A House and a Cow

So, for years now, I have had a house in the country. And now I have a cow.

Folks who have read this blog in the past will remember Simon Peter Ojaman, my Ugandan godson. Betsy and I met him in 2007 in the IDP camp at Usuk. My men’s Bible study back in Boston put Simon through vocational school, and he is now a district councilor (sort of like being a state representative), and at 35 a leader of his clan.

John and Betty Ilukor in front of our house

John and Betty Ilukor in front of our house

A few years ago, Simon Peter and his family built a house for me and Betsy in his compound, in the village of Ajoatorom— a traditional one-room hut about twelve feet in diameter with a poured concrete floor and a thatched roof. It has its own granary, pit latrine, and “shower”— a booth big enough for one to stand beside a tub of hot water for a sponge-bath. In short, by village standards, all the comforts of home!

Until Wednesday, however, I had never spent a night there. And since Usuk is in Katakwi district, it makes sense for Pilgrim staff to accompany me— Dorothy our CEO, Doris our Ugandan Executive Director, Osborn Omoding our program director and Robert Ikwu our driver; we arrange meetings with the LOC 5— the district governor, who is called “Chairman”— and medical staff in two area health centers, planning to connect with these folks either on the way there or back.

This plan goes up in smoke. On the way we receive a call from the Chairman that the Karamojong have conducted a raid on a couple of villages the previous night and made off with a number of cattle. His presence is required in the bush. The staff of the clinics are not able to receive us either, given sudden “urgent commitments”. We are not upset. This kind of thing happens all the time in Africa. We can meet them on some other occasion, and this means we will have a more relaxed time in Ajoatorom (pronounced ah-wha-to-ROM ).

The roads have improved markedly since the end of the wars in this area; it only takes us an hour from Soroti to reach the beginning of the long rutted path to Simon’s compound. Another few minutes, and we find the first of the signs the people have put out to help the driver— a bouquet of flowers tied to a banana tree (translation: turn right). A kilometer or so further on and people appear hear and there, waving. As the village comes into view, we hear the familiar greeting songs, the whoops and cheers, and Simon’s family stream out to welcome us, accompanying our LandCruiser into the center of the compound.

Simon Peter (left) and Pilgrim's Doris Otim with the Ojaman family

Simon Peter (left) and Pilgrim’s Doris Otim with the Ojaman family

Simon is in the middle of the scene, beaming. There are hugs and tears. He is a tall vigorous man in the prime of life. Every time I see him I remember the way he looked when I first met him in the camp; where we are now seems a lifetime away from the place where people scrounged for food, while others sat by their huts waiting to die. Now we are surrounded by his young family— children, nephews and nieces— and here, at least, the fields of Katakwi are green.

Simon escorts me to my house, and gives me the tour, inside and out. Pictures of Betsy and me at his wedding hang on the walls, and outside flowers festoon the roof. The rest of our party is shown to their huts; one is even equipped with solar power. We pause for prayers at the grave of Simon’s dad, then return to a feast that has been prepared, so we are all invited into the dining hut, seated in comfortable armchairs, and presented with an array of local delicacies— matakwan and sicomawik’ (greens related to chard, one sautéed the other creamed with a bit of yogurt), roasted pork, atap (a millet-based spoon-bread), a sauce made from groundnuts and ghee, potatoes, rice, and a bean curry, for starters. They do not always eat like this, but Ugandans always pull out all the stops for guests.

We take a walk through the fields, inspecting the crops, seeing the little church nearby that is an “outreach” of the parish of Saint Anne’s—one of forty-four preaching stations covered by two priests and several dozen catechists. We talk through the afternoon and into the evening. Friends come by to visit. Pastor John Ilukor, Simon’s best friend, is here with his wife Betty in a stunning ‘goma, a traditional formal dress. Father Jerome, one of the local parish priests, visits us and apologizes that he will be unable to join us for prayers tomorrow, though Fr. Aloysius will be here. I haven’t seen either of the clergy in a couple of years. The gathering goes on over hours; it reminds me a little of what it was like to visit my grandparents in the South when I was a child, with people coming and going, and no business but to tell stories and enjoy the company. We look up at the stars, which seem very close. The Southern Cross hovers over one of the huts.

Sunset in the village

Sunset in the village

The night is peaceful— for most of us. A cow is being kept from her calf to ensure there is milk for us all in the morning. She is tethered right next to Dorothy’s hut, and complains loudly for hours, in spite of which Dot is remarkably good-natured in the morning.

Fr. Aloysius arrives. We all have prayers together. Then I am presented with a present— a white heifer. She is beautiful, milky and smooth with a grey face that makes her look particularly gentle. I am told her Ateso name is Apusiait, but I am expected to give her an American name. I call her Lily— what else for a white cow? There is hearty approval. After lunch, as I hug them good-bye and we climb into the car, they promise me they will look after Lily, and assure me she will likely have a calf by this time next year.

Pondering all these things on the road down to Soroti, two things in particular strike me. First, is the profound sense of place. Nearly everyone in Uganda has a “village,” even those who live in Kampala. Think about this: there are nearly no cemeteries in the capital. Even if people die in the city, they are buried in their traditional village home, even if they haven’t been home for years. To be without a village is to be a non-person. So, Simon and his family aren’t just being generous; they are saying to Betsy and me, you are not a tourist, you are part of us, you exist in our sight. Second, in spite of decades of war and insurgency that decimated their herds, the wealth of the Iteso still lies in their cattle and in their land. This isn’t just one more attribute of their traditional society. It is an investment and savings strategy. Uganda’s economy is rocky, uncertain even in good times. Breeding cattle is like investing in gold. And the presentation of a cow now is a way of the family looking forward to their future. In ten years or so,

The real workers of Teso

The real workers of Teso

Lily may have turned into twenty cattle or so, just in time for Betsy— Simon’s daughter— to be eligible for marriage. As her “grandparents”, Betsy and I will be expected to present her with half a dozen cattle, or so, and in time make smaller such gifts to her brothers. So, the clan is in effect opening another savings account— all Simon’s uncles are planning similarly— for the next generation that can eventually be turned into anything from the price of a house to university tuition. I have to say it is really touching to be part of it all, for someone we love so much.

