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Friday, July 22, 2022

Remember to welcome strangers...

 We once fled from war, on foot, and were thrown on the mercy of others. So when Scott gets called to District meetings about people who have migrated temporarily into Uganda from Congo, uprooted by a conflict that simmers and flares between the same group that sent us running (the ADF) and the same militaries that helped us return (UPDF and FARDC), he goes and listens and advocates for that same mercy. It's a complicated situation, with local, regional, and international implications. Aid can be a means of good, or a long-term harm, if it is not applied fairly and thoughtfully. We need to respect both the Congolese desperate and their similarly-stressed Ugandan hosts. This week there was a news story of a distantly foreign ADF commander killed only miles from our border . . . but also Red Cross concern that some of the 29,000 "persons of concern" they estimate to be staying in hastily built shelters, with relatives or on church or public land, are suffering from epidemic gastroenteritis. The word "cholera" was queried. Yes, the government wants them to register and move to officially gazetted refugee camps. No, most of them have not been willing to do so. In a long meeting between NGO's and government, he negotiated permission for our World Harvest Uganda team to provide a small "Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH)" package to a thousand families. 

We are not a relief agency, we are a long-term, stay-and-participate-in-life model of mission. ALMOST ALL of our fundraising goes towards projects with arcs of decades, not days. But when there are earthquakes, mudslides, floods, or war, sudden convulsions of harm that throw the community into disarray, we have been SO THANKFUL to have a Bundibugyo Emergency Relief Fund that has blessed thousands of people over the years in occasional, quick-response mercies. And interestingly, the capacity to respond with speed and integrity lies not just in being a small faith-based mission with generous mostly North-American donors, but also in the growing cadre of Christ School Bundibugyo Alumni led by our administrator and accountant John who are getting pretty good at this kind of week-long push. John and his CSB alumni team listened to Scott's plan and made it happen: a budget,  official letters of permission, two days on the border in various communities with Red Cross registering actual Congolese in need, two days in Fort Portal procuring jerry cans, bars of soap, feminine hygiene products, water purifying tablets, transport and organisation. 

And then today, loading all the above into 7 trucks and dispersing to the communities along the border that are most affected. 

We personally accompanied the team to three sites, one of which was the main border town on the main road between Bundibugyo and Eastern DRC. Our missionary team has often participated in some aspects of the actual distributions too, and today 4 kids and 4 adult moms/teacher/intern also came to the largest site to make the giving personal. The day-of logistics are formidable. Scott and I walked through the shelters people had constructed on the land around a Catholic church, basically bent poles tied with reeds then draped with UNHCR tarps to form tents, three-stone cooking fires in the space between them, laundry hanging on the bushes. Thankfully the language stretches across the border so we could chat, listen, laugh a bit, because resilience is amazing. The chairman of the Congolese camped there was a Charismatic Episcopal priest whom we asked to speak to the milling crowd and to pray, to acknowledge that these items come from God via his people, that they are small tokens of his love. Then people came one by one into a roped-off space to receive their aid. Lots of grateful smiles, and curious chatter, but also inevitably those who were not registered and felt left behind. 

Bundibugyo Emergency Relief. We long for the day when it is no longer necessary. The kindness and competence of our alumni and our team are a taste of that future. In the meantime, we're thankful to be a tiny part of the net that God uses to lift up the poor from the ash heap. And encouraged by the way that response causes evil to backfire. Because such distress as war, flight, poor water, sickness . . . led to the usual barriers being irrelevant. Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and SDA churches, government headquarters and schools, Ugandans and Americans and Congolese, young and old, all pulled together to resist the inevitability and distress of sorrow, and to witness hope.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Leadership Inspiration from the trenches: Dr. Amon

 Yesterday evening, we attended the Bundibugyo Hospital and District farewell party for Dr. Amon. Just typing those words brings a fresh wave of grief . . but since the whole event happened a few meters away from, and 15 years after, Dr. Jonah's burial, I have to say that the grief this time is mixed with a heftier dose of gratitude for sure, and hope. In 2007 we, Dr. Jonah's wife and daughters, and a half dozen intrepid health workers prayed and wept as we interred his body under strict Ebola protocols. We were heartbroken, desperate, and nearly alone. In 2022, there were tents, music, cake, an MC, dancing, gifts and speeches. To a casual observer, the events could not have been more disparate.  But they were closely connected. 

