning to look like we won’t make it all, or worse.
After about ten minutes of sheer purgatory, Bwanika spotted a boat heading slightly in our direction (his sense of visual observation no doubt enhanced by the limitations of his hearing — we didn’t initially see the boat until he pointed it out). He stood up and waved frantically, grunting for us to do the same. So there we all were, desperately flailing our arms in hopes that the passing boat might have some grace, and fuel, to spare. Initially it looked like the boat was just going to pass us by, but in a moment of quick thinking, Christian urged Micah, one of the funniest people I’ve met, to call out to the passing boat and “make them laugh.” Micah started yelling out broken Lugandan phrases. Thankfully, the passengers started to laugh as they turned toward us and started chugging in our direction with purpose. As they pulled alongside our listless vessel, we saw that the boat had a captain and two female passengers who were dressed up like they were about to hit the club. While the two skippers struck a deal for some gas, the two women smiled at us and one said, “Why don’t you all just join us on our boat?” I politely smiled back just as the other woman seductively licked her lips and widened her eyes. What the…?! Did we just get propositioned by seafaring prostitutes?! For the second time in one day?!?! This can’t be happening. I quickly looked away and focused my eyes on the familiar dusty clay that now covered my shoes after these few days traveling around Entebbe. I couldn’t look up until I knew we’d refueled and we were on our way. I heard one of the women shout once more that we should join them now, or even later. I was beside myself laughing.
After a legitimate (though promiscuous) rescue at sea, we finally made it to the church’s dock and disembarked. We could hear that the service started already as harmonies hung in the air around us. As we walked the hundred meters to the sanctuary, I was nervous that I’d disappointed Pastor Isaac by showing up so late. In any case, there was no time to receive neither solace nor reprimand: as soon as I entered the room, another staff member named Isaac whispered to me that I must move to the front row and prepare to speak in a few moments. As I made my way down the center aisle and glanced at the faithful worshippers, it struck me. In an absolutely shocking instant I realized that the story I was meant to share was what just happened on the lake as we were coming to church (minus the hooker part, of course). I really don’t know who will read this, and whether or not you believe in the things I believe in, but you would be hard pressed to convince me that God didn’t carefully craft that experience so that I would have the ultimate story to pair with the message I was about to share: memorable, startling, local, allusive, perfect.
After singing and some announcements, Pastor Isaac stood before those gathered and graciously introduced me. I received the warmest of welcomes. I stood and walked to the pulpit, passing in front of the man who was there to translate my message. Many of those in the church speak English, but many do not, and so I discovered, moments before I started to speak, that I would be partnering with a translator. This further confirmed that God had prepared my story, since the two I’d originally considered would’ve taken much longer to tell. With a translator, that meant that my message would’ve likely gone longer than the time I was given. With this new, this brand spanking new, story, it cut my content just enough to fit in the time allotted. This isn’t anything that man can do.
I spent the next thirty minutes navigating (yep, I did it again) through the Scriptures with the people of Calvary Chapel Entebbe, exhorting them to trust that our suffering isn’t designed to make us stronger, that it is meant to wreck us so that we can fully surrender to God’s power to rescue us from our circumstances as He so faithfully promises through the cross and empty tomb. After the message, Christian was generous in his encouragement for a job well done. At different points during that night while we were relaxing back at the farm, the team members each offered the same. I won’t lie and claim their comments had no effect on my sense of self-importance, but I have always been committed to verbalizing my belief that preaching simply gives a person a front row seat to what happens when God speaks to the world. It was all Him and none of me.
Day 7: Become The Child
Thursday meant that a few from the team would be working in schools again, but this time on the farm side of the lake. This side was much different than the city in that it was completely rural — a scattering of villages filled with villagers, many of whom have likely never even been to the other side of the lake. Of course I have no idea how to confirm that notion, but experiencing how they live inclined me to believe it. Once again, the team graciously invited me to join them in their work. We set out on foot, making our way through the bush about two miles to the first school This would be the only one I would visit, since I agreed to escort the girls back to the farm instead of continuing on with the boys to the other two on the schedule. Walking upon the dusty cuts through the forest almost convinces the mind that we are in a different century. No robotic surgical instruments or AI or Uber or Kardashians out there, just well-worn paths connecting farms with mouths, and hope-filled pupils with world-changing teachers at mud-constructed, open-air classrooms.
We made it to the school but we weren’t swarmed by kids the same way we were in the city. Instead, children looked on at us with caution and curiosity. Not many smiles. We found the main hall, an asymmetrical hut large enough to contain fifty children and a few muzungus for the weekly chapel service. Song broke out immediately with one of the teachers leading the way in a Lugandan chorus of praise. The musical style was decidedly African, a repeated call and answer between the students and teacher. I glanced out the window opening and saw Nolan across the path, seated on a step gently rocking a young girl, just an infant, wearing what appeared to be a tiny confirmation dress. Her tears dried in the dust on her cheeks as Nolan patiently consoled her on his shoulder. Back in the room I saw my first smiles as the songs revved up and the kids warmed to our presence.