And Lily really is a very pretty cow.

All the Doors and Windows

Waiting for the game...

Waiting for the game…

[Click on the pictures below for larger versions]

I stopped by the school briefly Wednesday at the request of the chaplains, who informed me that the students of the Scripture Union wanted to present me with a gift. It also gave me a chance to have a good look at the new basketball court. This is curing for another ten days, so the kids are banned from playing until then.

Goats, however, are apparently welcome.

The court has become a nocturnal favorite for the school livestock. It soaks up the heat during the day and becomes a goat-warmer at night. Some of them, like the one pictured above, doze on through the early morning.

The givers and the gift

The givers and the gift

The chaplains, head girl, and head of the Scripture Union met me on the court, and presented me with a little gift. They wanted to make sure it would fit in my suitcase, so they couldn’t make it very big. No matter. I think it is beautiful. After the SU president gave me the plaque, Sharon Asiko, a junior concentrating in science, gave me a letter on behalf of her peers, which included a piece of personal testimony:

Coming to my personal being as a student of the school, I clearly say, Thanks for the great work done. Without your help towards my being a student I would not have reached the level I am. Besides that my joining secondary level was not known, but it took only a powerful God to look towards it, and I ended up in Beacon of Hope College. I do not know seriously how to present my happiness to you, but I say let Him open all the doors and windows for you, so that many will be relieved from the bondage of poverty and will come to realize their importance in this world.

These partings are always difficult, but this year for some reason was harder than usual. At the evening service on Sunday, I had preached on the fact that when we say goodbye as Christians, it is really a recognition that we are still one with each other, since we are members of one another in the Body of Christ, together with Him who promised to be with us always even to the end of the age. But it still hurts.

Just before I left, the chaplains and school head handed me an updated request outlining some prospects for a team visit from Pittsburgh next year. They include help with a science fair (especially robotics— BoH has a gold-medal robotics team but has its sights on becoming the best in Uganda), partnering in a music, dance and drama festival, re-painting the school mural, and working with BoH students in local community service projects. I’m looking forward to floating some of these ideas in various places (Pitt? CMU?) when I get home.

As I got in the car I was thinking of how hard it has been to get to this point— the countless setbacks and difficulties over the years, the times I was afraid Pilgrim would not last another six months. But God has used it all and built slowly-slowly, as Africans say. A new generation is being steeped in hope, perhaps even enough to overcome decades of despair. One kid finds a door, another a window. Some day may God open them all.

Update: Alcoholism Recovery Group

AA Initiative brainstorms next steps

On Tuesday the AA Initiative Group met to process our gathering with the ajono group in Pamba. Everyone agreed that the atmosphere there was darker than it had been. We also confronted some basic cultural challenges to a 12-step mentality— chief among them the fact that public admission of a problem or weakness is a universal source of shame. This is a little startling in a country that thinks of itself as Christian. However, this realization led to three further insights. First, building relationships one-on-one with folks in the ajono group out of no other motive than to love them in Christ, is good in itself. Second, there was general support for the idea of proposing activities that would provide common ground with others in the community and might lead to deeper relationships. The AA Initiative has already brought two football teams together, one from the Pamba ajono society, for a game that would be playing after our meeting. Third, while it may take more time to get an AA group off the ground, there is a huge market for al-anon, beginning with the wives of drinking society members. Hellen, the secretary of the group, whose own family is deeply affected, volunteered to take the lead in getting something off the ground.

AA Initiative Group with the Pamba soccer teams

AA Initiative Group with the Pamba soccer teams

After the meeting we went out on to the field of the Pamba Primary School to meet the soccer teams. Initially suspicious as to why they had been called together, they relaxed as the reverend Sam Eibu assured them that this was not some kind of trick to preach at them! Asked to launch the game by kicking in the ball, I suggested, How about a group photo instead?

So that’s what we did.

The Church Takes On Malaria!

Pilgrim Africa[Click the images below for larger versions]

If you have read this blog from my previous trips to Africa, you already know some of the basic facts about malaria in Uganda— that this country has the highest transmission rate in Africa, that Teso leads the nation in new malaria cases, that this scourge takes more lives than HIV/Aids, TB, or any other disease. You also may know that Pilgrim introduced an innovative protocol in 2009 that effectively stopped malaria for 177,000 people in the district of Katakwi. For a long time people found it hard to believe that a small, upstart organization like ours could achieve such results, but after years of patient effort, Pilgrim earned the ear and the respect of several major donors, including the President’s Malaria Initiative and the Global Fund, culminating in a 2.5 million dollar grant over the next four years from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The 2009 protocol, as extensive as it was, did not collect enough reliable information to prove that our strategy of co-ordinated spraying of houses and treatment of all children under the age of fifteen, was the reason for the rates of reduction. This grant will fund a much more rigorous pilot study which will involve about 38,000 people in Katakwi and hopefully provide data of international significance.

If you want something big done in Uganda, especially in the rural areas that hold over 80% of the population, you need the help of the churches.

Pentecostal and Baptist bishops of the Church Malaria Project

Pentecostal and Baptist bishops of the Church Malaria Project

It is a comparatively new idea for the Church to invest itself in addressing the problems of this life. In the past, preachers have focused on salvation for the life to come, and not focused on the causes of poverty and disease. Over the last several years, however, this has been slowly changing. Pastors are being better trained, and there is a growing awareness that the Bible clearly proclaims God’s care for the welfare of all His children in the time of this mortal existence. And, particularly over the last decade, the churches have begun to come together across theological and denominational lines to develop a common basis for addressing human ills. In Teso, this has largely happened through the influence and leadership of Pilgrim.