Scott, Amon, Esther, and me with Masereka pre-party rolling

First, because of the character of the men. Dr. Amon, like Dr. Jonah, began as a clinical officer in the days when any medical education was nearly unobtainably rare, being younger sons in large hard-working families. Both worked with us at Nyahuka Health Center IV, and caught our attention as dependable, talented, caring workers at the PA level, with humour and courage. Dr. Jonah was the first young man we sponsored to Makerere University for a degree as a medical doctor, but the joy of having him back as a colleague was short-lived when a new strain of Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever broke out(Ebola bundibugyo) The only other Ugandan doc in the district also became infected but recovered, and as you know Scott and I did not become sick, even though we had all four been seeing the same patients together. Ebola Bundibugyo left us down to 3 docs from 4, and in the wake of that tragedy we developed a program to sponsor more health workers, doctors and others, for the district. As that was beginning, a British doc named Dr. Dominic pulled up to the health centre one day on a short trip to Uganda, and wanted to spend funds raised after his med-student girlfriend had died in a car accident to help this country . . .  we immediately thought of Amon as the best possibly legacy. 

So fifteen years later, the news is, HE WAS the fitting legacy choice. Dr. Amon finished medical school and internship and even did an MPH. He returned to Bundibugyo to serve. He navigated the politics of the system with grace. We were in Kenya most of his tenure, but always encouraged by his vision and hard work, the way he stepped into more and more responsibility. When we returned three years ago, a huge part of the attraction was to work with our friend. To stand with him in new patterns of integrity, enabling the opening of the new NICU, connecting with solar projects for oxygen, supporting his new pattern of morning report staff meetings, continuing medical education, data collection, audits of deaths, focus on maternal and child health, nutrition, integration of spiritual growth and encouragement. Bundibugyo Hospital might raise eyebrows from those accustomed to private institutions, but over the last handful of years we have climbed in government district hospital rankings. Together we faced the unknown of COVID, even as many partners left and funds became unsure. For years he's been the "acting" medical superintendent, the highest ranking doctor in our district, but somehow our local government never managed to actually change is title and salary to reflect that responsibility. He was not the sort of person who let that stop him from doing his best.

About two weeks ago, he called us into his office and reluctantly broke the bad news: he had taken a full, actual, medical superintendent job across the country, in Busia on the Kenya border. 

This decision was not totally out of the blue, even though my accident made us miss so much this year. We had been aware of political pressure to push him out of the way, to make space for a third clinical-officer-turned-medical-doctor post-Ebola, this one sponsored by the government. Understandably the government-sponsored doc is more of a political insider, and in spite of trying to get everyone to look at the big picture that our District of several hundred thousand needs all the medical help it can get, we as outsiders as well have to accept the decisions made. There was some shaking up of administration, Dr. Amon saw the writing on the wall, and felt the humble course of action was to take a "promotion" elsewhere.

Scott with a Gospel-true message of friendship and grateful admiration

Official functions tend to be rather scripted, long, and tedious. We had braced for that yesterday. But in spite of our grief, it was a joyous occasion.  Scott was put in the official program as "FRIEND", which was a delightful contrast to the long list of position-of-power titles of various speakers. He talked about leadership as SERVICE not POWER (Mt 20:28), which Dr. Amon certainly embodied, like Jesus. Even the boda-boda drivers who swarm the hospital drive for fares organised themselves to come in and give him a gift, as did market ladies, nurses, department heads, guards, cleaners. The community trusted him, because he was available and honest, never self-promoting. His wife Esther, who as a nurse is still posted here in Bundibugyo, danced beside him as various groups cheered and carried in their wrapped boxes and bars of soap and wash basins and even a local specialty, the Bwamba chair. She's left here alone to manage the five children, and I held her 4-month-old for an hour or more. Splitting this family feels tragic to me, but they press on with good faith. One of the last short speeches came from a nurse who was acting as MC, and reminded us of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis . . . Joseph says later in life that he was sent ahead to Egypt to prepare and preserve life. Aidah said in faith that we will see Dr. Amon preserving life in his new position. That actually struck me as a Spirit-inspired analogy. What Joseph's brothers meant for personal preservation, to remove him from their lives . . . ended up being for good for the entire community. 