As I scanned the crowd I was astonished by one boy who had no clothes on from his waist down. His shirt wasn’t long enough to cover his nakedness and yet he (and his classmates for that matter) was seemingly unfazed by this humiliating exposure. I was confounded, considering what sort of outrageous scandal this would be in our school back home. My mind was screaming as I tried to find something to cover him up, but I appeared to be the only one concerned. How is it that they couldn’t find one pair of shorts, just one, to give him back his dignity? I found myself growing angry. My eyes frantically scoured the ground and the trees outside the room for anything that could suffice, but he and the rest of the people there just kept on singing to Jesus. I suddenly realized that I was the one out of line: instead of focusing and surrendering to the One who provides all we all need, I was determined to solve a problem that just didn’t exist to everyone else. I finally resigned to the moment, accepting the fact the a half-naked boy in the middle of East Africa just exposed my own shame and unwillingness to resist distraction. My own embarrassment was a contradiction that I couldn’t resolve. I still can’t.
After three or four songs, the children settled in their handmade bench seats, bare feet swirling different designs in the dirt of the classroom floor like a hundred sand pendulums as Anthony began to share a message from the Scriptures. He read the story of the ten lepers and preached the Gospel, pleading with the children to trust Jesus with their lives. It ended up being a short message — too short for the time he was given, so he spent the remaining fifteen minutes painfully searching for and finding other ways of saying what he’d said. It wasn’t very graceful but it was from the depth of his heart and beautifully determined. At last, the time concluded with a series of liturgical prayers in Lugandan that I simultaneously could not understand and yet could understand perfectly.
We exited the room and found Micah holding and bouncing that little girl in the white dress that Nolan was caring for earlier. We walked around to the classrooms, stealing glances inside at the students who were returning from chapel and preparing for the next lesson. These rooms were roughly eight feet by eight feet and relatively dark, but they were overfilled with students. Some of the children were still outside with us, lingering as long as they could before the teachers arrived to corral them into the classrooms. Hannah was playing a game of too-high five with some of the boys, making them jump and laugh and smile. One little boy was standing in a doorway watching the others with dim eyes. It was clear that he was suffering from some significant disability. I wrestled with conflicting feelings of pity and hopefulness, thinking that at least he was at school and not sitting in a bucket in a back alley somewhere.
While the boys headed deeper into the bush to serve at the remaining two schools, Jessica, Hannah and I started walking back the way we came, heading to the farm to attend to afternoon responsibilities. Hannah and I ventured deep into a conversation about the difference between sympathy and empathy and the challenges she faces on a daily basis serving in Uganda. I could hear frustration in her voice, but also practicality. We agreed essentially that sympathy does nothing for these children, but empathy can change everything. For example, I asked Hannah if they would be better served in their work if they had a van on the farm side of the lake. She initially started to say yes, but then she quickly shifted and said they’d rather walk these long distances because that’s exactly what all these children do every day. To serve the Ugandan child, you must become the Ugandan child; you must feel what she feels, see what she sees, know what she knows, fear what she fears and wonder what she wonders. Only then can you see that the excess of the developed world is not the solution to her problems, but merely a substitution. Love and security and education and healthcare are the real currency in the human experience: true flourishing requires little else. Hannah and her teammates possessed a wisdom far beyond their years and I was grateful for their willingness to teach me.
Back at the farm we found a small band of Ugandans tending the grounds along with Pastor Craig, who was busy working to repair the solar power system. As the girls went about their business, I found Christian and we retired to my room for another crack at our ongoing conversation. Again, we found new insights and uncovered hidden truths that will hopefully, prayerfully, serve him as he continues to grapple with his distress. In the midst of our chat earlier in the week we touched on a relatively unrelated idea that the farm should have rabbits. I’d been traveling with some cash without any real plan to spend it — I just wanted to be prepared for any unexpected costs. I was nearing the end of my week and I still had most of the money, so I asked Christian what it would cost to build rabbit cages. I had just enough and gladly made the donation, knowing that the rabbits would provide much benefit to the mission through the fertilizer and food they would yield. Pastor Craig finished what he could do with the solar power unit and met with Christian to let him know more work would be needed to finally fix it. We made plans to meet up for dinner the next day, just before Christian would drop me at the airport.
That evening after dinner we all sat together for a while since it was my last night in Uganda. Josh and Michelle were across the lake attending a married couples small group, so the team took care of Davin, feeding him, playing with him and getting him settled in for a good night’s sleep. We told stories and jokes and responded to each other with muted laughs and gasps in order to preserve peace for Davin’s sake. That last night was filled with fun and unforgettable moments. A few days earlier, when Bwanika and I traded shirts, I noticed that Nolan’s face twisted into despair. Afterward I asked him what was up and he related to me that he’s been eyeballing that shirt since the day he met Bwanika, three months earlier. He’s been searching with determination to find just the right moment to try and trade him. When I just came in and completed the transaction, it left him feeling like he’d missed the bus. While I never would’ve done that intentionally, I have known that feeling, and so I decided that on my last night with the team, I would present Nolan with Bwanika’s shirt. He looked like a kid on Christmas morning. His face was shining as he immediately donned the garb and didn’t flinch when he discovered it was much too small for him. He mentioned that maybe he’ll give it to his brother, whom it would surely fit, and I thought that was a great idea. It was a very sweet moment that I think the whole team enjoyed, and a perfect way to end my week. Except… that wasn’t the end.
