Ugandan faith lesson #5: hope

Faith lessons from my Ugandan family

Editor’s note: This is the final blog post of a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family”  (see lessons #1, #2#3 and #4) by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda.

More than almost anyone I know, my Ugandan host parents embody the “American Dream” of hard work and righteous living resulting in opportunity.

Ugandan host family, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Ugandan host family, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Bufamba (Ugandan host family father's home village), courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Bufumba (Ugandan host family father’s home village), courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

My host dad’s story almost seems too inspiring to be true (but it is): he grew up in a traditional clay house nestled within a small subsistence-farming village. A self-described “naive village boy,” he was eight years old before he saw an electrical light bulb (and the story of his first encounter with a toilet would have you in stitches). During secondary school, he walked 14 miles every day to attend class; as the top-performing student in his district, he earned a scholarship to attend university in Uganda’s capital. From there, he was recruited for a prestigious post-graduate program in development studies in Dublin, Ireland, and now works as a professor at the local university in Mbale. He is in the process of completing his dissertation (focused on emergency response to climate change-related landslides in the foothills of Mount Elgon), and will soon be awarded his PhD.

My host mum is no less impressive (indeed, my host dad would be the first to tell you—with great pride—that she is his boss at the university). Together, they are a force of wisdom, intellect, and tireless work. With their credentials and connections, they would have no problem establishing an easier, more convenient life in a Western country.

But they have no interest in doing so.

girl from Northern Uganda, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

They have made the choice to remain in Uganda and put their skills to use in service of their people. That choice is fraught with daily sacrifices—sacrifices which probably would have overwhelmed me many years ago. But for my host family, whose every breath is rooted in transcendent hope, the trials of life in Uganda can do nothing to diminish their sense of fulfillment in doing their work … or their sense of joy in knowing, truly knowing, they are loved by God as they do it.

Of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, hope was always somewhat nebulous to me. What does it mean to hope, and how is that different from having faith?  But life with my Ugandan family made real to me just what it looks like to dwell in the joy of belonging to the Lord.

The Catechism describes hope this way: “The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man … Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.” (CCC 1818) My host family’s hope cannot be stymied by the setbacks and tragedies they experience in Uganda, because their hope is written in their hearts by Someone greater.

The unmistakable fruit of that hope is their relentless joy.

When I am asked to describe my host family, the first word to come to mind is always “joyful.”  But words really cannot do justice to the sheer jubilation that is infused in my Ugandan family. They are radiant with it. It is palpable, contagious … It is, quite frankly, exactly the sort of thing that can change the world.

It has certainly changed me.

hiking trip to Sipi, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
hiking trip to Sipi, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

For reflection: How can I nurture a spirit of true hope in my family, so that our joy and generosity are not influenced by our circumstances?

Author bio: Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned there with her husband to visit her host family and friends. She considers her experience in Uganda to be the greatest theology class she’s ever taken.

Ugandan faith lesson #1: always room at the inn

Faith lessons from my Ugandan family

Editor’s note: This is the first blog post in the five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda. Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next four installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.

Nearly 10 years ago, my life and faith were transformed by the experience of volunteering in Mbale, Uganda. Though I only lived there for three months, each day burst at the seams with discoveries, challenges and delights, such that those three months occupy an enormous share of my life’s key memories.

A few weeks ago I returned to Uganda with my husband, finally following through on a long-repeated promise to visit my beloved host family. As we danced, laughed, and prayed with our Ugandan family, we were blessed and renewed by the African spirit, a spirit which—I am convinced—suffuses anyone who has the privilege of visiting that beautiful place.

I could probably write a book about the ways in which my Ugandan family has informed and challenged my own discipleship, but I have narrowed them down to five major faith lessons.

Faith lesson #1: always room at the inn

My host family’s house is a veritable revolving door of visitors and guests. Family, friends, friends-of-friends, co-workers, community partners and complete strangers show up unannounced throughout the day, oftentimes requiring a hearty meal and/or a place to sleep.

They are always, always welcomed with enthusiastic hospitality.

Nicole with Delight, host family's youngest sibling
Nicole with Delight, host family’s youngest sibling

Part of this, of course, is cultural: the people of Uganda are renowned across Sub-Saharan Africa for their incredible hospitality. Upon entering any home, you are sure to receive a vigorous greeting: “Oooooh, you are MOST welcome!” is followed by an exchange in which your host clasps your hands for the duration of your conversation. At first, I found this constant physical touch to be somewhat disconcerting, but I came to love the way it signified the full focus of the person with whom I was talking. In Uganda, I never felt like I was competing with a smart phone (and, yes, they do exist there!) for someone’s attention.

My host family, however, takes Ugandan hospitality to another level. Far beyond cultural expectations, they invite people into their home with relentless joy … and into their hearts with unquestioning love. They set a place for their guests at the table, and prepare for them a mattress complete with mosquito net; they invite their visitors into their evening prayer ritual, and thank God for their presence among them. They do this over and over again. Every. Single. Day.