Dr. Dorothy Echodu talking with Bishop Eitu and CMP coordinators the Reverend Sam Eibu and Helen Atilia

Dr. Dorothy Echodu talking with Bishop Eitu and CMP coordinators the Reverend Sam Eibu and Helen Atilia

The Church Malaria Program (CMP) is the brainchild of the Reverend Sam Eibu. Sam is actually a Baptist, but he trained at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. CMP began three years ago as an idea, supported by very few people. The leadership, however, has been persistent, and over time pastors and bishops have come on board one at a time; a small grant from my discretionary fund has allowed them to begin planning an education and prevention effort to be rolled out in all the churches of Teso, in conjunction with Pilgrim’s Katakwi initiative. On Tuesday morning our CEO Dr. Dorothy Echodu, Doris Otim our new Executive Director for Uganda, other senior Pilgrim staff and I meet with the core group of leadership to hear from them, encourage them, and help them shape their plans.

The bishops have turned out in force, which is very good to see, and one or two who could not be here, including the local Anglican bishop, have sent representatives. (The Catholic Church is missing from the table, which is no surprise. Co-operation with Protestants is still a complicated subject. I make a mental note to connect with them through other channels). As always, the meeting agenda is read by the chair, there are prayers and introductions, followed by a period of “testimonies” by the bishops.

Bishop John and Bishop Justin share stories of malaria

Bishop John and Bishop Justin share stories of malaria

One by one, they recount their experience with malaria in their parishes. They are tired of all the funerals: sometimes you will be going out to bury someone and on your way another is at your door. They talk about the ineffectiveness of the approach from the Ministry of Health— to come, talk, leave pamphlets with lots of information, then go away. Everything in Uganda is about relationships, and many of those are rooted in the Church, so as accurate and well-meaning as the information may be, it falls on deaf ears. Then there is the general hopelessness of the people— a belief that the problem is intractable. If it has been with you always, why think it can be changed now? Furthermore, people often delay in seeking treatment, afraid of the expense, telling themselves they will get better on their own in a couple of days, or self-medicating with leftover drugs— this can be particularly dangerous since some of the symptoms of malaria are the same as with typhoid or diabetes. Finally, there are pastoral and theological issues. Pastors generally rely on prayer and laying on of hands, binding the disease in the name of Jesus, then telling the person not to seek treatment so that the cure may clearly be to the glory of God. There is also a widespread belief in positive confession— if you believe you are already cured, then you will be! Clearly there is some work to do.

Bishop Eitu demonstrates a homemade mosquito trap (inverted bottle technique!)

Bishop Eitu demonstrates a homemade mosquito trap (inverted bottle technique!)

Dr. Echodu and the Pilgrim team address the two areas in which we believe the churches can be most helpful at this point: vector control and education. The elimination of mosquito breeding sites is one of the simplest and most effective ways of reducing malaria transmission. Getting rid of vegetation near dwellings, filling in pools of standing water, covering water tanks and pit latrines, setting up simple mosquito traps in and around the house— an inverted plastic bottle in a cup with a bit of honey at the bottom, much like a yellow-jacket trap in the US, is a great instrument— all of these can make a huge difference. Education, particularly countering myths about malaria and emphasizing early treatment, can come from the pulpit in a five-minute message every Sunday, while local church committees which take advantage of existing structures— like the Mothers’ Union— can spread the word and help in compliance.

For my part, I emphasize my hope that the churches will not just be seen as an extension of the Ministry of Health, but that we might do this in a way that clearly lifts up Jesus Christ and glorifies God by giving Christ’s dignity and power to His people. engage the bishops in a conversation about the Biblical basis for taking care of our mortal bodies, that we are made in the image of God, that our bodies are the Temple of the Holy Spirit and the seed of the future Resurrection. I point out that Jesus addresses a similar hopelessness in John 9 when he is presented with the man born blind (Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents?) and rejects it categorically. As for positive confession, it is no different than the man in the letter of James who says to a hungry and naked person Be warm, be filled! without actually doing anything to relieve their necessity. We come up with a plan to develop a Sunday-by-Sunday Biblical approach to malaria— 54 texts, each followed by a short expository paragraph and a prayer, all in Ateso— that can be used across the congregations represented in the CMP, to be followed up with pastoral training and gathering of feedback. Plans for a public “launch” are laid, and Dr. Echodu volunteers the kids at Beacon of Hope to help with that event.

The meeting ends with prayers and lunch. There is an atmosphere of enthusiasm and determination, and two or three concrete next steps, with a secretary appointed to follow up. Sometimes in Africa, as in the US, when I leave a meeting, I am not sure anything substantial has come out of it. This time, it feels as though, by the grace and power of God, something life-changing could be about to happen.


[Editor’s Note: Bishop McConnell will be in a remote of Katakwi until Thursday, July 7, and will not be posting until then. Click the images below for larger versions]

The village of Olwa (pronounced oh-LOO-ah) is about an hour’s drive from Soroti, north into Serere, a district that shares the shoreline of Lake Kioga. The rains came Sunday night, and the road is just wet enough to keep down the dust. The landscape is typical of Teso— fields of grass punctuated by mango trees and interspersed with crops of sorghum, millet, maize and groundnuts. Everything is green in the early afternoon sun. You wouldn’t know that, in many villages, people are close to starvation because of crop failure this season.

Uganda is blessed with incredibly fertile ground and two rainy seasons, which means two harvests in a normal year. But the combination of global warming and local deforestation have produced radical quirks in the microclimate of Teso: too much rain, then not enough, late rains, early rains— you name it. The result this year is a lot of hungry people. They have replanted cassava, which will enable them to survive if it matures, but that will not be before the mangoes run out.

You can see, in this reality, why food security is so important. Farmers need efficient and economical ways to process their crops— to turn cassava into flour, groundnuts into oil, to de-hull their corn and polish their rice. These simple steps more than triple the market value of a crop, which translates into desperately needed cash to pay school fees, buy medicine, and help people through times of scarcity.

The multi-function platform at Olwa gives farmers local control of this process. I have written about Pilgrim’s MFP program before, but I will summarize again the basics.