Day 8: The Valley of Dry Bones
My last sunrise was by far the best as I came to life on Friday morning, my last day in Uganda. I’d spent my last moments of last night packing up my stuff and cleaning my room, so aside from the clothes I had laid out for the day and for the flight, my room had suddenly grown peculiarly less lived-in. I had come to really feel at home in the space, but now it just looked like a guest room again… signs that my time in Uganda was surely coming to a close. But while my flight was leaving that day, it wasn’t scheduled until 11:35pm, which gave me one last full day with my new friends, and we definitely didn’t waste it.
Friday meant medical mission day. This is when the team joined up with local doctors and nurses and traveled by boat to islands on Lake Victoria to administer malaria and HIV tests as well as various types of medicine. We boarded the church’s boat this time, which was much bigger than, though had the same design as, the smaller boats we’d been taking all week to and from the farm. As it pulled up to our dock I saw that it was filled with bright faces and smiles and energy and hope — probably about thirty people.
Of course Bwanika was standing on the bow victoriously as the boat drifted toward us, thumbs up with his chest out, smiling and looking like some sort of superhero. You know what? That guy is a superhero. A few days earlier he stand-up-paddled a small boat he “found” from the church all the way to the farm, just to see us and help out. The team shared with me about his clever antics and how he would occasionally manipulate a situation to his advantage, but stepping back I think I totally get how and why he would be that way. And it doesn’t change a thing about how highly I regard him. Other than the team, I know Bwanika will be the one I think about most often in the future.
We loaded ourselves on the boat — the whole team except Nolan — and shoved off for Bussi Island. After studying a map upon my return, my curiosity was greatly satisfied… even though Bussi is only a few miles south of the farm, it is, in fact, in the Southern Hemisphere. So yeah, I can now scratch “cross the equator by boat” off the list. As funny as it might seem, and for reasons I’m sure have more to do with the lake and not the seasons, while it was always cool at the farm and the church (though it was technically summer), it was blazing hot in Bussi even though it was technically winter. But I digress. Off we went, chugging southward for Bussi. I marveled at the people on the boat, and what a profound picture of the love of Christ they made.
I was sitting up on the bow with Caleb, Bwanika and Anthony, but the rest of the team were back at the stern. Occasionally I would see Christian or Micah pop up like prairie dogs above the canvas roof that stretched the length of the boat, and then sink back down. As we were chatting with our fellow crew, I noticed one of the Ugandans was wearing a Syracuse University hat. I was simultaneously delighted and dismayed (those who know my history know very well why). I glanced over at Anthony and he was sitting with his signature contemplative gaze, for sure considering the breadth and depth of God’s love. All week as I got to know Anthony, a particular passage of Scripture kept coming to my mind. People who know me know that I’m not a mystic by any stretch of the imagination, but for some reason I kept getting this image of Ezekiel standing in the Valley of Dry Bones every time I would talk to or think about Anthony. I’d mentioned this to him earlier in the week but he’d never read the passage. There on the boat, he opened his Bible and began to read it aloud to Caleb and me. As he progressed, I could see it on his face that he was starting to get it. We had a deep conversation about the implications of this wild Biblical account, but I don’t think I knew then that this passage would become the single defining metaphor for my entire experience that week in Uganda.
We finally arrived at a small beach on Bussi. Boats were strewn across the sand and tied to nearby trees. We wedged our vessel between two of them but because of the high bow on our boat, we all had to disembark onto one of the adjacent boats and then climb onto the shore. Once we were surefooted, a few of the guys grabbed the bow line and secured it to one of the trees. We all worked to off-load the medical supplies and equipment. Once the whole crew were off and ready, some hopped in a van with the supplies while the rest of us started the two mile walk to the school that would be our base of operations for the day. This provided yet another opportunity for Christian and I to talk, and once again we gained valuable ground in the struggle. Though we were wrapped up quite heavily in the chat, we arrived at the school ready to focus and serve.
The school was a bit of a paradox… I saw the typical tin and wood shacks here and there, the toilets were well-made but still just holes in the ground, and much of the campus was littered with chickens and dogs and cats. On the other hand, several of the buildings seemed to be brand new and very well built. Concrete slabs supported cinderblock or brick walls which were tied together by sturdy metal roofs. They would function well for any school, anywhere. Immediately the team set up their makeshift clinic and locals were already gathering around to partake. There was just one thing missing… the kids.
