Monday, February 13, 2012

Jesus Worldwide: Uganda

From Katie: This week we're headed to Uganda through the eyes of Ben who is spending eleven months traveling to eleven countries as part of The World Race. Check out his blog here. This post reprinted with permission.

Have a story to tell about how the Lord has worked somewhere in the world? Send me an email KatieAxelson[at]gmail[dot]com; I'd love to hear about it! <>< Katie

The scene was perfectly set. The buzz was in the air. Children poured into recently opened classrooms, some for the first time ever, saddled proudly with hand-me-down backpacks two sizes too large. Their crisp, blue, collared school uniforms, dress shoes, and high grey socks were worn in varying degrees of faithfulness to their makers’ intents as untied shoes and shirts halfway un-tucked sent the message to the well-meaning institution that housed them that they were indeed “just kids.” As the African sun beat down, with relentless disregard for the lack of air-conditioners, or even fans, and as the sound of the high pitched children’s chatter testified to their excitement, I smiled and thought to myself, “I am in my element.”

This week marked our first week of teaching at Champions Christian Primary School in Mukono, Uganda, and I absolutely loved it! It was somewhat reminiscent of Nepal, in that it was a fun challenge for me to translate twenty-one year old thoughts into ten-year-old thoughts, but it was unique as well—every country moves to its own rhythm. I taught English (and some P.E.) for grades four and seven every day except Friday when I taught Religion and helped to lead Chapel.

I recognized from the outset, that because I would be teaching for such a limited period of time (a few weeks), I would need to rethink my goals. I made up my mind that my main goal would be not to work my way through a certain amount of curriculum but instead to develop—as much as two weeks would permit me to—a love for learning within the children and to cultivate the students’ pride in the quality of their own work.

In Uganda, as is the case in much of the “third world,” education is the key to escaping a life of poverty. Though a college degree is quickly becoming a prerequisite for securing any job in America, it is still a golden ticket to a well-paying job in Uganda. Education is a cherished privilege. This does not mean that the children are always keenly aware of this, as little girls still draw in the margins of their notebooks, and little boys still look forward to lunch-breaks and recess above all else but there exists the underlying mutual understanding that education is a privilege.

As I taught, however, and as I laughed, high-fived, and proofread my way through the class periods, there was another sight that caught my eye. It caught my eye all throughout the week, actually. I saw a group of children with tattered clothes peering through the open windows, observing the goings-on of the school day as outsiders. It felt as if I was simultaneously watching them in slow motion while teaching my class in real time—like two gears grinding in opposite directions, one smaller and quicker and the other larger, slower, and more representative of the deep meditations of my heart.

In Uganda, I learned, there is still no free public education. To send a child to school, one must pay school fees—without exception. Champions Christian Primary School educates over 250 students, out of which nearly one hundred of them attend school for free. 

“If I had my choice,” our pastor, Joseph, told me, “I would let them all come for free. But, unfortunately, we have to pay teachers.”

When this simple economic principle is coupled with the fact that many of the children’s parents are unemployed or sell vegetables by the roadside for a living, it is no surprise that many children simply cannot afford to attend school. This cycle, is of course, self-perpetuating, as the children’s lack of access to education only guarantees that they will be barred from access to jobs that require education and will likely end up working the same jobs as their parents.

This past Friday, one of our squad leaders, Michelle, decided to take a simple step toward combating this problem by volunteering to sponsor a child, Catherine, and pay her school fees for a full year—a minuscule price by American standards. This act of compassion motivated me and got me thinking.

I became very interested in my own thought processes as they related to compassion and need. As Christians, we are absolutely called to extend extreme, outrageous, over-the-top compassion to the less fortunate. This compassion is not a non-negotiable requirement for salvation, as salvation is a free gift from God, through Christ (Ephesians 2:8-10), but this compassion is absolutely a sure sign, an indicator, that the Gospel has legitimately affected one’s heart. 

If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother but closes his eyes to his need—how can God’s love reside in him?” (1 John 3:17)

We can debate verses like this all day long as we ask ourselves, “What exactly does it mean to have ‘the world’s goods’?”, “Who qualifies as my brother?”, and, “What does it really mean to close one’s eyes to a brother’s need?” but the fact that we are even debating them shows that we have already lost the battle. Are we asking ourselves, “How little can I do and still be categorized as the type of Christian Jesus would approve of?” or “How can I sacrificially extend myself to the point where my blessing meets others’ needs and the name of Jesus is lifted high?”

To be sure, I do not underestimate the complexity of the problems Uganda faces. Uganda still faces food shortages, high HIV/AIDS rates, and government corruption, for example. Education alone will not solve every problem. In fact, without the Gospel of Christ, it won’t solve any problem. But, with Gospel-infused education, Ugandan children can take a step towards liberating themselves from cycles of poverty. I view paying for a year of a child’s education as the perfect middle ground between cold-hearted indifference and a well-intentioned, though hurtful practice that creates dependence because it represents a helping hand (from those that have means) that will eventually manifest itself in a child’s own ability to provide for himself and his countrymen.

When my teammate, Kelly, decided that she would pay for a year of education for a child (two children, actually!), in addition to what Michelle had done for Catherine, I was sold. I knew what I needed—and wanted to do. I thank Kelly for taking that step because I don’t know if I would’ve taken that step without her initiative.

