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 #4: thank God for every “journey mercy”

Faith lessons from my Ugandan family

Editor’s note: This is the fourth blog post in a 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 (read lessons #1, #2 and #3). Tune in tomorrow to experience the final installment of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.

My husband and I almost canceled our trip to Uganda two weeks before our scheduled departure.

Ethiopian airline, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

We had just found out the country’s presidential elections would be happening the day after we arrived (the date of which had not been determined when we bought our tickets the previous year). My own knowledge of the political situation in Uganda, combined with a few hasty Google searches, left me fearful that we might be entering a hornet’s nest of political protests and police showdowns—a risk which might have thrilled me 10 years ago, but which I could not stomach as the mother of two young children.

After reaching out to people I trust in Uganda (including, of course, my host family) and a great deal of prayer for discernment, my husband and I decided that canceling our trip would be bending to fears of unlikely “what-ifs” rather than reasonable concerns for our physical safety. Together, we resolved to do something which doesn’t come easily to those of us accustomed to feeling in control of our circumstances: to take a deep breath and trust in God’s protection.

The catch, of course, is that none of us is ever in control of our circumstances, and we are always in need of God’s protection. We just don’t have to confront that reality nearly as often in the United States as in other parts of the world.

In Uganda, death is never far.

It is a country which—just within my lifetime—was enmeshed in a brutal civil war, was hit early and hard by the AIDS epidemic, was the site of the world’s worst neglected humanitarian crisis, and which is still among the poorest nations in the world. Even Ugandans living in relative security, like my host family, are aware that merely driving from one city to another can be perilous given the frighteningly high incidence of traffic fatalities.

matatu (Ugandan taxi), courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
matatu (Ugandan taxi), courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

My Ugandan family does not take their safety for granted.

Every evening during family prayer, they thank God for the “journey mercies” which have delivered them safely home. Their prayers of thanksgiving for these journey mercies are specific and elaborate, without being morose. For them, there is no fatalism or despondence in acknowledging that their lives are entirely in God’s hands … only profound trust and gratitude.

I do not wish for the dangers of life in Uganda; there is nothing quaint or charming about the fact that the life expectancy of a Ugandan is a full 25 years shorter than my own.

Ugandan baby, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

But none of us is getting out of this world alive. My husband and I know, on an intellectual level, that we are not guaranteed to come home tomorrow. We could easily be struck down by a car accident, or a madman, or a disease …  So why does it feel disempowering or pessimistic to admit it?

Why do we let the illusion that we are “in control” fool us into thinking we have anyone but God to thank for delivering us safely through the day?

For reflection: How can we who live a comfortable existence identify and express gratitude for the “journey mercies” of everyday life?

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 lacks the courage to drive a car in Uganda.

Ugandan faith lesson #3: give from substance, not abundance

Faith lessons from my Ugandan family

Editor’s note: This is the third blog post in a 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 (learn from lessons #1 and #2). Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next two installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.

Electricity can be elusive in Uganda.

The country’s power grid is both incomplete and unreliable. When I lived there in 2006, access to power shifted from region-to-region in a process called “load-shedding.”  This means those lucky enough to be connected to the grid only had power about 50 percent of the time—a reality that was at best a nuisance but could be downright life-threatening (as people living with HIV couldn’t refrigerate their antiretroviral medication).

My host dad’s computer work was repeatedly disrupted by power outages (scheduled and unscheduled), which made for slow and frustrating progress. Once, after yet another unexpected outage, he confided in me that he dreamed of installing a solar panel on top of his house. (Solar energy is becoming an increasingly popular alternative for Africans who wish to shed their dependence upon an inherently undependable source: the government-supplied power grid.)

Ugandan family at water well
Ugandan family at water well

My host dad had researched the costs associated with obtaining a solar panel for his home, and it was within his grasp … Or, at least, it could have been. “But,” he told me, without an ounce of regret, “Not all of my siblings have made it through secondary school yet, so I must put their need for education ahead of my desire for electricity.”

I was floored.

I understood that Jesus expects us to give from our substance and not our abundance, but I had never before stopped to consider just how many things in my privileged life I considered to be substance which were, in reality, abundance. Things like electricity.

Ugandan UNICEF feeding station
Ugandan unicef feeding station

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)

How is Jesus calling me to live out His radical generosity?

I know there is no single “right” answer to this question … But, having witnessed poverty so abject as to be dehumanizing, right alongside generosity so self-sacrificing as to be miraculous, I also know that I can never, never stop asking it.

For reflection: What “necessities” could I give up in order to better live out Jesus’ call to radical generosity, especially in the face of so many unmet needs across the world?

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 with her husband to visit her host family and friends. She is happy to report that her host family now has a solar panel for their house, so that they rarely have to rely on government-supplied power.

Ugandan faith lesson #2: make time for the Lord

Faith lessons from my Ugandan family

Editor’s note: This is the second blog post in a 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 (read lesson #1). Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next three installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.

Ten years ago, I was enchanted by my Ugandan family’s practice of gathering to praise God together each evening. Their nightly ritual of vivacious singing and dancing, Scripture reading, and “giving testimony” is my favorite and most enduring memory of Uganda. It inspired the bedtime routine which my husband and I have adopted for our daughters (though I’ll be the first to admit that our energy pales in comparison to my Ugandan family’s), and it is what I miss most when I become nostalgic for my home across the globe.