There were a few children there at the school, but probably no more than fifty. We were customarily swarmed upon arrival, and both my hands were quickly filled with grabs and embraces, but it seemed a little empty. We then met Charles, the pastor of Calvary Chapel Bussi, whose church meets on the school campus, and he let us know that today was the day for the all-island sports tournament, and most of the kids were a few kilometers away competing in soccer or netball, or cheering on their classmates. Christian walked into the day with a well-developed plan, but this threatened to derail it right from the start.
One of the team, who’d built loving relationships with many of the kids who were at the tournament, asked Pastor Charles if some of us could go and watch the games. Before he knew it, Christian’s plans were unintentionally undermined and he was justifiably frustrated. Christian is one of the most professional leaders I’ve ever encountered, at any age (which speaks to his massive talent). But he, like I, cannot hide his emotion, no matter how hard he tries. He is transparent to a fault at times, and I could clearly see and feel the tension that was building. I pulled him aside to figure out what was going on, but at first he didn’t want to get into it with me. It was one of those moments where I felt like I needed to push and insist, and he finally relented and shared with me his frustrations. We were able to talk through it and once again, Christian found a new level in himself, particularly in regards to his leadership abilities. I reminded him that great leadership comes from the bottom, not from the top; that great leaders serve those on their team, not the other way around. This underscored one of the reasons why he’s developed at such a young age, but I think it also pointed out that in this specific moment, he might have slightly lost sight of that principle if only for a moment.
So just like that, the plan was altered and a bunch of us jumped into the van with Pastor Charles and he drove us across the island to the playing fields. When we arrived, we were met with close to five hundred children playing and cheering and laughing and running around. The atmosphere was absolutely electric. I was bowled over by this feast of sound and color and motion. We started to walk around and of course got swarmed immediately by smiling and giggling little ones. There on Bussi, muzungus are a rare sight, so we inevitably attracted more attention that we intended. We walked around and had loud, funny conversations with the kids, and watched some great soccer for the first few minutes, before we started to wander through the crowds.
We met two sisters, in their early twenties, who were associated with the school and church. They accompanied us as we went around and watched the games. I only got to know them briefly, but they both struck me as very sharp young women. Together we meandered over to the netball field just in time to watch our school compete in their blue uniforms. I was genuinely impressed. Netball is similar in some ways to basketball, but it is only played by girls. The hoops have no backboard, making it much more difficult to score. Also, the player with the ball is not allowed to move. I guess if ultimate frisbee and basketball had a lovechild, it would be netball. I’ve seen it played plenty over the course of my travels, but what I saw that day on Bussi was a whole different level. Our girls were tough, focused and strategic. They hustled everywhere and played with heart. And they absolutely dominated. The first game we saw them play, they beat their opponent 10–0. It was a rout — even when the other team would be awarded possession of the ball, our team would jump to pick off a pass and then move the ball down field like a Golden State fast break. It was absolutely awesome. I spoke with the coach after that first game and he said in his beautiful Ugandan accent, “Our girls don’t waste time!” Perfect.
After a while, the rest of the American team showed up to the fields on bodas and joined in the fun. We sat and watched one of our boys’ teams play and win their soccer game. I noticed a few things: the ball was way over-inflated and most of the boys were barefoot on the dusty, dry dirt field. And yet, they were absolutely booting the ball. Some punts were traveling half the length of the field. I couldn’t believe it. I’m sure this was “normal,” but comparing it to watching games back home, played on manicured grass by players wearing $200 cleats, I was blown away. While we were sitting on the sidelines, a little boy attached himself to Christian and ended up falling asleep in his lap. It was remarkable how trusting and loving were all the kids I encountered. I’m not sure if this is how they are with everyone, or if it was because we were clearly foreigners or what, but their capacity for love seemed to be unlimited. It both endeared and concerned me, thinking about how many of these kids might be at risk for becoming exploited by adults because they’re so trusting. While the boy rested with Christian, a ruckus erupted behind us. I turned around to see Hannah giving first aid to a child who had hurt her knee. About thirty children gathered around her and watched as she carefully tended to the girl. Beyond that throng I saw another mass of kids gathering around Jessica and Micah. It was a dance-off. We got up to go watch and hilarity ensued.
After about two hours at the fields, it was time to jump in the van and head back to the school. We said our long and belabored goodbyes to the kids and struck out across the dirt roads and through the villages back to basecamp. I got to listen to Pastor Charles share his heart for Bussi as well as their ambitious plans to proclaim the gospel and serve the people. He was a warm, intelligent and fascinating man. When we got back to the school, he presented us with a gift of two pineapples. Perfect timing, since we hadn’t eaten yet. It turns out that lunch was also waiting for us, and so the pineapples served as a perfect dessert to a plateful of potatoes and beans and rice. Utensils had become a distant memory at that point; most of the meals I ate in Uganda were by hand, even at the farm. With full bellies we rested in the shade, waiting for the next thing. I couldn’t have imagined what that was, but it turned out to be one of the heaviest moments of my life.