The boda drivers presenting their chicken 

A young man from the lab with a guitar sang beautifully from the blessing in Numbers 6:24-26. We are struggling to have faith as we mourn this departure, yet we do ask God to bless Dr. Amon and his family, and to bless Bundibugyo Hospital and all of us. 

Hold on with us, for the next chapter in the story. This one did not have the ending we hoped for. But as I was reminded yesterday, All Shall be Well in the end. If all is not well, it's not the end. Amen.

World Harvest Uganda Medical team . . . nurse Kacie and we smiling bravely through loss

The Blessing song from the Lab Staff

PS: The previous post has some similar themes of leadership, continuity, loss, and faith .. . if you missed it look back here. Scott also added some Rwenzori hike photos. . . 

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Cry, Cling, Context: Making it through the mud to glimpse the majesty

 Yesterday Scott was talking to a colleague about our Rwenzori hikes, parenthetically to a doctor wrapping up 15 years' service in Tanzania. We are friends because in 1997 he was a college intern with us the summer we fled on foot from the ADF. (He carried Luke, age 4, a bit on that fateful day. . .  Now Dr. Luke is in his fifth and final year of orthopaedic surgery residency, Dr. Rob is a faculty member at Cornell who has shaped health care in Mwanza, TZ, the ADF are still creating havoc along our border but mostly on the run from more intentional military protection, and we are still here looking at the Rwenzori mist-shrouded peaks.) Scott told him about a post-hike T-shirt that he made that said: MUD AND MAJESTY. Because that about sums up the hike, and life. We slog through the bogs of this muddy world, mired in a thousand reminders of all that is unjust, wrong, broken, evil, painful, with very little filter to allow us to shelter ourselves from that reality. And yet, majesty. There are the moments on the snow-covered peak at sunrise, when the glory of goodness is undeniable. 

--------------------------- The MUD is obvious

It's the ratio of mud to majesty that sometimes seems unsurvivable. On a Sunday, looking back over the week since we last posted, we are remembering power outages and insect infestations. Our nutrition team overwhelmed by the hungry children left by their parents from DRC on this side of the border while they try to keep gardens going on their own side. Following up coughs, brain malformations, rashes, dangerous hypertension, mental health strains, uncontrolled diabetes, and more (this week alone) in people who manage to reach us for help in spite of our pause in regular hospital hours. Walking with our teams around the area, denied work permits, expired passes, hard decisions by partners to cancel things we feel passionate about, requests to fund things we sometimes don't believe are of great benefit, doing the research to distinguish between those two options. Wrestling through plans with our leadership for team expansions, personnel shifts. Advocating, praying. Following the news that warns against COVID complacency in Africa, and new studies that show the impact of vaccine misinformation and pandemic- related funding shifts which "threaten the lives of millions of children" (WHO).  Two days of very cross-cultural important but draining meetings, one with the district political and health leaders to deliberate response to the estimated 29,000 Congolese who have fled into Bundibugyo but prefer to stay blended into villages rather than in the designated refugee camp, and one with the Christ School board. 

The CSB board of 12 includes representatives of our founding body, World Harvest Mission Uganda/Serge International, plus local political and cultural leaders, PTA and Alumni representatives, and two Teaching Staff members.  Even that was a long boggy slog (literally the Board of Governors is the BOG .. . ) through the new Uganda curriculum's impact on school evaluations, text books, end of year exams and promotions, staff training, capacity. Of the amount of money spent to run the school for a year, and maintain and expand infrastructure, the parental tuition covers well below half, an intentional design to keep the school affordable to the majority small-scale subsistence agricultural population. . . meaning we have to raise funds outside the district. But in a year where the global economy is wobbling, and the local teachers and government workers in other sectors have been striking to demand higher salaries . . . the pressure mounts. How to prepare students well, respect teachers well, feed everyone, stay safe and healthy, and not implode, is not easy. This was a 9 hour meeting.

