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Thursday, July 30, 2020

Rookies of the Year, COVID-19 edition (Uganda day 132)

When COVID exploded last Spring, our Area of Africa was not immune to the impact of altered plans, closing borders, mounting worry. Quite a high percentage of our workers had structured Home Assignments (the 1 in 5 plan for furlough from the field to report to supporters and reconnect with family, pursue professional development, take Sabbath rest) around the rhythm of our quadrennial all-Serge conference. When that gathering was wisely canceled, it was understandable that many would still opt to return to North America to wait out the wave of uncertainty.  These decisions are complex and varied, with no two stories the same, vulnerable people, needy relatives, medical high-risk conditions, burning-out souls, longed-for plans, and on and on. Everyone did the best they could to walk by faith and act responsibly.

But today I want to thank and honour the three 20-something single women in our Area who decided to stay.
Why Jesus Chose Mary Magdalene to Proclaim His Resurrection |
The history of spreading the word that Jesus conquered death begins with a single woman, Mary Magdalene in the garden around the empty tomb, taking the risk of soldiers and controversy to perform the hands-on inglorious task of embalming. And throughout the story of the reversal of evil in our world, we see the marginalised and vulnerable moving into places of risk and need, usually without much fanfare or stories. From Clara Barton to Helen Roseveare the good news has traveled on the feet of women who chose paths that put them at odds with their peers and the expectations of their culture.

That history continues today, and though the word "missionary" may conjure up for you a middle aged man with a seminary degree, in reality the demographic includes a disproportionate number of spunky young women.

Back to our three rookies-of-the-COVID-year.  

Lindsey in Uganda has spent the COVID season so far finishing out a school year teaching kids, including accelerating the program when one family decided to depart early because of the pandemic. While "summer" is supposed to be a restful break for teachers, she spent June and July supervising a total overhaul of the 25-year-old school building, flushing out rats and snakes, repainting walls and shutters, having cabinets built, sorting through accumulated mouldy supplies, commissioning curtains and rugs, landscaping and rearranging. Her most proud accomplishment of COVID though is creating a pathway for about 70 pounds of curriculum (books, paper, supplies) to be shipped to a country with closed borders. We aren't quite sure how she did it. But this week she drove the 8 hours to the chaos of the capital and claimed the haul.
Lindsey with the curriculum in her back seat. NO SMALL JOY.

Emilie in Kenya is the ONLY member of her team left, besides the leaders.  She has joined them in discipling coaches through their Ambassadors Football program, pouring multiplicatively into Kenyan coaches who can then become positive role models and Gospel influences for youth in the city's informal settlements. Because of the economic impacts of the drastic shutdowns in our region, she and her team also raised funds for food packages to help their coaches survive. Her room-mate had to leave the country unexpectedly too, so she is now facing her summer's most challenging task alone: preparing to be the main support for her leaders' family as they prepare to deliver their third baby in Kenya instead of back in America with their own family's support.  Third baby means there are two other toddlers in the mix.
This is Emilie (far right) last year; she's said goodbye-for-now to everyone else in the photo

Maike in Congo is literally the ONLY member of our Serge team left, though she's on a hospital compound with a few other missionaries. She has continued to provide nursing care in maternity and the intensive care area, mentor youth in Bible study, and raised funds like Emilie to support the stranded families of Bible School students. When a local militia attacked the military nearby, there were some tense hours. Many of her neighbours fled into the "bush" then slowly returned in fear. Maike and her colleagues perceived the need for trauma healing, as this community has faced so much insecurity and disease over the decades. So she facilitated a workshop to begin that healing and reconciliation process.

This is Maike's photo from the reconciliation exercise last week, giving grievances to Jesus to be buried at the foot of the cross.

At Serge these are just three of the MANY women of faith. Would you pray for them in a special way? The rest of us have some automatic proximal family with whom we live even when we miss our families of origin. We have some ability to process, or just other humans with whom to share car maintenance and cooking and make weekend plans. The loneliness of lockdown intensified the sacrifice; yet we need their invaluable contributions. And if you'd like to be in the running for next year's rookies-of-the-year (we have several on the way . . ) send us a message.  