I cannot imagine how exhausted I would be if people dropped in on me with even half the frequency they do to my Ugandan family … But that’s probably because I tend to fixate on frivolous things when I am playing hostess.

host family compound
host family compound

My Ugandan family does not fret over unwashed dishes or un-mopped floors; they do not panic if someone has to eat standing up; they do not offer superficial apologies for their cooking. Their guests are not seen or treated as an interruption to plans, because guests are always planned for. My host family takes seriously Saint Peter’s exhortation to “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” (1 Peter 4:9) Indeed, they have created in their home a culture of hospitality in which hugging yet another visitor at the end of the day is never a burden, but rather a blessed opportunity to extend their family embrace that much wider.

host family neighborhood
host family neighborhood

For reflection: What could I do to foster an attitude of unbridled hospitality in my home and in my heart, such that every opportunity to invite someone in is welcomed as a blessing?

Author bio: Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She is profoundly grateful to her Ugandan host family and friends for changing her life a decade ago and continuing to make her a better person today.

Wanyala ni inkugana naabi!


when our relating rocks and ripples

One of my favorite TV shows is Joan of Arcadia.

I became hooked on the show and realized its profundity when I was part of a canonical novitiate community five years ago. We watched the entire series from start to finish together.  I remember how we would frequently be impressed with how the themes and lessons of the shows would reinforce what we were learning about God’s loving, relational ways in the classroom, ministry and communal living.

Now I continue to learn over-and-over again how the point of all this Gospel living is not piety, nor service, nor any great accomplishment.  Rather, relationship is the core of this messy Jesus business.  Yup, building God’s kingdom requires a lot while we increase and deepen our relational connections.

We are made to be together, grow closer to God and unite in love. In fact, the Holy Trinity models for us how to be in a constant, selfless, flowing, creative communion.  In our community, we give and receive, we share, we listen, we help, heal, teach- just like God does.

The thing is, it takes a lot of work to build up relationships that are good and strong.  We must be vulnerable, open, honest, trusting and compassionate.  If I don’t take the risk of being genuine and admitting my inadequacies with my students, could I ever expect them to be real with me?  If I don’t reveal my weakness to my superiors, can I really count on them to support me when I fall and fail?  Can I expect others to listen lovingly to me if I don’t take the time to lovingly listen to them?  There’s a lot of give and take; it’s rocky and unstable.  Yet the hard work creates a rock solid foundation that can survive any tumultuous crisis, misunderstanding or mistake.  I count on my relationships with people being rocky.

Truly, my worse sins are those that rock the relationships that I hold most dear.  I can tear myself apart with sorrow that I may have hurt my path to union with God or my connectedness to other people.  Sin is, in fact, any thing that hurts or destroys one’s relationship with God, others and oneself.  I am glad God heals, forgives and mends my mistakes!

Ah yes, the great God relationship!  Back when I was a novice, my life was focused on the hard work of building a more solid foundation of prayer and contemplation in my relationship with God.  Amazingly, I began to realize that my conversations with God were beginning to be influenced by how Joan related to God in the Joan of Arcadia series that my community was watching together.  I became more genuine and real.  I went through all my moods with God’s steadiness serving as my rock.  I’d get ecstatic; I’d argue; I’d pout; I’d complain; I’d say no and then yes. I never held back what I was thinking and feeling in my getting to know God better. And, I kept on listening and loving without fear of how it might change me.  I realized my realness was a gift that only I could give God and I became more happy to give it, because well, God rocks, right?!

Lately though, my relationships have magnified the meaning of rocks. In fact, I am in awe of how rocks, when thrown into water, create ripples.

This contemplation is also influenced by the Joan of Arcadia series! I keep thinking about this segment from when Joan’s boyfriend, Adam, hears the suicide note his mother read aloud:

Helen Girardi: [reading Adam’s mom’s suicide note] “Dearest boy, my Adam. I dreamed a dream, you and I facing each other in a tiny yellow boat on green water under a blue sky. Me and my son and a yellow boat. And we laugh, and the boat rocks and the ripples spread from the boat to pond to sea to sky and nothing can stop them, and nothing ever will. When you think of me, Adam, know that in a world of pain, you were, and always will be my joy. Love, Mom.” -From “Joan of Arcadia: Jump (#1.12)” (2004)

As I love, minister, and relate to many, I continue to be astounded with how God’s graces send ripples of love and joy throughout all the webs of my relationships.  It’s like networks, I suppose, but that just seems like too much of an institutional or corporate word for the messy, rocky, wavy way of the Gospel.

It’s true, though, one little loving touch on the web of relationships can send ripples of goodness all over.

One of the greatest ways I have witnessed the ways that relational love can ripple is by what I have witnessed happen to Tubman House in the past six weeks.  Praise God! Many, many people and groups of people who I know have responded generously to my plea to help save Tubman House.  I have been surprised with how my Truth-telling has multiplied blessings and miracles.  I have been impressed with how people I barely know (and others I only know by the 2nd or 3rd degree!) have given their time, talent and resources all to help keep the non-profit going.

Wow, there’s great beauty in the ripples of our love.   Often it’s a beauty we never get to see.  See it or not, we can have joy and then send more ripples of goodness moving!

“peace rain” by Julia Walsh, FSPA