Hannah introduced me to a little girl named Elizabeth, razor bald, with the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen. Hannah explained to me that her parents were visiting recently and just fell in love with Elizabeth. So much so that they made the decision to pay for all of her school fees until she matriculated. I learned that Elizabeth lived with her dad and three siblings, an older brother and twin younger brothers. Her mom died three years earlier from a stomach-related illness. Elizabeth was around eight or nine if I had to guess, about the same age as my daughter.
Hannah wanted to share the news of their gift with Elizabeth’s father and asked if she could accompany Elizabeth to her home. Somehow, I was invited to come along, and so were Jessica and Micah. The five of us climbed into the van with Pastor Charles and started off for Elizabeth’s house. We kept driving in and out of villages, kilometer after kilometer. At one point, I asked Hannah if they have a bus, or if Elizabeth and her siblings walk to and from school each day. Hannah shared with me that they use the van for some of the kids, but they don’t have enough room for all of them. The administrators are forced to decide who rides and who walks. There’s been a rash of kidnappings in the area recently, and so they determine as best they can which children seem like they would be strong enough to thwart an attack, and those are the kids who walk. Elizabeth is one of the children who walks. The distance from her house to the school was about five miles. Her bravery and resolve is not from this planet.
As we lumbered along, we were chased by a few children who ran along the road. We stopped and picked them up (I assumed they knew where we were going). We finally arrived at a clump of mud-constructed one-room houses on the edge between a wooded area and a meadow. When we got out of the van, we were greeted by several women who were busy washing clothes or peeling vegetables. No words were spoken, but their welcome was still warm. Pastor Charles led us to a man he introduced as Elizabeth’s father. Through Charles’ translation, he invited us into his home. A few of the kids we’d picked up grabbed some benches that were laying nearby and took them into the house so that we would have a place to sit. As we entered, we found two more women, one nursing a baby, both sitting in the dark corners of the dirt floor. We shared smiles as we sat down on the benches. I glanced over to Micah and Jessica who both seemed to have that “this is a first for me” expression. They were both comfortable, but I got the impression that this was a rare moment, even for the team who’d been here nearly four months.
Hannah began to speak. Charles began to translate. Elizabeth sat quietly in Hannah’s lap, and her father listened intently. Hannah spoke with a level of care and empathy and humility and steadfastness I’ve never, ever seen come from someone so young. As she shared the news of her family’s gift, Elizabeth’s father began to shed tears. He shared with us how painful it was to lose his wife after everything they’d survived. They were refugees from Rwanda and had lost most of their family and friends in 1994. Somehow they’d narrowly escaped the Hutu uprising that tortured, mutilated, raped and murdered more than a half million Tutsi in just one hundred days. They escaped and settled in Uganda, but without much economic infrastructure, employment, and therefore food and everything else, was very hard to come by. He built by hand the house in which we were sitting out of mud and bamboo sticks he’d gathered. He was doing everything he could to raise his children well, but he was struggling. In my eyes, he is a total hero and an amazing father. At the end of Hannah’s conversation with Elizabeth’s father, she added one more gift: she pulled out some cash and asked him if he would use it to benefit his children. He looked at the 150,000 Shillings in Hannah’s hands and let out a soft, wheezing groan. Clearly, he couldn’t believe what he was looking at. More tears flowed as Hannah handed him the money, and he promised to spend it wisely. It’s possible that he’s never seen that much money in his life, based on his reaction. It was $42 US.
The whole time we were visiting Elizabeth and her family, I was on the brink of uncontrollable weeping. I spent all my energy holding back, thinking if I broke then everyone else would break, or I would cause an embarrassing situation. In my life I’d never before felt the bottomlessness of emotion I felt in that hut. It will be a long time before I’m able to articulate what it actually was. After a while we said our goodbyes to Elizabeth and her family. We made our way back to our van and set off for the school. Only the team were in the van as we left the children at their homes. I finally started to crack. I kept my face hidden from the team as I silently sobbed for the entire ride back to the school.
When we arrived, Christian could tell something significant had just taken place, but I wasn’t prepared to explain it all. I wandered over in a haze to use the toilet, and Christian ended up following a few minutes later. We walked slowly back to the center of campus together and I tried to share with him what I experienced. I’m sure I didn’t describe it well. We chatted for a while in the shade, occasionally speaking with some of the Ugandans on the medical team until it was time to head back to the beach to leave Bussi. Christian and I walked back together, talking quietly and just enjoying the present moment. We encountered and greeted a lot of people along the path back to the boat, including a man or two who seemed to be pretty drunk and making no sense. When we got to the beach, most of the supplies were loaded back on the boat by human conveyor belt. We assisted with that and then worked with Bwanika to dislodge the passenger-loaded boat from the beach. This proved to be a daunting task, but with the help of some of the locals we finally slid free and we were on our way back to the Northern Hemisphere, back to the farm, back to the city, back to the airport, back to my family at home in Florida. This was beginning of my long journey back through time and space, back to what I only know as reality. It all felt like a kind of un-doing, like an unraveling of a rope that had been wound so tightly and so intricately. With each passing hour leading up to my departure, I felt like I was disappearing like Marty McFly in that photo. I grew afraid that one day my experience in Uganda would end up as just a dream.