So when we got to the final item of the day, the final hour of the week, we were tired. In 2019, a large part of the reason we came back to Bundibugyo from Kenya was the rising insecurity of CSB under the leadership of a power-focused self-promoting head teacher (principal), and the final straw was the week in June that year when he incited students to riot against staff. Working through his exit, with this board, took grace and energy. The deputy head teacher at the time, Peter Bwambale, stepped in as "acting". We all just tried to pick up the pieces and make it through the rest of 2019, thinking that in 2020 we would institute another national advertisement and recruitment for head teacher. Then only two months into the new school year, COVID caused a nation-wide shut down, and except for a few weeks of exam preparation for the graduating classes, that lasted almost two years. In January 2022 we finally re-opened for our first normal year, and now in the middle of second term our first board meeting and opportunity to make leadership decisions. And like a Rwenzori climb, at the end we seemed to step out of the bogs and onto the glaciers and be surrounded by light. Because the board unanimously supported that we make Peter the official head teacher. Everyone had solidly good things to say about his humble, consensus-building approach, his faithfulness through hard times, his trust established with the community. We preach servant leadership; it makes sense to hire one. A moment of majesty, to call this man into the board (and today in front of all the students) and give him the good news.

-------------------------  The MAJESTY takes work to notice

When you're climbing the mountain range, the density of the foliage, the folds of the craggy valleys, the misty rain of the equatorial jungle, make the goal impossible to see most of the way. And we find that true of life. Majesty breaks through, but only in short bursts. Our team is reading Prayer in the Night, by Tish Harrison Warren. I'm sure we'll talk about it again, but chapter 3 this week pulled us back into the Psalms as much more than poetry, they are God's gentle guide to us to life in a world wracked by grief. The Psalms of lament lead us to three key ways to cope with the sorrowful realities of the world. First, we cry out to God, honestly naming all that is wrong. It is beneficial to consciously NOT pretend all is well, because it is NOT. Collective cries, joining to call out the injustice and pain, must be the beginning. But the psalms do not leave us there. We also cling to truth. The authors remind God of his promises, of his character, of mercy, of power. And then remind us of the context. Our story is a small part of a much bigger story of redemption. We are part of the renewal of all things. The end is distant, the sunrise on the peak is not visible in the night, but it is coming. As we cry out and cling to what we've been told and shown, we find our place on that long arc of all things being made right and good.

Pray for our team, and our Area, this week. To cry over the broken edges that hurt us and those we love and serve, to cling by faith to the promises of God to have mercy and love, and to remind each other of the context of the big picture of redemption. We all need that.

The girls' football team played a friendly match Friday evening

More majesty 

and the majesty of friendships, the wives of two young men who grew up with our kids, visiting to check on me

And some historical pix of the Rwenzori Mud&Majesty Trek of 2008

Saturday, July 09, 2022

Take Words With You: walking through Bundibugyo

As a generally wordy person, that injunction from Hosea 14:2 in my lectionary reading yesterday jumped out. Take words, to God and to the world, because words build bridges. Words paint pictures and require thought and processing, that gives life meaning. Words draw others in, and generate prayer. So words were on my mind as I finally got to open my computer after a disrupted morning of knocks and needs. . .  only to note that somehow it's already two weeks since we last posted any words. 

Thanking staff for prayers at the morning CME

Two weeks of walking through Bundibugyo days. A midterm break for Christ School sent us out to Fort Portal for a staff retreat, leading sessions on vision and servant leadership, enjoying the great team building Patrick and Mike put together. Work with our team, with our Area, meetings too numerous to count as we monitor goals and progress and trouble shoot problems. Leading prayer times and Bible studies. A new baby born to our Fort Portal family the Opeduns, welcoming Louise. Health consults for team and neighbours. Two funerals, a shocking unexpected collapse for a young CSB graduate trying out for police after completing training as a clinical officer (PA level) and a man across the road with severe TB whose treatment was appropriate but too late to save his life. A morning to greet the Bundibugyo Hospital staff and thank them for praying for me; other days to catch up on the politics and reality of medical care in our district this year. The hard, hard news that our dear friend and colleague, the medical superintendent, whom we connected to a scholarship for becoming a doctor and who has been a tremendous blessing of integrity and compassion and skill for this District, came to the painful decision to take a job across the country where the politics did not prevent him from getting the job he had trained for. Meeting with a group of visiting medical students for a lecture on global health. Working on the budget for CSB, the ever-changing visa requirements to renew our work permits, planning for fundraising. Celebrating a team 4th of July, and another team birthday. And then yesterday, an entire day with the political and religious leadership of Bundibugyo hosting the first-ever visit of the Archbishop of the Church of Uganda. Two weeks ago I turned 60, and the year has already been full. Some deeply cross-cultural days and nights with staff and neighbours and leaders, some deeply familiar connections with team and region. 