Learning about a rice-polisher

Learning about a rice-polisher

The MFP is a diesel engine connected by belts and a drive shaft to any number of accessories. In Olwa there are three— a grinder for cassava, an oil press for g-nuts, a maize de-huller and a rice polisher. In Olwa, as in the four other sites, Pilgrim has supplied the machinery in partnership with Columbia University. The farmers are responsible for everything else. They first must pay for and build a brick shelter. They must organize as a co-operative— essentially a grange very much like those that were popular in rural ares in the US in the19th and early 20th centuries. The members pay dues which in turn support fuel and maintenance and also contribute to the co-operative’s working capital. In return the members get a reduced rate in crop processing and a stake in any investment made by the co-operative.

The Executive Committee

The Executive Committee

In Olwa, the farmers’ group is governed by a 21-member executive committee which oversees the program on behalf of eight villages. Since non-members can process crops as well on a pay-as-you-go basis, this one MFP serves more than 12,000 people. It is more than a hedge against hunger. It puts the farmers’ destiny firmly in their own hands: dignity and power.

The Band at Olwa

The Band at Olwa

That may be why the greeting we receive is so enthusiastic, as we pull through Olwa and park by the MFP shelter. A parade of villagers comes down the rutted path ahead of us, women giving their famous high-pitched ululation, led by a traditional Iteso band. This is a “welcome song” and it goes on for some time, as more and more people come from the fields to gather around us.

We go into the shelter, surround the machines, and the treasurer Edith Ojur, begins with a prayer. Then the committee chair Sam Oriokot narrates a tour of the equipment. It is really exciting to see it all in place, in such good shape, well-used and carefully maintained. Pilgrim’s extension agent, Titus, fills in the technical details. Because folks in the countryside speak English with varying degrees of fluency, there is a constant back and forth in two languages. I ask a few questions, then we all are led to a council hut for a formal “program” with the elders and executive committee.

I am used to the elegant seriousness with which Ugandans conduct meetings, and I have heard several beautiful speeches, but nothing as poignant as Edith’s tribute to Pilgrim in her introduction. She describes what ordinary life looked like before the MFP— how they were forced to carry their rice, corn and cassava long distances to mills in Soroti where they were routinely cheated, receiving back considerably less than they had brought. They would have to pull their children out of school to help carry sacks of their crops for processing, and during the rainy season, sometimes the cassava flour would be soaked before they could get it back home. Edith, who is a midwife, notes that pregnant women would sometimes miscarry on the road, and that people were often so overwhelmed with their own problems that they had little time or inclination to help their neighbors. But all that has now changed, she says. People generally have enough, are healthier, able to spend in more productive ways the time they once used on the road. There is a new spirit of co-operation, not only in the executive committee, but across the villages. The groups has invested some of their earnings to buy a piece of land next to the MFP which will enable them eventually to expand. An open discussion on expansion follows, including planting high-value crops, and building more capital for the group, with a final appeal to the Pilgrim board for relief aid directed at the poorest families.

Happy Fourth! (Complete with birthday cake!)

Happy Fourth! (Complete with birthday cake!)

There are more speeches, more gratitude expressed, more songs and prayers and a photo-op. We are escorted back to our car by the same band that greeted us, and arrived back home in time to celebrate the Fourth of July with our CEO, Dr. Dorothy Echodu, who has just arrived from Seattle with her daughter Ellie. Our Ugandan friends throw a great party kicked off by prayers and the singing of both our national anthems, the Americans singing ours, the Ugandans singing theirs.

And no, they can’t remember the second verse of their anthem, either!

The End of Shame

[Note: Click the images below for larger versions]

Sunday is definitely the Lord’s Day in Uganda. Churches are everywhere and, especially in Pentecostal congregations, worship begins on Saturday night with loud prayer and praise that goes into the wee hours of Sunday morning.

I know because one such church is located about fifty yards from my bedroom.

I love the African Church, but by 2 a.m. on Sunday, I have grown weary of their fondness for powerful sound-systems hooked up to electronic keyboards. You can be in a church the size of a large living room, and invariably there are two huge speakers at the front; the preacher uses a microphone, even though you could easily hear him without one. And electronic keyboards accompany everything. Why? I ask as I put a pillow over my ears. In Teso, there are native instruments— drums, wood-flutes, and especially the edugu, a kind of lyre that comes in varying sizes and demands a high level of skill— which are perfectly suited to the soft, rich, polyphony characteristic of the people’s choral singing. Even better is when they sing with no accompaniment at all— Iteso choirs would rival the Welsh. One of the most moving Sundays of my life was spent in a huge church in Soroti when the electricity went out, and the whole service had to be sung a cappella.

But then, there are times when I think the speakers and the keyboards and the microphones are exactly right. Worship with the children and staff at Beacon of Hope College is one of those occasions.

The morning service begins at 8:00. Our “church” there is a large open area under an ancient fig tree. This is the very center of the school, and it is literally holy ground. Here, the electronic media are all helpful— first, because with more than five hundred people in the open air, words get lost without a microphone and a serious speaker system; second, because they give the kids an added sense of their own dignity and power in the Lord. The choir (which is huge) dance as they sing.The students lead all the praise music and most of the worship. Their devotion is palpable. Some of them are already skilled preachers, and the prayer of the young leaders is spontaneous, wise, and brief. I am always humbled by these kids. I think I always learn from them more than I teach.

I will be teaching momentarily.

I have been thinking about this sermon since an incident the previous afternoon during our visit to the ajono group in Pamba. One of the members said that the group was a good place to bring your problems, and get some input from your friends. I asked, what kind of problems? He replied, Oh, anything, business, family issues, anything. Then he thought a moment and said, But you must be careful. You bring these guys problems with your family, your wife, they may help you while you are here, but they will laugh at you when you are gone.

So, today, I am preaching on shame.





