rotating header

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Justice is the social form of love


A few hours ago, Laura snapped this pic on her phone for me during the Bundimulinga church service. After an opportunity to share some testimony of God's healing, and thanks for the church's prayers, the leaders called us to the front to be prayed for in person. Injury and illness put me in the position of needing this group of faithful people deeply. The leaders standing behind us there have been with us for decades. They watched our family form and grow, walked with us through disasters and war and threats, and celebrated with us many times . . . including this survival. So it was meaningfully sweet to have them acknowledge God's mercy and our gratefulness, in the worship service. 

On this side of the ocean, head injury and coma does not often end in good news, so a theme of our week-plus now in Bundi has been to revisit the wonder of my improvement through the reactions of our friends. They are no strangers to danger and loss, and yet what really strikes me is that in spite of all the hardships they have faced in their own lives, they made room in their hearts to feel the weight of my struggles. I want to be like them, sincerely carrying the burdens of others in prayer and deeply rejoicing to see God bless. That's love.

Because love is a social reality, and the experience of it should not be taken for granted. And the true practice of love profoundly challenges the world order in disruptive ways. That's what we meditate on in this season of Lent, and what we find remarkable in stories from Ukraine. The war machine that moved to targeting civilians in order to confiscate their land represents the typical world order: power, accumulation, impunity. In stark contrast to this we see thousands of ordinary people cooking meals for refugees,  taking risks to defend their own cities.  Lent and world news and daily life in Bundibugyo made this quote stand out this week:

"People like Jesus and Paul were not executed for saying, "Love one another." They were killed because their understanding of love meant more than being compassionate towards individuals, although it did include that. It also meant standing against the dominating systems that ruled their world, and collaborating with the Spirit in the creation of a new way of life that stood in contrast to the normalcy of the wisdom of the world. Love and justice go together. Justice without love can be brutal, and love without justice can be banal. Love is the heart of justice, and justice is the social form of love." Borg and Crossan, The First Paul, 2009

The big story of love and justice takes us back 2022 years to the cross, the place those truths meet. But while that afternoon was the fulcrum point of the story, the working out of the implications continues. In Ukraine, and Uganda. In people who inconvenience themselves for others, who coach football and weigh babies and hold preems and hoe gardens at dawn, who refuse to allow evil a foothold. 

Besides wonderful greetings and lofty thoughts, we have now turned the corner into life a bit. Budgets and funding gaps, payrolls and car policies, team meetings and calendars, visitors and electricity woes. And football drama, because one school hired non-student players to win with, then when the sports committee confirmed their infraction it looked like their students would turn to violence because the rules removed them from the tournament, so there ensued a confusing and obscure series of meetings and attempts to keep them in. Which other schools objected to as a poor precedent for student athletics. So we're in limbo. Two major political leaders died in the last few days, one of a serious infection while receiving high level medical care in the capital but the other of rumoured murder. People have started showing up at the gate with their heart failure and hypertension and HIV and hard stories. One day we had a dozen people with pangas chasing a large cobra (unsuccessfully) just as UNHCR vehicles convoyed past to the border where refugees continue to enter fleeing rebels. All to say, we are in need of reminding ourselves why all this matters. "Love is the heart of justice, and justice is the social form of love". That's why Jesus came and why His people keep slogging it out at the margins of the world.

Cocoa drying in the sun on the roadside

Bwampu, Clovice, and Bahati, the BundiNutrition team that has carried on a lot of love and justice this year!

Sweet Sunday afternoon with Dr. Katuramu Taddeo . . he and Luke went to CSB together, graduated, went on different university and medical school paths but are both now 4th year residents. Katuramu in Kenya in Family Medicine, Luke in Utah in Orthopedic Surgery. And both are married to delightful spouses. The next generation of standing against unjust systems and plunging into real love is safe with these two.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

HOME. (on sensing and becoming a foundation of grace)

‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.’

                                      ‘I should have called it

Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’

Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man

We are home, in the house where we have spent more years than any other place on earth, the place we don't have to deserve but which embraces us. As human beings who have chosen a disrupted, dual-continent life, almost-dying and at-last-returning has brought us reflection on the meaning of belonging.