PS read this fast, because I did not ask any of their permission to use their names and photos, so I may be in trouble soon and have to take this down.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Running in the Dark: #COVID-19 UGANDA day 127

When we moved back to Bundi 1.5 years ago, I started running in the dark. It's too hot and humid to go later, and too public to run in the daytime while attracting "mujungu! mujungu!" frenzies from children, unwanted attention, traffic to dodge. Plus to be at the hospital by 8 while living on the equator where the sun sets and rises at 7, means that fitting in exercise, a Bible and prayer time, breakfast and hygiene requires a start in the dark. Once COVID hit, Scott started joining me, since he could no longer take strenuous distant bike-rides in the limited-movement lock-down. We step out into the cool morning darkness in a time I call star-fade, as the background subtly greys and the flickers of starlight disappear pre-sunrise. We take our dogs on their leashes, and carry a small torch (flashlight) which illuminates the pavement a few feet at a time. 26 1/2 years ago when we arrived, this would not have been possible on the treacherous muddy potholed track, but now our road is smoothly paved with a helpfully reflective white painted line on the side, and a wide verge. We are rarely passed by more than a handful of motorcycles or trucks, and we usually encounter less than ten other humans also out moving on foot. Frogs complain until we get too close, then are silent until we pass. There is one very alert rooster that always squawks.

When running in the dark, seeing only the next few seconds of roadway, the path gives one the illusion of being straight and level. So it always strikes me when I later drive in the car, how many dips and curves there are. Our road is quite good . . . but it does have to bend to the reality of being situated at the base of the third highest mountain range in Africa. There are ridges that fall down to creeks, contours that cause the road to wind. In the daylight, particularly on the way back from Town, one can note the overall trajectory, the bird's eye perspective . . which shows that our distance is not a straight line at all.

But in the early morning, it is all about plodding ahead, taking the next few strides.  

When we moved back to Bundi 1.5 years ago, we had no idea what those 1.5 years would hold. We were plodding a few strides at a time. We thought we were coming for a few months to fill a gap in leadership. It looked pretty reasonable, as far as our little flashlights could project. If we could have seen the near-implosion of the school as an unstable teacher instigated riots, or the decision of some key team members not to renew their terms or to change their foci, or the impact of this pandemic on our capacity to move, would we have had the courage to come? Maybe not.

Yet here we are down the road in 2020, which is one big blind curve. Not the story we thought we were choosing. Somehow we expected this phase of life to be one where seniority had some perks, where we could somehow hold together the needs of our octogenarian moms and just-launched young adult children with the forward progress of eleven teams in five countries. We thought we'd do that by perhaps living near an airport, having a base but frequently in motion. Instead, it's been 127 days circumscribed routine (minus three to camp and pray recently!), with no clear end in sight. In other words, exactly what everyone in the world is facing. Being in one place and staying there. Seeing patients, again and again. Attending meetings with spacing, eking out the same small palette of culinary options, music, clothes, interactions. Yes we are still thinking globally and dreaming beyond, but we are at this moment deeply rooted.

And the surprise is this: darkness is a mercy. 

We do not know how 2020 will end. It doesn't look good for anyplace right now. Uganda has locked down more effectively than most, but we've recorded our first death this week. The whole world is addicted to the reality-TV of America, us included, with astronomically increasing sickness, violence between groups stirred up to fear and hate each other, and a flare for turning things like wearing/not wearing a mask into a litmus test for righteousness. When healthy 30-year-olds die of this virus, we are reminded that while a fatal outcome is unlikely for most of us it is certainly possible for any of us. We can't see the road very far ahead. We can only see the immediate next steps. We wear our masks and wash our hands, greet from a distance and avoid most activities. We read and pray and treat and hope. We prepare Bible studies and medical teachings, reports and letters. We mentor and supervise. We listen and intercede. A few steps at a time. Until one day we realise: this road is actually good in many unexpected ways. We are in the home have had for more years of our lives than any other, the home we helped build, the home where we raised our family. We are working with young people whom we care about deeply, being invited sometimes into their hearts, their marriages, their dreams. We are helping a team carry out a vision we were part of setting in motion. We get to see the decades-long arcs, not just the moments. We get to learn to be elders, a base that allows others to thrive and embrace their own callings. We get to talk to our kids and moms and sisters sometimes, not enough but we do appreciate that technology that did not exist when we started.