But before I boarded the plane, we had to get back to the farm. I sat once again on the bow with Caleb, Anthony, Bwanika and a few others, including a girl I had a brief conversation with who was living in Tanzania but was from Texas. I regrettably didn’t get her whole story of how she ended up on a boat with us, serving people on an island in Lake Victoria. Bwanika, Caleb, Anthony and I joked and laughed and chatted the whole boat ride back to the farm. When we got to the farm, the water level seemed to have changed (was the lake big enough to experience tides?) so the boat could not get right up against the dock. Caleb and I chose the most childish way to get off the boat — by using a long wooden staff to pole-vault from ship to shore. Anthony wanted to try as well, but the boat had drifted significantly further from the dock and he missed, fell into the water and possibly broke his ankle. I felt completely responsible for his misfortune, but he’s a big boy. He’ll survive.
We only had a short time before our regular boat would be picking up Christian and me to take us to the church, where we would grab the van there and head to the airport. After spending the day in sweltering, dusty conditions, I decided to take a shower before I put my travel clothes on. Once again, the shower felt as if a thousand tiny knives were stabbing my skin. Because it was afternoon, however, and because I was tired, the shower was still refreshing. Once we got cleaned up, we waited a little bit for the boat to arrive and I got to say my final farewells to the team. This was far more painful than I let on. I’d gotten to know each one of them so well in such a short period of time. They truly felt like family to me. I knew that I’d miss them dearly. Each day from the farm we could hear the rumbling of jumbo jets taking off from Entebbe Airport because it, too, was directly next to the calm waters of Lake Victoria. I told the team to listen for my plane that night around midnight, that it would be my final goodbye, and to remember every time they hear that rumble, many are praying without ceasing for each one of them. The boat finally came and I stepped off the dock for the last time, looking back at the farm to take it all in. As we motored across the lake, the sun was setting behind us and the metaphor was thick.
We got to the church and hopped in the van. I threw my bags in the back and we were off. One more stop before the airport: Faze 3 restaurant to have a meal with Pastor Craig, his wife and two of their American friends. Faze 3 was a five star restaurant right next to the airport and the food was incredible. I ate the Tandoori Tikka Chicken and it was pretty perfect. The conversation was a great way to decompress from my days in Uganda, listening to Craig’s stories of their time in Uganda over the last thirteen years. He shared about his family — he’s a third generation missionary to Africa. I mentioned earlier that they’re returning to the US in a few months, and I found out that the first land their feet touch will be in Fort Lauderdale. I insisted on picking them up from the port, taking them to breakfast and dropping them at the airport. They agreed and we celebrated that this won’t be last time we’d see each other.
At the conclusion of our dinner, Josh met up with us at Faze 3 and escorted us to the airport. We made our way through the heavy security out at the perimeter of the property, parked and headed toward the terminal. It was a truly melancholy moment — not many words spoken, I think because both Christian and I felt the same sense of impending loss. We got to the departures building and I gave Christian a big hug. I knew I would miss him greatly, but I was excited to know he was coming to stay with us in a few weeks in Fort Lauderdale because of his friend’s wedding. Christian and I seem to always have really awkward goodbyes. It always happens. It’s hilarious. This time though, everything seemed to go smoothly and we bid each other adieu. Christian started to walk away when Josh suddenly called out for him. Christian was walking the wrong way and had to turn around. Awkward goodbye completed. I entered the terminal, navigated through check in, customs, immigration and finally to the gate. The flight crew arrived and I had a short chat with the captain who said we’re on track to actually leave a bit early. I was encouraged by this since I had a six hour layover in Amsterdam and I was hoping to get out of the airport for a few hours to see the city I haven’t visited since I was seven years old. We boarded the plane and took off. As we rumbled and roared down the runway, knowing the team might be listening in the darkness of the farm, I smiled. And then I cried. And cried.
Day 9: Washed But Not Clean
I watched through my misty eyes the city lights disappear into the darkness of the African sky and sat back to prepare for the long journey home, not really believing that it all went by so fast. I ate some dinner (KLM serves some relatively good food, even in the cheap seats), and nodded off to sleep. When I awoke, I found that we had about an hour and a half before we landed in Amsterdam. I struck up a conversation with my seat mates: an elderly Dutch couple returning from building a school and several water systems, along with their team of Dutch field hockey players. I learned they’d been doing this for nearly twenty years — it’s how they chose to spend their retirement. I was blown away over and over again by their stories, and even more by their love and compassion. This would be their final trip to Uganda since they’ve decided they’re getting too old to do it anymore. They don’t know if anyone will continue their work, but they didn’t seem bothered by it. They came and did what they did, and now it’s over. More people will work and serve and raise and train young leaders to shape the world in the future. They even shared with me that they got the field hockey girls praying before their meals each day… an unthinkable prospect, they said, coming from such a post-faith culture in the Netherlands. I’m not sure if they were Christians, but they definitely understood the Gospel. What awesome human beings.