After the usual introductions, songs and prayers, there is a skit by the students about a kid who discovers the advantages of stealing. He and a friend lift the school television, sell it, and find it all so easy, they start stealing kitchen equipment, until they are finally caught and thrown out of school. The students howl with delight. After this, I am presented as the preacher. Talk about a hard act to follow!

I start by telling the children how proud I am of them, that they are always on my heart. I am proud of their accomplishments, but also for their courage in just being here. I and proud of the ones who are at the top of the class, and I am just as proud of those who struggle to get the grades they get.

Because that is how God loves us: without distinction. We draw distinctions all the time. We think there are big sinners and little sinners, for example, that some people are worse than other. For example, I ask them, who are the biggest sinners in Uganda? A few people whisper suggestions I can’t hear; then one girl puts her hand up and says clearly, Parliamentarians! The whole assembly laughs. Oh, I say, just like in the U.S.! They laugh again. But that is not how Jesus thinks, I continue. Saint Paul says, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We have all sinned, and yet God looks at us all with the same love.

They have just heard read Matthew 9: 9-13, the call of Matthew the tax collector, who follows Jesus, then endures humiliation from the Pharisees, who ask the disciples why their Master eats with such scum. I say that shame is a feeling before it is a thought: your ears get hot, your eyes water, you have a lump in your throat and ice in your stomach. You look down because you cannot bear to look up. I ask, how many of you have known this feeling? They all raise their hands.

Yes, we all have known this. But Jesus is the end of shame. Look at how He loves Matthew. He answers the Pharisees this way: Those who are well have no need of a physician, only those who are sick. He knows, of course that the Pharisees are as ill because of sin as anybody else, but they are even worse off because they think they are not ill at all. They are only able to walk around feeling righteous because they have the power to shame everyone else, to displace their own darkness onto others, like prostitutes and tax collectors. In effect they sacrifice other human beings so they can feel good about themselves. That is why Jesus says to them, Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6). For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. It is Jesus who has made the one necessary and acceptable sacrifice, taking all our shame upon Himself. From now on we can walk before God and in the world without fear of condemnation. We are called to repent, but thanks to the Cross of Christ we have no need to be ashamed, and no need to shame others. I ask us all to trust God who will help us walk in the world with open hearts, bringing Jesus’ own mercy and love to all God’s children without distinction.



After the sermon and more prayers, there is an offertory, and I get to empty my “Wilkinsburg Bags.” Hundreds of crayons and pencils pour out onto the table, and are received by the Deputy Head Teacher. We share the grace all around, and as we do so, many students come to talk to me. One puts a note in my hand and walks off quickly. When I read it I am nearly moved to tears.



We finish the morning with a tour around the campus: the new girls’ dormitories are finished, fully secure, now. For years, the kids slept in rented quarters outside the perimeter of the school; but now they are completely safe, though I am still alarmed at how crowded the conditions are.



Nearly all of them live in similarly close quarters in their villages, however, sharing a hut with parents and several siblings. There is such a spirit of joy here, and I notice a new sense of confidence as well, especially among the girls, of their own dignity and power in the Lord.

And if electronic keyboards and huge speakers can help them grow that sense of dignity and power, even just a little, then I am all for it!

Sickness and Hope

Beacon of Hope Clinic is a small operation— a consultation room, two examining rooms, a small lab with basic equipment— two electric microscopes, a centrifuge, battery-powered backup for both— and a dispensary. They serve the kids and faculty at the school next door, but they also provide valuable ministry to the local community and beyond. People from a remote village have been known to walk all day with a sick child in order to have the baby treated by our doctor, nurse and social worker.

How Far Have We Come! Contemplating the old manual centrifuge at Beacon of Hope Clinic

How Far Have We Come! Contemplating the old manual centrifuge at Beacon of Hope Clinic

But we have come so far. Now we have a secure internet connection, wi-fi, digital record keeping, a comfortable waiting area with a TV, even ergonomically designed chairs for our staff. The first time I ever saw these rooms, they were nearly bare, scarcely any medicine available, chickens wandering in and out of the waiting room. As a reminder of those days, we still have an old manual centrifuge mounted to the table with a vice, and on bad power days, the staff still use it. It reminds me of a big pencil-sharpener (I wish I had taken a picture of the thing itself!) and we can do very little with it, but it can at least give us an idea if someone has malaria or not.

Malaria is the enemy. The overwhelming majority of cases that come to the clinic involve malaria, and most of those are children. When the parasite kills, most of the victims are kids under the age of five or pregnant women. Much of the population in Teso, at any given time, struggles with recurrences of malaria.

The clinic nearly pays for itself, and is still able to offer treatment to the indigent. Many lives have been saved through this work. But we are hoping that Pilgrim will be playing a major role in the eventual elimination of malaria, through the protocol we will soon be launching in Katakwi. Nothing would make us happier than to see this clinic put out of business in that way.

First Meeting with the Alcoholism Recovery Team

First Meeting with the Alcoholism Recovery Team

In the afternoon, I visit with a team from various churches who committed last year to try to establish an A.A.-style recovery intuitive in Soroti. Fr. Jay Geisler and I spent a lot of time laying the groundwork for this effort in 2014 and 2015. The results have been slow in coming. The ajono groups, local drinking societies which I have written about before, are very resistant to the idea that they feed alcohol addiction. They think that they actually take care of unruly members, and treat heavy drinkers simply by telling them they can’t have any more of the local brew today. They are also skeptical of the churches, which they feel insist that people give up drinking before they are allowed in the doors. A.A. is not that kind of program, obviously, but that is precisely what makes it so unfamiliar.

So the team has begun by trying to build relationships with members of these societies. They are starting a soccer club and inviting members to join and play. They also have an idea to begin a “savings circle”— essentially a small scale S&L or credit union— and offer it to members of the drinking groups, and are looking at possibilities for setting up a small manufacturing business in which unemployed people could participate (unemployment among men in Teso is close to 80%). These are all wonderful ideas, but the “low-hanging fruit” has still not been picked— such as translating the 12 steps into Ateso, producing 54 messages on alcohol addiction for use on Sundays in the churches, and so forth. This is simply because initiative on any level in this region frequently gets stopped by the endemic effects of poverty and disease. Nonetheless these faithful people continue. They show up at the societies, make friends, don’t judge, don’t preach, wait on God.

