Last month I completed probably the most challenging of all my trips to Africa.
I travelled halfway around the world with my daughter, 21-month old Divine. Mommy stayed behind while I set out for what was to be a three-week trip.
A few days before we left, I sent a 500-pound shipment of solar supplies and LED lights to Uganda. The plan was to meet up with it over there and take it for installation at a village primary school.
As it turned out traveling with a toddler in her terrible two’s was really one of the easiest parts. I met up with delays and bureaucracy which tested my patience and my faith.
I’ve traveled to East Africa each year since 2012.
At my church outside Sacramento, we had a couple of retired teachers who helped found a secondary school in South Sudan. I was a video producer with lots of equipment and eager to see the world.
A few conversations and it was all set up. I joined the NGO team from Virginia as a video guy to get clips and stories to share with donors and sponsors on the great work they and the Lord were doing to educate Dinka boys and girls.
When I returned home, one of the first people I saw was a doctor friend who was visiting our church to talk about his medical mission in Uganda. I met him several years earlier. He spoke about bringing health care from the West to some of the poorest people in the world…the Batwa Pygmies.
I was excited to see Doctor Scott…and told him I had just returned from Sudan. What he started as a field medical clinic, with drip lines hanging from tree branches, and treating long lines of patients with malaria, pneumonia and other preventable diseases had turned into an international effort.
With help from individuals and Rotary International, a private hospital was built, with an administration building and nursing mothers hostel. After hearing so much about it I told Doctor Scott I was ready to visit. He said, sure. Let’s talk about it.
Years in the making
I grew up in a church family. I come from two generations of Episcopal clergy.
I was active in the church as a youngster: in the choir, the youth group. Decades later I was still active in my local church as an adult.
The difference was the prayers, the psalms, the hymns that I said and sang for so many years became part of me.
After a while you don’t need the song sheets; the words and music are in your heart. You learn to know pretty much where to turn to find scripture.
And when you see examples of Godly men and women in your life, like Doctor Scott, my father and mother, and other forebears, well, you want to be like them and keep that train running.
The point I want to make is that by the time I went to Africa in 2012, I was prepared. I had spent years and years learning about the Lord, and learning to love my neighbor..wherever they are. It was high time to live the Gospel.
Now, I never thought that I would visit Africa, let alone visit five countries there and marry one of their daughters. It wasn’t my plan.
All of it, however, was God’s plan.
I eased into these trips, in South Sudan and Uganda. We’ve all heard the saying: “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” My relationship with God and his people at church landed me right in the heart of one of the greatest mission fields on earth. I hardly broke a sweat.
After that first trip, I would sit outside at night, and while I flossed my teeth under the stars, I asked the Lord to send me back. I wanted to meet more of my brothers and sisters in Africa. I wanted their stories and lifestyles to be seared into my soul.
Simple life, hard life
We have a lifestyle in the west unmatched in history. We have housing with toilets, showers, HD TVs, computers, electricity. And on and on. Most of the world does NOT live like us.
Life is much more difficult in developing countries. Most people don’t have savings accounts let alone 401(k)s. They don’t drive to the supermarket, fill carts with groceries and pay for it all on a bank card.
Over there, it’s a simple life but it’s hard. Throughout East Africa, families plant crops—from beans, to potatoes to vegetables—to grow their food. Anything extra they can sell.
In the villages, people build their own houses, using sticks and mud as walls.
The people I saw there had very little in the way of material possessions. They have no capital. They may own land, for their houses and gardens, goats and cows. They walk wherever they are going. They might get a ride on a lorry, or small truck, or motorcycle.
What they have in abundance, however, is joy. They worship the Lord. Everybody knows the songs, even the harmonies. They jump and shout and praise. It’s like being in heaven. People of many colors and voices and languages. I’m sure that’s what heaven will be like!
Ugandans are social beings. They don’t sit inside their houses. They are outside and greet those who pass by. They have big extended families and lots of celebrations and feasts, for introductions and weddings, thanksgivings, even funerals.
Contrast that to what we know about life in America. Many times we don’t even know our neighbors. We have cars, smart phones, vacations and debt. More stress and less happiness.