We landed about a half hour earlier than expected, which gave me just enough hope that I might be able to sneak out of the airport for a few hours before my flight to New York, which was going to take off six hours later. I found out that the airport has a train station and a train that runs every 30 minutes into the center of historical Amsterdam. I went through customs and immigration, got my stamp, bought a map, found a locker to store my roller bag, and took off for the city on a rainy Saturday morning feeling pretty adventurous.
On the train I gazed out the wet window as the outskirts of town flashed by: fields and houses, then intersections and low buildings, then tall buildings and busses. We arrived in Central Station and it seemed to be pretty empty. I found some nice police officers who helped me navigate my first steps to the exit facing the city. Walking out into the light of day, my eyes took a moment to adjust. But when they did, I gasped audibly. Amsterdam is the most picture-perfect European city, complete with cobble streets, long rows of aging but beautiful buildings in classic architectural forms, and then… bikes. Oh the bikes. I have found my nirvana, and it is Amsterdam. 850,000 bicycles for a population of 850,000 (look it up). It was a sea of handlebars and gears and wheels and seats and bells as far as the eye could see. I stood there in disbelief. After a moment to gather myself, I started off on foot with no real plan.
I wandered left for a few blocks and once I passed through the main square in front of the train station, I found myself walking in the rain down a completely empty street. Not one human being in sight. It was surreal. So many artifacts lying about that would suggest a city teeming with people, but not one soul to be found. I continued to walk through the rain, street after abandoned street, feeling the East African dust begin to wash away. My shoes, my messenger bag, my jeans, all wet now, with very little trace left of what I experienced over the last week. I hoped silently it wouldn’t completely disappear.
I ended up looping around the city marveling at the architecture and the beautiful canals and the endless multitude of bicycles, but I still found very few people. I wrestled with the reverse juxtapositional nature of my surroundings: just one day before, I was surrounded by mud houses and dirt roads and hoards of people who filled the dusty air with life and laughter and shouting and song. Now, among the pristine structures of a city that represents virtually every stage of modern Western development, I stand soaking and completely alone, wandering and wondering why it was so quiet. I don’t know if God was trying to say something at that moment; perhaps it will come to me sometime in the future…
After close to seven miles of walking through the uninhabited city, I found a slick little cafe in which to escape the rain and warm up for a few moments with a coffee. The baristas were gracious and kind to their only guest. I jumped on the Internet to check back in with reality, but with the time difference, it was far too early in the morning for me to try and contact the family. I sat sipping one of the best cappuccinos I’ve ever tasted, watching the rain fall more lightly now, until I caught a glimpse of the blue sky. That was my cue, and I was off to complete my spiral tour of Amsterdam.
As I made my way back toward Central Station, the sky continued to open, and seemed to leak out people all over the city. I now found myself steering through crowded sidewalks and dodging puddles with kids walking my way. The city was coming alive. I almost felt a sense of remorse and nostalgia for my morning of soggy solitude that was now gone forever. Listening to the languages of all the different people, though, elicited a smile nonetheless. Fortunately I found the station with little difficulty, bought my ticket and made my way up to the platform to wait for my train back to the airport. Total time in the city center of Amsterdam: three and a half hours.
Sitting on the train I watched an American mom and dad say goodbye to their expatriated son after a visit I’m sure they felt was too short. Twenty minutes later we arrived back at the airport where I retrieved my carry-on from the locker, after which I headed up to check in for my second of three flights home. The lines were manageable and I was proud of myself for timing my little excursion so well. No need to rush or stress. Until boarding.
I don’t know what it is about Schiopol Airport, but they have crazy ideas about how to load passengers on planes. No real order, everyone pushing and shoving, people obliviously cutting in line; it was the same kind of mess I encountered boarding for Rwanda a week earlier. This time, though, the plane was parked at the building and we didn’t have to take a bus or walk across the tarmac. It looked like another full flight and I waited to see who my seat mates would be. At the window in my row was a young American woman with whom I had a total of about four words the entire flight. The man sitting in the middle was Khaled, one of the most interesting people I’ve ever come across. Khaled was an American Muslim originally from Detroit, a law professor, and a recent hair transplant recipient. He traveled to Turkey for his hair surgery — apparently it’s much less expensive over there, including the round trip airfare. It got me thinking… Anyway, after some snoozing, Khaled and I delved deeply into a conversation about faith, politics and philosophy. Though we both easily felt the inevitable distinctiveness between us, we still found so much common ground upon which to stand together. I immediately developed a deep respect for this man, and I felt the same from him. He even gave me his business card and asked to keep in touch, saying he’s never had a conversation as weighty and hopeful as this with a Christian. We touched down in New York City and bid each other farewell — he was off to his home in San Francisco while I went searching for my flight to Fort Lauderdale.