Coming back to Bundibugyo, the reality of home is this: a mutual sense of connection, of history, of loyalty, of grace. 

Over and over in the last 24 hours we have been told how hard the news of my injury was for our friends and neighbours and co-workers here, how much they prayed and hung onto messages through my critical ICU stay, how amazed they are to see us again, how it is a testimony to them of God's power and love.  I thought I was returning for my own sake, but they are telling me it is more than that. Because the nature of a home is that others embrace my loss as their own loss. Today the Christ School students sang and danced about "our Jennifer and our Scott", the chaplain Edward said "now we can breathe", a poignant phrase these days.  Yesterday a dozen old friends came to the mission and did a traditional dance with drumming and celebration, and Clovis our Bundinutrition colleague gave a brief but meaningful sermon. He compared the hard days last September to the illness of Hezekiah in Isaiah 38, when he was at the point of death and turned his face to the wall and prayed "please LORD, remember me."  The twist was, Clovis said, this was the prayer of our friends: LORD, remember us, bring them back. Wow. 

This is the nature of a long time in a somewhat insular place. Many of our greetings come in the context of people with whom we have rejoiced over pregnancies and wept over deaths; sat around homes at burials and around courtyards for meals; agonised over landslides and rebels and epidemics, cheered over tournament wins and graduations and healings. It doesn't make headlines or gather awards and followers, but it means something to people around us and to us. As long-term outsiders, we have the position of being able to connect gifts of the global community to the places in this community where they can work for the common good. Because we are eternally other, we can invest in a school that serves the marginalised rather than a project that enriches the people in power. Because we are decades-long residents, we can be a bridge.

In a reflective, post-near-death mood, these reactions remind me of another quote, this one from Kate Bowler's newest book Good Enough.  She reflects on her anxiety, when her cancer was expected to be terminal, about whether her young son would remember her, and her counsellor tells her--You are the foundation and the foundation is the part you can't see.  YES. I hope that is our life, some good solid cement and rock aggregate anchored into Jesus the cornerstone. We are not the stained glass window or the steeple. But perhaps we have enabled others to do some decent building. Staying and returning are not always the path God lays out for everyone, but ours seems to keep coming back to Bundi. And while someone else translated the Bible and started the school and planted the church and developed a local malnutrition supplement and taught literacy and helping babies breathe . . . those people can come and go for a couple of years or five or even a few for ten, because someone like us is a little firm cement to stand on. 

So we are sharing our coming home thoughts to encourage others in their plodding faithfulness. Years add up. Reality takes time. And it costs, not only in our weary disjointed souls and ageing bodies, but for our kids, moms, siblings, relatives, friends who have to put up with distance and lack of availability. We feel that more deeply after six months in the States. So thanks for letting us come back, for praying and supporting us, because it is not just good for us. It makes others feel remembered. It moves us all a little more towards the hope of a life without goodbyes.

Wold Harvest Fort Portal!

Atwoki was our first Ugandan friend: the Herrons sent him to pick us up at the airport in 1993.

Baguma and Byarufu worked for us when we were raising our kids.

John was our kids' closest neighbour and daily play-mate, and now is our key accountant and administrator.

Dr. Amon and his wife Esther have been bright stars of friends and coworkers for fifteen years at least . . . and only a short time after this photo she delivered her fifth baby premature but vigorous, PRAY FOR HIM!

The welcome crew at our house, friends and team!

McClure kids made us an artistic sign!

Masika and Melen, from the late Dr. Jonah's family, have entertwined their lives with us from Scott's first visit to Uganda.

Scott reminding the CSB students this morning of the paradox of gratitude and grief. Seriously the staff prayed for me partly because they knew losing me might risk losing Scott, he's brings ideas and stability and confidence!

With acting Head Teacher Peter Bwambale and Dean Desmond, dear friends.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Almost Home: Greetings Along the Road

From Sago . . .

To Kampala, God is Good. 