So, after this meeting we go visit my old friend David, the mayor of Pamba, who is also the President of the ajono group there. He is not there when we arrive, and the gathering is sparse, probably fewer than twenty five or so on a Saturday afternoon. Our welcome is cool. There is a sort of sullenness I haven’t met with before. Then David shows up, greets me warmly, and the ice breaks a little. He explains that both the dark mood and the small numbers are because the crops have failed. The rains came for only two months and then stopped completely, and the young plants burned to death in the sun. So people have no food and no money, which means they can barely feed themselves, let alone drink. However, as I look around, it is pretty clear to me that some of the members have chosen to drink first and eat later, if at all.

We bid good-bye and the team breaks up, agreeing to meet again on Tuesday to process what we have experienced.

I can’t help but thinking of the difference between the two kinds of illness I have spent time with this day. People with malaria usually run for help; but people who are addicted often run the opposite direction, move more deeply into their illness rather than away from it. The Iteso have a proverb that describes what so often happens: a man drinks with friends, but he dies alone. I am praying that the Church here may actually begin to have the same effect on addiction, that Pilgrim hopes to have on malaria.

Roast Goat, Open Doors, a Letter from Christ

It is not a bad day, a day that begins with goat and ends with goat.

The first goat we encountered was on the road from Kampala to Soroti. This used to be a bone-shaking drive of at least eight hours. Now, conditions have much improved, the roads are generally solid, and the trip can be managed in somewhere around five hours.

Unless, of course, there are goats involved.

The road to Soroti passes through many small towns, and many of these have open-air markets right along the highway. There are speed bumps that control vehicles passing through, so there is generally plenty of time for our incredibly skillful driver Robert to avoid unexpected obstacles, but some of these obstacles have hooves. And they behave differently depending on the kind of hooves they are sporting.


Stalled SUV

Cows, for example, are slow, but generally accompanied by humans who will pull or drive them quickly out of harm’s way. Pigs, according to the villagers, have no reverse gear; that is to say, once committed, they keep moving forward, and can actually move with surprising speed if they have a good reason. Goats, apparently, just stop. And that is what one did, right in front of us. Robert slammed on the breaks, brought the Land Cruiser to a stop inches from the animal, just as the engine stalled out. The goat bleated once and calmly walked off.

Several men helped us get the vehicle going again, and we were on our way. The rest of the journey was goat-free.

Grilled goat

We arrived in Soroti around 1:30 in the afternoon, in time to meet a large group of students from King’s High School in Seattle. This is the fourth group this Christian school has sent to Uganda in partnership with Pilgrim Africa, and they were just finishing up a week here after a week in Mozambique. This was their last evening. So the Pilgrim staff here decided that a celebratory goat roast was in order. The kids had even helped slaughter the goats and chickens in the morning, that would be served to them in the evening.

The site for this part was a rocky promontory called Kapir; a short hike up leads to a place of outstanding views. We were joined by students from Beacon of Hope College where the KHS kids had spent much of their time over the previous week. While the goat was roasting, there was a “program.” Ugandans are extremely ceremonious, and the Pilgrim staff soon had organized us all into a gathering that was a fitting way to thank their guests and a last chance to worship together. There were prayers, songs, introduction of staff, remarks from the local village elders, testimony from students, more prayer and a final word and blessing from me.

Old friends, new friends

Old friends, new friends

I chose a verse from Saint Paul that has been moving more and more deeply into my heart over the last year, 2 Corinthians 3:3— You show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts. I said that there is a mistaken vision of “foreign mission” floating around that suggests it is about people from rich countries going abroad to help people in poor countries. I said that in my experience the reverse was true: I come to Uganda to be blessed by the people here, their faith and joy, their patience and determination in the midst of suffering, their utter confidence in God’s way with them. I knew that was true of what these kids had experienced in the two weeks they have been in Africa, and I stressed how important it was that they went back to the US and shared how God had blessed them during this visit, that he was sending them as Christ’s letter with the people of God here written on their hearts.

I ended with a story from the school. I asked the kids to think of the mural at the school. In 2009, with help from a team from my last parish, Church of the Redeemer in Boston, the children at Beacon of Hope designed and painted an enormous mural they called The Christ of Teso. It shows an African Jesus surrounded by various scenes of daily life here, each accompanied by a verse of Scripture. In the upper left hand corner, they painted a picture of the school, and there was great debate over whether the school gates should be depicted open or shut. On the one hand, this place had been their security. So many of our first students were deeply scarred by the wars, and the school gave them healing and sanctuary from the dangers beyond. On the other hand, others insisted, so many others needed to find what they had found here, and the doors must be open to welcome them. In the end, the students voted unanimously to paint the gates open, and the Scripture they chose to go with the scene was from the Book of Revelation (21:4): and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Sunset at Kampir

I concluded by praying that the hearts of this team of young people might be open in the same way, to give away the love of Christ they had received to anyone who needed to hear it.

After a superb supper and a glorious sunset, we came down off the rocks and made our way home. I went to bed early, but something told me, as I drifted off to sleep, that I was just beginning to learn what it might mean, to be a letter from Christ written on human hearts.

500 Pencils

June 30, 2016

I am headed to Uganda. I will be connecting with Pilgrim Africa staff and friends, visiting farmers’ co-operatives in the Northeast, and meeting with local leaders around Pilgrim’s new Gates-funded anti-malaria campaign. I will also be preaching and teaching at our boarding school, Beacon of Hope College in Soroti, meeting with pastors of local churches, and touching base with the local Anglican bishop and several of his clergy, checking in especially with the fledgling ministry to alcoholics begun over the last two years in my visits with Canon Jay Geisler and Dr. Mark Guy. With only 10 days in-country, it will be a short and busy trip.

And I bring gifts.