Faith is a run in the early morning darkness, a commitment to move ahead without knowing exactly where we will end up. Faith is work, and a work-out, a necessary precursor to arrival and rest. Whether this stretch is a 5K, 10K, a half or whole marathon, or an ultra-marathon, we can't say. But that is the mercy of God's mystery.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Humbly Hastening Righteousness? #COVID-19UGANDA DAY 118

First, the weekend was exactly what we longed for. A spot of untouched rugged beauty, wild animals just living their lives wandering by, an unexpected respite of wind and cloud that gave picture to the Spirit's refreshment, books to read and prayers to offer sitting in camp chairs which we moved to catch the shade of a cactus. Remembering redemption, and how it comes in hidden slow ways. And just to keep us on our toes, the challenges of reality: encountering a whole new kind of tiny stinging ant that swarmed under our clothes when we inadvertently washed dishes on their territory, a lone pesky hyena that kept wandering back after being chased away with rocks and a panga and in his curious boredom chewed through our tire cover and gnawed on our tea pot at night. And, the requisite car issue. We went on one game drive (it seemed superfluous asa the the game kept coming to us, why go to them, but we do love the motion of the savannah and looking for lions . . ) in which we're pretty sure we were the lone visitors in the park (the lodge was closed, so only campers and we didn't see any other campers).  So when we ended up on a newly graded track in the rain . . and the black topsoil turned to slick muck that quickly filled our tire treads and left us fishtailing like we were driving on ice, and we ended up in a ditch, we were envisioning being stuck for hours. We chopped small branches from nearby clumpy brush to get some traction (while keeping an eye on nearby buffalo) and the 4WD mercifully got us going our first try. Yeah. The highlight of the weekend was perching our chairs on the roof rack and watching an elephant circle our camp, spraying clouds of dust on his back. We saw easily over a hundred elephant and buffalo, and dozens of warthogs, waterbuck, kob. Not to mention 3 lions and 9 giant forest hogs. Ever since we really READ Job, we have embraced the concept that God's answer to suffering is to go look at creation. So we are grateful for the time we could do just that.

We packed up camp in the rain Monday morning, which means we actually just threw the wet tent and muddy tarps into the car for later cleaning/drying/sorting. A real blessing on the way back was the opportunity to have a leisurely porch lunch with the Fort Portal team, recounting griefs and blessings. They are our neglected stepchild, independent strong women who rarely ask for attention and for whom we are grateful but wish we had more to give. That time was a good choice with some consequences of a rushed minor re-supply shopping time in order to beat the curfew and return to Bundi.

Which brings us to the last 48 hours. If you put down your work for a weekend, it gathers strength to pounce upon return. Hundreds of emails, a few meetings, some brewing issues, heart-to-hearts, a flurry of cleaning, visitors ... .plus the news that we were to appear for an annual District Health- NGO Coordination meeting on Wednesday with reports on our activities and plans for the year. A late night Tuesday creating a presentation, an early morning Wednesday unsuccessfully trying to push through rounds (I think I rounded and wrote notes on about 10 patients out of 80-ish), and then we were called and told to get to the meeting.

All masked, socially spaced at tables, open windows . . . still odd to be in a meeting these days. The district health team was joined by another dozen or so representatives of the NGO's focused on health, all Ugandans and mostly NOT from Bundibugyo who work for major organisations. Person after person put up impressive, articulate slides, with tables and work plans, goals and dates, numbers and percentages. Pathfinder has a five-year 11-district USAID grant to improve access to family planning that involves universities, research, highest levels of government. Save the Children procures mama kits (delivery packages of helpful items) and supplies village health teams with basic medicines, but also heavily facilitates the work of the district health team in supervising and planning. World Vision has an ongoing project in one area of the district that includes peace-making and literacy activities. Baylor University employs a team of data gatherers and analysts to make sure HIV/AIDS care is evidence-based, up-to-date, accessible, monitored. As the hours went on with these presentations, all with their slick urban representatives, their impressive funding, their buzzwords and acronyms, personally I was feeling more and more like a failure. What are we even doing here? And how does all this heady office-based assurance match up with what we see on the ground actually happening? I started googling the budget sizes of these organisations. Wow.