A week ago we packed our rental car and drove from West Virginia to our nearest International Airport, Dulles. It is a legitimate observation that selecting Sago and Bundibugyo as our two homes makes no sense given our pre-COVID travel habits: one is 4.5 hours and the other 8+ hours from the airport. But the nature of home is that we are more selected than selecting. Sago is where my ancestors landed in the rural mountains where those on the margins could wrest survival from the woods and small farms, and Bundibugyo is where Ugandans who fled Amin and met a number of us in the USA eventually welcomed the peculiarity of foreigners because they saw the potential for good and truth and love in our paltry attempts to live the Gospel. Twenty-nine years later in 2022, and feeling the limitations of a post-injury pace, we tried to plan a sensible week-long journey to Bundibugyo. 

And the highlight of the week has been, and continues to be, greetings along the road. 

After mostly laying low for months of recovery, we were grateful to be able to stop and see my 91 year old Aunt Ann en route to Dulles. My dad was the youngest of 15, and Aunt Ann, the second-youngest, is the last of his siblings to remain. So it was sweet to connect with that tie to ancestry before embarking on another cross-cultural cross-continent journey.

And en route, God kindly arranged that our two hours in the connecting airport Schipol in Amsterdam would be the SAME two hours that Lilli and Patton Johnson, the two high-school aged teen kids of the late Travis, and Amy, would also be switching planes as they traveled back from Uganda. We met for breakfast and marveled at the beautiful people who had grown up from the small children we left in Bundi in 2010, and who had to leave a few years later when their dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  What a privilege and joy to even get a brief glimpse of the way that suffering and solid parenting and hope and grace have formed these two.

Once in Uganda, though we’ve spent 4 days in Kampala not yet Bundi, God kept bringing people for us to re-une with. Josh and Anna were on the way out for their 4th baby and 1rst girl to be delivered in late April in Florida near Josh’s family, so we enjoyed a too-short time to catch up over a couple of meals, to marvel at how just 6 months transforms kids, to thank them for stepping unexpectedly back into team leadership when we dropped out. We celebrated our long friendship and major milestones together, and we will miss them until they return after Home Assignment. 

We were also graciously welcomed by the hosts of the apartment we like to stay in in the city, the Clarkes, who came to Uganda the year we were married (about six years before we did) and have impacted medicine, politics, education, business in amazingly positive ways. Honored to know them. 

Teachers Laura and Michaela were also passing through the capital on “Spring Break” with Laura’s visiting parents, whom we had met at their home in Seattle once and were happy to see again on this side of the ocean. It is so meaningful to our community to see family visit our team. 

And of course team mates make regular trips to the capital for legal issues like immigration and licensure (we spent two days in the tedious process of renewing our medical license) or for some specialty shopping (we also stocked up on cheese and medicine) but we also have Ugandan friends who come to Kampala for studies and work. Dr. Isaiah continues in his second of three years of a Paediatrics Masters (what we call residency in America).


Ivan we saw in Mitiyana, where he has completed a post-nursing degree internship year and awaits licensure registration. Thankfully the hospital asked him to keep working, as he proved himself hard-working and competent in his internship.

The surprise of the week though was the Isingoma family.  Christine and Edward Isingoma live in Hoima, in the NW of Uganda, but maintain a home in Kampala for their kids and visits, and were in town briefly for a burial of an in-law. Isingoma called Scott and we met in town for “coffee” which turned into a party to thank God for preserving my life and giving us a long friendship . . . they brought four of their young adult children and one grandchild, which was delightful. In 1993, a few months after our arrival, it turned out that our team had to be gone for Christmas for various reasons except the newbies, and this family embraced us for our first holiday, inviting us with baby Luke into their hospital housing at Nyahuka Health center to feast with them. Many times in the ensuing decades we have worked together, most notably when Christ School was imploding on Dr. Travis mentioned above and we asked Isingoma to help us by returning to Bundibugyo as a temporary head teacher, an assignment that dragged into years and cost him personally but blessed the community and us. Now he’s a senior political, cultural, church leader and Christine runs a primary school, and their children are artists and lawyers and accountants and parents, and honestly in the world there are few friends with whom we have more in  common. So it was  an unexpected treat to see them.