Ugandan choir
Ugandan choir

Since my Ugandan family is always hosting visitors, they take measures to ensure that everybody can participate fully in their evening prayer. They have at least a dozen Bibles sitting around their living room, each well-worn and annotated. (When I returned home from our recent trip, I was embarrassed to realize that we barely have enough Bibles to accommodate our family of four. What does it say about our priorities, that we could provide enough Berenstain Bears books for an entire platoon, but we don’t have a single Bible to spare?!)

Beyond the presence of so many Bibles, though, it is my Ugandan family’s continued presence together each night that most impresses me.

A decade ago (before I was a busy mom) I didn’t appreciate just how committed my host parents have to be in order to carve out this precious time together as a family. In the 10 years since I lived with them, their lives have only gotten busier and more complicated: they are now raising four beautiful children, they both work full time, they are both completing PhDs, and they both hold leadership positions in a multitude of church and community organizations.

Martha: host family cousin
Martha: host family cousin

And yet, somehow, they spend even more time together praying each evening than they did 10 years ago.

During our visit I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mother Teresa, who advised her Missionaries of Charity: “Each day we should spend one hour in adoration, except on days we are busy—then we should spend two.” For my Ugandan family, praying together is not just a part of the day; it is the apex of the day. They are willing to sacrifice personal leisure, extended meals, and even sleep in order to honor their family prayer time.

So … What’s my excuse?

For reflection: How can we cultivate in ourselves and our children the conviction that dedicating time to God is as essential to daily life as eating and sleeping?

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. One of her life goals is to bring her daughters to Uganda so that, among other things, they understand her obsession with spontaneous dance parties.

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!

 

consciousness, change and Joseph Kony

A lot of interesting things are happening in the movements for change in our society.  Videos are going viral, the Occupy movement continues, we’ve experienced an Arab Spring, and our nation is divided so much about issues (like wealth, poverty, war, abortion, contraception and sexuality) that I’m beginning to wonder if the two-party political system is failing.

General global consciousness is awakening.  More people seem to be concerned and talking about social problems and issues of morality than I can remember happening in the past.  Naturally when we start discussing the things of right and wrong, we begin talking about God and religion.  Our true human nature drives us to desire justice.  For Christians like me we learn what real justice is by looking to Jesus.

Many of the debates are very heated because there’s a lot of passion surrounding the topics people are concerned about. The topics of contraception, abortion, the treatment of the poor, the rights of women and human rights in general are pretty big deals.  Tension and chaos are getting us uptight.  The debate can be overwhelming, confusing and complicated.  Are there easy answers? Can there be?

About the viral video this week- all about children soldiers in Uganda- (Kony 2012) the CEO of Invisible Children made an important statement about the video’s popularity: “The core message is just to show that there are few times where problems are black and white. There’s lots of complicated stuff in the world, but Joseph Kony and what he’s doing is black and white,” – Ben Keesey

I think it’s true that the global, human family is hungry for some simple black and white morality.  We want some things to be cut and dry.  Ah, it’s a beautiful day! Wow, the sun is shining!  How wonderful, I can see clearly now!  When things seem clear, we feel refreshed.

The thing is, helping things be better means that we can’t stay cozy.  Our thinking doesn’t always stay clear when we let ourselves really get into it all.   Actually, to really effect change we need to turn toward the darkness. We need to face the ugly, awful truth that people are suffering and sin is destructive.  We need to learn the facts. We need to do social analysis and learn different perspectives.  We must be willing to get into the cracks of civilization where it’s complicated and uncomfortable.  We often play a part in the systems of violence without knowing it.  It’s haunting and humbling to know that we are part of a human family who is- in part- quite awful.  Facing the despair is Messy Jesus Business and it’s the stuff of the season of Lent.

Alas, we learn about the ugly and the awful but we don’t stall in it so long that we become infected with depression.  We become motivated to work hard because we want a better world.

alex

We desire to see the Kingdom of God and really know peace on earth.  We want change. We want things to be fair for everyone and we want to preserve rights and freedom.  We believe that all people matter. The power of the Kony 2012 video- and its cries for action- is that it is organized and direct.  We are made to believe that we can create change and are shown how.

We can join our diverse human family and build a kindom of equality, peace and justice – a real Easter message.  Thank God, we’re on our way.  We know that Jesus shall rise and Love and Life shall conquer death and evil. This great arrival of God’s glory is something we want to get really ready for.  We’re trying to get ready for this joy we’ll know when justice reigns.  We’re fasting, praying, giving alms, serving and living in solidarity with those who suffer.  Or, we’re trying our best to do the Lenten actions and accepting the fact that we keep falling a bit short.

So our Lenten work continues and we keep gaining awareness.  Our personal conversions create cultural conversions, and together we’re truly working for change.  As we reside in the challenging space of the Lenten desert where things are ugly and true, we all are getting ready to experience the fullness of God’s goodness. For that we shall be grateful and for that we shall keep trying.  As we do this work, we remain aware that God is with us, no matter how ugly the world may be.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lmiersbond/4709653204/