IMG_1393Pastor Nano and the good folks at Saint Stephen’s Wilkinsburg had a surprise for me. Nano called me up about a week before I left and asked if the kids at the school could use some pencils and crayons. Of course, I said, “Sure.” So she brought over about 500 of each! Since I travel light, it wasn’t hard to get them all in the luggage.

It is amazing what a difference such a gift can make.

A lot of these kids are still affected by the last thirty years of civil strife and insurgency. The whole Teso region is slowly healing, but the young bear the scars in very deep ways. The arts have a particular power to help them heal. Beacon of Hope has a great program in music, dance and drama; the children have even made films re-enacting the things they suffered during the war. Sometimes writing or drawing can also open a door for them.

So 500 pencils become instruments of grace.

Since there are about five hundred kids at the school, this should mean one pencil apiece, right? At least that is the way we Americans tend to think. The kids share everything, readily and immediately. I have seen them gathered two deep around a big art project, the ones in front breaking their crayons or pencils in half and handing the pieces to those who stand behind, while the ones behind use the backs of their friends as a desk or an easel! It all happens wordlessly, the children intensely focussed on what they are doing, the resources going where they are needed.

So 500 pencils help children build their community.

It means so much to them to think that people they have never met, love them and pray for them, and these pencils and crayons are a sign of that love. While I wait here in Amsterdam for my connection to Entebbe, I think of Nano and her people and this simple gift. I remember one of my favorite passages from the writings of Paul: You show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Cor. 3:3). Here, at the gate, I give thanks to God.

Meetings, meetings, meetings– and Signs of Grace.

Tuesday, April 21

Whenever I come to Uganda, I find I can be useful just by making appearances in the right rooms with the right people. That means meetings. Some of these are not going to be directly relevant to what Jay and Mark have signed up for, but they are glad to come along for the ride. And I am glad to have their company. Pilgrim staff work hard, and almost all of their work involves partnerships: with USAID, the Ugandan government, the churches. I am sometimes useful in being able to say to some of our partners what even senior Pilgrim staff cannot say; coming in from the outside as President of an international board means I am given up front a certain allowance of social forgiveness.

The Pretty Side of Kampala

This comes in handy with our first meeting at the Ministry of Health. Dr. Meyers Lugemwa is the senior deputy for malaria control; Solomon has two questions he needs to get answered, which I need to ask. First, we have had a MoU (memorandum of understanding) in process for several months waiting to be signed by somebody in the Ministry of Health. Dr. Lugemwa is cordial, apologetic, notes that it must be stuck in the legal office and commits to get the thing finished. Second, the Ministry of Health is sitting on serious quantities of the chemical used in our spraying protocol, all of which will expire in November. We really need him to commit that to Katakwi; he is more shy about this ask. Apparently the stuff has already been committed to two other localities. (Elections are coming up in 2016 and this is a way for the MP’s to show they are doing something about public health in their districts.) The problem is that, if these chemicals are used without any other co-ordinated efforts (e.g. mass drug distributions, use of treated bednets, etc.) the end result will be exactly no medium- or long-term benefit to the people. We end with the good doctor committing to a conversation with “affected parties;” he is a good man not in an easy position, and I resolve to pray for him.

Our second meeting is with the USAID mission director at the US embassy. This is a courtesy call, and so will be brief, about half an hour. (It actually takes us longer to clear security). USAID directs PMI (the President’s Malaria Initiative), and they have trained, and continue to train, our field staff in IRS (Indoor Residual Spraying) and in other aspects of malaria control.
First, I just want to say Thank you, to the mission director Leslie Reed and the senior staff; which they appreciate. Solomon then gives an overview of Pilgrim’s process and goals in the Katakwi project, an intervention across three sub-counties that should come close to eliminating malaria for nearly 38,000 people. Leslie is a seasoned professional diplomat, gets it all instantly, asks a few pointed questions, which Solomon addresses comprehensively; we have some further conversation with her medical chief, Dr. Kassan, shake hands warmly all around, then leave. The tone and content of the meeting are all good news. Pilgrim has a grant proposal for $500k pending before the Global Fund for this project and it is a good thing to be getting good grades in the eyes of USAID.

In the afternoon, the team splits up. I meet with half a dozen national leaders of two Pentecost associations and a co-ordinator for the Church Malaria Program, an interdenominational effort to mobilize the churches in grass-roots support for the kind of thing we are trying to do in Katakwi. Mark and Jay go elsewhere. Here is Mark’s description:

We were advised that the mental health inpatient facility in Kabala, called Butabika, had a drug and alcohol detox unit! One of the areas of focus for our week here has been to identify, develop, and connect resources in Uganda for the treatment of alcoholism. In any setting, alcoholism is a complex problem, stemming from a number of economic, social, spiritual, medical and culture forces that have conspired to create a significant problem. In Uganda, there are very limited solutions for those entangled within it. So….if there was a hospital here that was working with treatment and detox, it would make great sense to visit and see what they were up to.

Dr. Ben Khingi, a Ugandan board member with Pilgrim, has an inspiring vision and commitment to his people. He advised us to just “show up”, confident that we would be able to make connections. He was spot on. We were warmly welcomed and had a great visit with the clinicians and staff there. The facility was impressive in general, it was expansive; located on a hill with a sweeping vista of Lake Victoria, it was neatly kept and staffed by warm, compassionate people. Although the medical director had gone for the day, we were able to have a great conversation with one of the drug and alcohol counselors, briefly meet some of the patients, and talk to several of the managers of the unit.In a very moving expression of God’s grace, several of the patient’s approached Fr. Jay as we left the hospital, asking him to pray for them.

“As with most complex problems, easy solutions over-simplify. Pray for the coming of Christ’s kingdom as Pilgrim and others seek to bring together the pieces need to address the issue of Alcohol and Drug addiction in this place.”