We were called up last. While Scott connected the computer, I had a Holy-Spirit moment. Instead of trying to look just as competent as everyone else, I was able blatantly say that we are NOT equal to them and to just reflect thanks to them all. Save the Children and World vision are 2+ billion dollar organsations; Pathfinder and Baylor are 50 million dollar enterprises. Meaning they are all 25-1000 times larger than Serge. And what I saw was, everything they are doing here, we were struggling to start nearly 30 years ago. Community health teams with Dan Herron, immunisation outreaches, the Kwejuna Project that initiated HIV testing and care and mama kits and safe delivery capacity,  BundiNutrition that educated and provided food for kids, education with CSB, kids' outreaches, relief after war, epidemic response. It used to be us, and the government, pretty much alone. So what a blessing that now there are multiple organisations with more funds, more personnel, more expertise, investing here! It's not our territory to defend, it's our home and family to rejoice in the opportunities. We are nobodies, who made simple attempts and began some good works, that we now have the joy of seeing grow beyond anything we could have accomplished. After that we made our presentation, admitting our limited capacity, but connecting our work in the hospital, nutrition, water, relief, sponsorship to build up the
health of this place.

Then we sat down, and the whole air of the room changed. Immediately the local-Bundibugyo person running the meeting transformed the fact that we went last from "now that the major people are done we'll get to World Harvest" to "you know in African culture, the elders speak last, so we saved Dr. Scott and his wife for last." It's as if our sincere acknowledgement of how far we have come together with recognition of the incredible input from everyone allowed us all to stop trying to impress and to just relax into nostalgia. And perhaps as the lone foreigners in the meeting, by not taking a superior role we let everyone just breathe. Or maybe it was just the importance of history, so the few who knew us were then empowered to remind the others of our long shared experience. As the meeting closed the local leaders were (verbally, in a COVID - friendly way) embracing our presence. It was very sweet.

God answered my question, what are we doing here? Mostly, just. being. present.  Getting older, and remaining. In an almost simple monastic way, doing hands-on care that people with less training or experience could do but doing it alongside them even when it is long and tedious. Sometimes speaking up for justice. Sometimes pulling in research or ideas from outside. Sometimes carrying the memory of what has and has not worked, or of how far we have come. Sometimes praying, and noticing that God brings in Save the Children and Baylor. Sometimes pushing the younger people forward, with boosts of advice or help or visibility.

I am sure the weekend of peace set our souls up for the unexpected day of collaboration for District Health. This morning, the phrase I read in Isaiah 16 jumped out. Isaiah is pronouncing judgements and warning of dire days, but then speaks of shelter, a throne established in mercy, One who seeks justice (v. 5). That one will sit on the throne in truth, "hastening righteousness". God is going to put this world right, including destroying COVID and racism and poverty and cruelty and oppression and everything that is NOT RIGHT. In the meantime, we're about hastening that right-ness where we can. Getting a jump-start on preventing AIDS or feeding the hungry or proclaiming the Kingdom. Yesterday was a glimpse of how this team has been doing that since the late 1980s and how the pace and scope of change has accelerated. Now we have the opportunity to be back in this fray to protect the gains from being lost to the difficulties of 2020. Here we go.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

111 Days: #COVID19Uganda helps us embrace our limits

It turns out, our wall is at 111. The morning started with a bat swooping in the dark around our heads in the bedroom, a court case to attend that continues a 6-year protracted attempt to take away food garden property from our school, pushing back against some rash decisions, meeting with people, preparing studies, working, juggling, listening. Phone calls, desperate "I have no food for my kids" letters. We truly love this place and believe in the life God has given us here. The pressure of ever-increasing work with ever-decreasing resources has felt heavier and heavier.

So tomorrow afternoon after work, we are retreating to the wilderness for two days. Prayers appreciated that we will find God's presence in ways that restore and encourage us to go on. Thanks. And that our team will be healthy and safe, various simmering crises will take breathers, various colleagues will be blessed.