I am typing this in the car as potholes jar my keyboard, heading west to Bundibugyo. More reunions await, with more of our “foster sons” along the way and back in the district, more or our team in Fort Portal, and then the real reuning time in Bundibugyo. I feel uncomfortably unworthy of the attention, doubting that my own bike-riding ineptitudes which nearly killed me qualify me for such kind attention from all these people along the way. But I also see that the accident and absence have just peeled back the layer of what is always there and true for all of us: we are loved, by God and a unique community of humans. That love may remain hidden enough to cause us doubts, but then a tragic event allows clarity. So we continue to return, each encounter paradoxically exhausting and invigorating, trying to be sensible but faith.  


And since all of this is happening in a world context we can't forget or ignore, war and disease, courage and tragedy . . we leave you with Bono's Saint Patrick's day poem:

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Celebratory and Sober: paradoxical next steps

 In 48 hours, we expect to be aboard a jet lifting into the air above the Loudoun countryside where I grew up, headed back to the home that has now become our most long-term dwelling in life, Bundibugyo, Uganda.

Like all transitions, this one comes with sober celebrations, if those two paradoxical words can both be true. This week has been sobering at every turn. Ukraine first and foremost, hundreds of innocent civilians dead, children with disabilities stuck in the crossfire, over a million of those who could run displaced indefinitely, a raw reminder of the way power can be wielded for evil and greed. All while other conflicts smoulder on in Africa off-camera and out of mind as well. Meanwhile the background broken world keeps scratching us with its sharp edges. One of our two loyal dogs waiting for us in Uganda bravely battled a cobra on our porch just before we were to return, and though Bwindi managed to kill the snake, she did not survive the venomous bite. All creation groans, per Romans 8, and that is certainly true for Bwindi and for us. Loss of our beloved dog (a birthday gift to Scott two years ago) the very week we return, as other Serge friends lost theirs to illness this week too as they prepared to leave, well it just felt like a lot of grief. Our rental car to get to the airport was canceled yesterday, and our COVID testing appointment today got canceled at the last minute due to a printer malfunction, both issues adding hours of work-arounds in a week that did not seem to have spare hours. And none of that even touches the truly sobering issues of our hearts: leaving our kids and moms on this continent, returning to a place that is hard to reach and 8-11 hours off their time zones, making ourselves unavailable to their lives. 

And yet we celebrate, anyway, like the Apostle Paul writing in Phil 4:4, not because everything is neatly ordered according to our will and definitely not because everything is so much enviable fun. We celebrate the deeper truths that undergird us, available in glimpses if we pay attention. Actually in this case, pretty glaringly obvious: the mercy of God that I (Jennifer) am alive, and miraculously far enough along the long road of healing to start working. We celebrate the kindness of so many who prayed, loved, wrote, called, visited, gave, cared, the community that held us up when we had nothing to give, and now enables us to keep going. We celebrate the daffodils peaking out another year as winter recedes, the two new families approved to join Serge in East and Central Africa today, the visit of the Johnson kids back to Bundibugyo a decade after unexpectedly leaving when their dad got cancer, the record enrolment at Christ School after Uganda's COVID shut down became the longest in the world, new businesses and water projects and residency programs and creative work. We celebrate the reminders that love is stronger than death. That the resurrection reverses all the powers of evil.

Thanks to all who read this blog and have prayed and hoped to see this return, to all those we left in Uganda, Kenya, Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Malawi whom we long to see and hold in our hearts. And please keep reading and praying with us. We've been limping along with our own unique mistakes and inadequacies for almost 29 years now, at times causing disappointment while trying to instill hope. This time on return we really feel the reality of our limits. I'm so much better, but I'm still impaired in energy, balance, vision, memory, speed. The docs at WVU cleared me to practice medicine but I know I need more rest, a healthy pace, and saying no. The return to work will put more pressure on Scott's already full plate. We go back with a God who can do beyond what we ask or imagine, and this time we see more clearly than ever how much we must lean into that. Even the numerous sobering setbacks of this week reinforce the truth: life is heavy and sober, and yet full of reasons to celebrate. 

So celebrate with us the upcoming trip, and stay soberly with us in prayer. Next message, D.V., from Uganda!

(Scott's going to miss the snow...)