Too much to catch up with words, so I will narrow down to two.

First, glimpses. Taking words requires taking note of what is happening, what is worth focusing on in days that are often overwhelming. At one of the funerals, after the burial as we were walking away from the freshly dug grave behind the cluster of earth-plastered homes, a woman caught up to me with expectant eyes and an incongruous smile. I didn't recognise her, but I could tell she wanted to talk. I stopped to listen, and then called Scott back to witness. She wanted to tell us about her son, whom we remembered from early days of the Kwejuna project when we introduced pre-natal HIV testing and single-dose Nevirapine treatment of moms in labor to prevent transmission of the deadly virus to their babies, before other ARV treatments were available out here. Her baby did NOT get infected, and is now a young man, and she just wanted to say thank you. A similar thing happened at the Archbishops's festival yesterday. We were seated behind the people of power in this district, all the elected leaders and even the cultural king; we were quiet nobodies on a day of many speeches and recognitions. But after one choir sang, one of the women filing out came over to slip us a note with a big smile. She had seen us and gotten someone to help her write a message of thanks, because Scott had payed school fees for her son to become a dental assistant. Those two moments came in the midst of huge crowds and had nothing to do with the bigger events we were attending. They were unnoticeable women that no one was seeking out on days where we were paying attention to preachers and chairmen and members of parliament. But both were glimpses of the importance of small inputs into small lives. Of the way that a test and a pill, a willingness to listen and pay some fees, can change the direction of a life. And of the way that can be a ripple that continues to tip the scale of good against evil, years and years later. Noticed only perhaps by moms who were at the end of their rope. But when the evil is easier to see, what a gift those glimpses were of connection and joy, of being a little part of the way God sees the marginalised and responds to them.

Second, presence. Our teams in this area have had some rough weeks this summer. Sicknesses for sure, perhaps a COVID variant or just the million other microbes in the tropical mix. A transformation-oriented business unable to keep up with the economic ripples of fuel, Ukraine, prices, isolation. Fighter jets on the border, responding to escalated rebel tensions. Partners moving their own committees and structures in ways that are hard to understand. Conflicts. Power outages, constantly. Parents agonising over the sorrows of kids who are always outsiders, always at risk. Then our own parents left behind who are aging, or weary of distance, or dying of cancer, or just lonely. The endless struggle to stay legal in systems where requirements are set at aspirational levels that are nearly impossible to actually meet given reality (actually my high point of the week was getting an email asking us to send in yet another document, more certified expensive copies of the same things we've been filing for 29 years to work here, from our taciturn agent in Kampala entitled "more drama".. . .it felt like a small victory that even he could see the absurdity).  People we love and trust making the hard decisions to move elsewhere. It just seems to have been the month that our CEO warned us of post-conference, a month where we are bumping up against the evidence that God's love for us does not work out exactly the way we'd like to design it. Hard things still happen. Today is the M'lim holiday that remembers the trial of Abraham when he though he'd have to sacrifice his own son, a story that certainly runs counter to the victorious comfortable winners-only outworking of faith we'd prefer. We're still living in a broken world and not immune to its sharp edges. But rather than make us invulnerable to suffering, God enters our suffering. He doesn't fix everything with a shazaam magical flourish, but He does promise presence with us. A presence that ultimately absorbs all the harm and transforms it to a good so glorious we can't imagine the end of the story. We're living in a penultimate chapter, and holding onto presence, hoping for a good plot twist soon.

So glimpses and presence are the words we're taking into the next week.  Eyes open to the sparkles of light in the darkness, to the ways that love persists in real connections and beauties and joys. Hearts open to the presence of that Love with a capital L, the nearness of God even in our hardest times.

Louise, our newest glimpse of love, pc her photographer dad Boas

Scott facilitating a discussion of vision with CSB staff on retreat

The Americans in Bundibugyo, on the 4th of July

team meeting in the COVID era (outdoor and spaced)

The Archbishop of the Church of Uganda, preaching to probably a few thousand people in Bundibugyo

Our tent, sitting behind elected parliamentarians and governor