Kelly decided to pay for a girl named Shakira (a girl whose mother she had grown close to) and her brother, Regan. I decided to pay for a young boy, Shafik, whom I myself had grown close to. These children were around the school every day, though they could not attend for lack of school fees.

When we told our host, Frieda, that we would take out the money and support the children—only $120 USD for both semesters and uniforms—her eyes lit up as she sprang to action. “They will start tomorrow,” she exclaimed excitedly, “And their families will be here tonight!” We had learned, a few days earlier, that Regan and Shakira’s mother, Rachel and Shafik’s mother, Margaret were sisters, so we were excited to meet the extended family.

As I looked out my window at the Ugandan sunset last night, I heard voices speaking in the tones reserved for greetings and I knew that the families had arrived. As I walked into the kitchen to meet them, however, I was shocked. Stephanie pointed me towards a concerned and flustered looking Frieda, who took me aside.

“They are the wrong kids,” she told me, her mind clearly spinning, “These are the wrong kids.”

Little did Kelly or I know, but Shakira is a more common name in Africa than we had thought. So, when Frieda introduced the mother Rachel to us at Friday’s church service as “Shakira’s mother,” we were picturing two different Shakiras! We decided to acknowledge God’s sovereignty, however. What man sees as a “mess up,” God sees as a pre-ordained plan. With God, there is no “wrong kid.” There are no strangers and there are no outcasts.

We sat down with the (new) families on our small front porch and got to know each other. Their story almost brought tears to my eyes and Jesus Christ lifted his own name high through each syllable that was spoken. Both sisters, Rachel and Margaret, were former prostitutes and both were HIV positive. Neither had husbands any longer. Rachel’s daughter Shakira had prayed every day at school (a few years back, before they became unable to pay school fees), and her prayers had convicted Rachel herself and had convinced her to attend church on Sundays. Rachel then found Christ—or, more accurately, Christ found Rachel—at Christ Ambassadors Church. This led to her sister Margaret’s salvation as well, as Rachel preached the Gospel to her sister shortly thereafter.

Frieda apparently hadn’t told the mothers the purpose of the visit so that we could be there when she broke the news that their children would have the opportunity to attend school for the entire year. When they heard, both mothers broke into tears. Rachel threw her hands into the air and praised Jesus. We hardly had an opportunity to inject a word of encouragement, as she continually told us, through a translator, “thank you, thank you, thank you.” Margaret told us that she did not even have the words to speak. Little Shakira buried her face in her eyes so that we wouldn’t be able to see that she too was crying.

Little did we know but for months Rachel had been praying for God to make a way—any way—for her children to go to school. We had no idea that we were literally an answered prayer. We also learned—as if God had not already glorified his name enough—that God had recently spoken to Regan in a dream as he had dreamed that a white person he did not currently know would come and paid for him to attend school.

“I will testify of God’s goodness to the entire village! I must!” Rachel told us. “I do not know how I will be able to sleep. I will be thinking about this all night!” Margaret told us.”

It was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my happiest moment on the entire World Race. I couldn’t care less that the child Kelly was supporting was a different Shakira and that the child I was supporting was not Shafik, the one I had intended to support, but Deion.

I spent much of the evening throwing Deion over my shoulders and learning more about his family. Unfortunately, there was no one to support Deion’s brother Moses but there was still enough joy to fill an ocean that evening. Besides, there is still hope for Moses. Finally, we were able to pray for each other. God is a global God.

As I post this blog, Shakira, Regan, and Deion are joining their classmates for school! That very thought makes this whole month supremely satisfying.

As all of these events transpired, however, God gave me a greater vision. “What if,” I thought, “We could send not only Shafik and the other Shakira to school, but what if we could send a multitude?” What if our mark on this town could be that we passionately sent a mass of children to school—an “education revival”? I believe that it’s both possible and simple. It costs $120 USD to pay for a full year (two semesters) of a child’s education plus his or her school uniform. All we need is you.

I do not have the energy to construct a multi-faceted, guilt-laden, argument as to why you should partner with me in this. For one, I want to keep this blog safe. This is not a place to solicit. More importantly, I do not want to infringe upon the work of the Holy Spirit. I won’t bully anyone into giving.

I have a few days left in Uganda, and we can really make this happen together. How awesome would that be to write another blog proudly stating that we teamed together to send 40 children to school! I understand that the motivation may be greater for me, as I literally see, hear, smell, and touch these children everyday, but I challenge you to stretch the limits of your own compassion—for your own sake.

If you are at all interested, send me an e-mail through the “Contact Me” link on the side of the page or comment on this blog. I will go ahead and pay for you in Ugandan Schillings, take care of getting pictures and background info on the child for you, and later, when I have more Internet access, we can work out the reimbursement details. Also, if you are interested in paying for a half of a year of school, I’m sure that that too will be much appreciated.

Surprise me. Surprise a child. Surprise yourself—by extending yourself to a level of compassion that is beyond your comfort zone. You will be surprised by the beautiful effects it has on your own soul.

Update: 56 children have been given the gift of education for a year. Read more about it and see their photos here. Thank you for letting God use you!

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