Dealing with a six-hour layover in Amsterdam was a walk in the park (or, in the city), but a four-hour wait to take off from New York proved to be downright disheartening. After making it through customs and immigration, I found out that I would need to board a bus to get to the proper terminal for my final flight. I saw parts of JFK Airport I never knew existed. Out of the luxurious terminal and into the old, I realized pretty quickly that I should have gotten food before I boarded the bus. My options were limited at the gate: Wendy’s, a couple kiosks with prepackaged sandwiches and salads, and a sit-down restaurant. I initially chose the third option until I ordered through the iPad sitting on the table. Grilled chicken salad for $38?! No way. Never. I got up and walked away (all my best to whoever ended up with that salad made of gold). I walked over to the kiosk and bought a salad and a bottle of water for eight bucks. Dinner.
I tried to pass the time by listening to music and organizing my photos of the trip, but that could only last so long. The gate was crowded and the only open place to sit was a four-seat table. I felt eyeballs on me as people walked by, wondering how I would react if they sat down. No one did. I saw a middle-aged Indian man standing nearby and I motioned to him that he was welcome to share my table. He smiled and sat and we embarked on a pleasant conversation about East Africa, India, modernity, faith and humanity. I don’t know how I end up getting to chat with so many intelligent and kind and fascinating people, but I am always grateful for the privilege.
We finally boarded the small jet (smaller than the other ones anyway) that would take us the final leg of this global trek, back to my family in Fort Lauderdale. I sat down next to a young woman who seemed to be unsettled. Her eyes kept darting towards the back of the plane, so I asked her if she needed anything. She said her boyfriend was sitting in the back and she wondered if I’d be willing to switch with him. In what could’ve looked like a bit of a selfish move, I said I’d switch only if he was in an aisle seat. He wasn’t. So sorry. She turned to the young guy sitting at the window in our row and asked him if he would switch. He said, “Only if he’s in a window seat.” He was, problem solved. Her boyfriend came forward and sat next to me as the woman moved to the window seat. While all of this was going on, the captain came on the intercom. I have never in my life heard a funnier pilot. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen,” he crooned with that classic captain’s tenor, “I am Captain George. Life only makes sense to me when I’m hurtling through space in a giant metal tube. I was born to fly, and I’ve been doing it for thirty years — first for the United States Navy, and now for this fine airline. There are some things you should know before we take off: first, the East Coast of the United States is known for its unstable air, so don’t be alarmed if we wiggle around up there. You might also notice that the wings will flex up and down in the bumps. Do not be alarmed. Some very smart people designed this plane, and the wings are supposed to do that. This airplane enjoys being in the air as much as I do, so don’t worry about the bumps. The crew of this aircraft is the finest I’ve ever worked with, and it’s their job to make sure our short journey to Fort Lauderdale is a pleasant one. Don’t hesitate to ask them for anything, anytime. So sit back, relax, and let me handle the heavy lifting. Captain George, out.” The entire cabin was rolling with laughter.
As we took off I found myself getting into a really interesting conversation with the young reunited couple next to me. She was headed to Fort Lauderdale to do her post grad work at Nova Southeastern University, and he was a public high school chemistry teacher on Long Island, working on his PhD. I think we hear a lot about how the world doesn’t want to talk about faith anymore, but it seems like whenever I’m asked to share what I do, the response is always eager curiosity. We spent literally the entire flight gabbing about teaching techniques and philosophy, the politics of education, public versus private, and the nature of time space as it relates to Christian theology. Yep. Another amazing discussion that made time speed up (or stand still, depending on your view of time space…) and before we knew it, we were touching down in Lauderdale. I texted my dad to come get me since it was 11:30pm. I wished the couple well in their endeavors and hightailed it out of the plane, through the terminal and out to the curb just in time for dad to pull up to retrieve me. After a big hug I jumped in the back seat because my godfather, Tom, was in the front seat. Tom lives outside of D.C. and was passing through on a journey of his own. It was awesome to spend twenty minutes in the car with the two of them as I began the initial stages of decompression from this radical expedition. I even got to pick Tom up the next morning and take him to breakfast before he flew out. We had a great chat.
When I got home, the family were still all awake, waiting patiently for my arrival. Hugs and kisses and barks and meows all greeted me at the door. I was finally home, safe and sound. I passed out gifts to everyone: Morgan received Dutch clog-style bedroom slippers and a stuffed elephant from Uganda, Jacob got a fixie t-shirt from Amsterdam and Amy, of course, got a beautiful necklace and pendant, handmade in East Africa. We sat on the couch together as we thumbed through the hundreds of photos I took over the course of the last week. As much as I already missed my friends in Africa, at that moment I didn’t want to be anywhere else or with anyone else than my bride and our two amazing little ones.
I was tired. My body time was 5pm, but I hadn’t slept much since before my walk through Amsterdam. I crawled into bed next to Amy and we chatted quietly in the dark. We finally said goodnight as I dozed off into my dreams, still seeing the unspeakable beauty and countless smiling faces that, in one week, changed my life forever.
Sula bulungi Uganda. Weebale Nnyo. Nkwagala.