We have everything they don’t have. And they have something a lot of us crave…community, love of the Lord and joy.
I tell you, I was attracted to all of that like a moth to the light.
In these last seven years, I have FINALLY been in alignment with God’s plan for my life. I have felt authentic, the REAL Patrick. A human BEING instead of a human DOING.
I don’t need to put up facades or walls in front of my personality. I want to love my neighbors. And laugh with them. And speak their languages and eat their food.
I lived among them. I lived in their homes. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a teacher or an engineer. Yet I learned I had a lot to share.
In Romans 12, 6-8 NIV, Paul writes, “we have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy; if it is serving, then serve, if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.”
God has given me every provision for my life and work in Africa. I had the time to do this work. I raised some money, and started a charity, to help support this work. And, perhaps most importantly, God put his people in my path. There are many over there who LOVE ME.
Can we all agree there is nothing better than being loved?
I am so blessed and so grateful to God. That’s why I do this.
Failure not an option
So why did I have such a hard time of it in May?
This trip involved more logistical planning and dealing with third-parties, like airlines, airports and bureaucracies.
All that led to delays. And I and got caught up in my frustration and lost sight of the Lord.
I figured on three weeks in Uganda: to get the shipment, get the solar-powered LED lights installed, visit some projects and friends. What I didn’t expect was to wait an extra 10 days just for the shipment to arrive.
There was the unexpected week of wrangling with the airport. Duties—or taxes—would be paid on our supplies before they would release it to us.
It also meant updating my account with the Uganda Revenue Authority, through which the fees would be paid.
I had to visit the Revenue people three or four times that week. Each day that passed without getting the shipment put me closer to my departure date.
As it turned out, by the time I was to leave for home—May 23— I did not yet have possession of the shipment.
I could not leave without installing the solar systems. My trip would have been a waste of time. So I postponed and rebooked my return trip which was costly. Missed another 10 days of work.
Surely you could understand that I was getting stressed and annoyed?
When everything cleared—the day AFTER I was to leave, I made my final stop at the Revenue Authority office. I got the documents needed, gave them to my brother-in-law, Richard, who took them to the airport to haggle with the authorities. I went to guest house to wait.
He showed up later with the boxed shipment in the truck. We set out for our four-and-a-half hour drive to our staging area and began final preparations for installation.
In the end, it all turned out GREAT. The solar panels were mounted on the roofs of the classrooms and a girls dormitory. The batteries and switch boxes were affixed to the walls inside and the amazing LED light strips came to life.
They were so bright and so beautiful.
Lights in the classrooms will help add another three hours to learning time each day for these young village children—as they did the first night.
By the way, Uganda straddles the equator in Africa. Sunrise and sunset times are pretty consistent throughout the year. In Seattle, where I live, the sun rises before 5:30 in the morning in early summer and sets after 9 at night. In Uganda, it rises around 7 a.m. and sets around 7 p.m. all year long.
As I mentioned, God has always put the right people in my path, from bishops and clergy, to Evelyn’s wonderful family.
Evelyn’s three younger brothers and I are pretty close. They speak very good English while I try to amuse them with my passable Rutooro. We laugh a lot. I rely on them for my transport and housing and other needs while I’m there.
I left my daughter Divine with my wife’s sister and mother. She was surrounded by young cousins on Easter break from the moment she arrived at the family compound. It turned into something like a summer camp experience for her. She was enjoying it there, singing familiar songs, eating the food, learning how to behave.
Our home is too quiet these days!
This story helps illustrate a point that a dear friend made to me in 2011 before my first trip to Africa. At that time I was having a problem getting my US passport. After six months I was still having issues. I complained to Barbara.
In words I have reflected upon many times over the past seven years she said, “if you cannot handle these annoying hurdles then you are NOT ready to do God’s work in the field.”
Gumisiriza, munywani wangye. Patience, the spirit tells me. Persevere and use your resources.
Let go and let God! Just stay out of the way. These are God’s trips, not mine.
In the end it is so simple: Don’t ask God to bless your plans. Ask him to show you his. They’re already blessed!