By the time we get back together, it is nearly 7 p.m. I feel like a wet rag, but I am energized by Jay and Mark’s reports of their excursion. I am not sure where the partnership meeting with the Pentecostals will go, even though we did wind up with one or two concrete action items, but I am learning that God will use just about any small effort to bring forth great fruit. May it be so, in this matter, with these dear brothers and sisters.

The Great Debate: Drama at Beacon of Hope College!

Monday, April 20

Morning comes early after a wonderful, but long, Sunday. We’re heading back to Kampala today, but before we leave we have two important pieces of business at the school: a student debate on alcohol abuse and the dedication of a new “hostel” or dormitory for the girls.

The Great Debate

The Great Debate

The debate is first up. I have mentioned before that Ugandans are very ceremonious, and today is no exception. A great deal of care is taken bringing desks outside for the teams, setting them up carefully under the fig tree, and positioning a blackboard with the team rosters, the names of the timer and the judge, and the simple proposition: Alcohol should be abolished.

The teams, immaculately dressed in their best school uniforms (reserved for special occasions) take up their positions, with the entire school standing in rows around them, and a special seating area for “our visitors” as we are always called. In addition to me, Mark, and Jay, we include three American friends of our CEO in the US: Erin, Valerie and her daughter Molly. The judge announces the ground rules, the timer rings the bell, and they’re off!

The general atmosphere feels (not surprisingly) like a British courtroom. The kids clearly relish the formality and the chance to show off a higher level of English. The proposer addresses his argument to “Distinguished faculty, honored visitors, honorable judge, respected timekeeper, my fellow students, and the world at large.” Which pretty much covers it, I think. There are howls of appreciative laughter.

The case for abolition is fairly straightforward: alcohol weakens the body, kills the brain, destroys the family, undermines society, and is in all other ways vile, disgusting, and reprehensible. The proposers, however, seem to lack an enthusiasm for their subject and make the mistake of assuming the audience is on their side, as if the case were self-evident.

Jay and Mark Listen to the Debate

Jay and Mark Listen to the Debate

The opposition is of a different mettle. They are led by a fiery young woman about five feet tall, who goes on the attack right out of the starting gate. She is articulate, forceful, and superbly controlled; her English is flawless. She argues that to give the government power to abolish anything so commonly used, is an invitation to despotism. She points to the deep cultural roots of alcohol use in Teso, notes its benfits as a “socializing instrument” whereby “people who otherwise may not even like each other find their opinions changing, to the point that some of them even get married.” She disputes the dark view of the proposers, suggesting that alcohol in limited quantities has health benefits, that its use is a matter of individual choice, and the government in any case should keep its nose out of people’s business. It’s about the best libertarian argument I have heard on any subject.

The debate is interrupted by a point of order raised by the opposition: “Honorable judge, I wish to point out that a member of the other team has crossed her legs. I do not think this is a dignified position for one engaging in a debate!” A storm of laughter. Crossing one’s legs is indeed an offense against social etiquette in Uganda (though Westerners are almost always given a pass) and the offender is sternly corrected by the judge.The arguments proceed, and at the end, the guests are invited to say something.

Jay Drives Home His Point

Jay Drives Home His Point

Jay goes first. In a booming voice he tells them “I am an alcoholic!” People here are not used to the public admission that is basic to the method of AA, and this really gets everybody’s attention. After a brief and devastating description of the harm he has known, he calls everyone “not to even start” lest they “cause a brother or sister to stumble and fall.” Many nods, followed by a loud and respectful applause.

I weigh in with an acknowledgment of the problems caused by legal abolition (I talk a little about Prohibition in this country, which actually exacerbated alcohol abuse), but then speak of the responsibility of individual choice. The timekeeper rings the bell on me, so I just take it away from him (Hey: I’m the bishop!), which generates whoops and cheers from the audience. I ask them to be especially careful of the little 100cc “sachets” of hard liquor now available everywhere and wind up with a couple of examples of “stinking thinking” from our friends in the ajono group just down the road, concluding “if you don’t want your brain to work like that, don’t even start.” Dr. Guy gives a similar assessment to Jay’s, but focuses on the physiological effects– the slow degrading of the body caused by prolonged and excessive alcohol use, but also the spiritual effects of anger and hopelessness, teaching science and faith at the same time. All this takes less ten minutes. The judge, a biology teacher, prefaces his verdict with a biology lesson on alcohol in the body, and announces his decision: the audience must decide for themselves and must live with their decision! Solomonic, I think.

We move over to the new girls’ hostel, where Solomon announces that Valerie will fund the construction of a third dormitory next to the existing two. The girls erupt in a long traditional ululating cheer. This gift, about $4,000US gives huge added security to our young women. At present Pilgrim rents quarters outside the school fence, across the road. The buildings have security guards, and our matron, who is adored by the girls, keeps careful watch, but the risk is simply unacceptable. I think, three down and one to go. If we can build one more, we will have all of our most vulnerable kids within the perimeter.

The rest of the day is spent in the journey to Kampala. We make a couple of tourist stops: the ancient rock paintings at Nyero, the coffee co-operative warehouse and roasting plant at Mbale. Our speedy journey slows to a crawl on the outskirts of Kampala, but Solomon does the back-road thing again, and we get to the hotel by 11:30.

Tomorrow: you guessed it. Meetings.

Sunday in Uganda– Part 2

Bishop George introduces me as “his brother bishop”; applause, big hug, then I’m in the pulpit. I preach on the Good Shepherd in John 10. How does the Church show forth Jesus as the Good Shepherd?

I tell a story.  When I go into the more remote villages, sometimes I will meet small children who have never seen a white person. They know the universal word for the pale variety of human beings– mzungu–  but they have never actually seen one. So they will run along the road next to me as I walk laughing and shouting mzungu, mzungu!  Sometimes I stop. I walk up to the smallest one, who suddenly gets very sober, and I put out my hand, inviting them to touch me. They usually freak out. “Mam! Mam! (No, No!)” they shout and back away. When I once asked a mom why her little girl did not want to touch me, she replied laughing, “She is afraid that if she touches you she will become white!”

People obviously like the story, totally get it, lots of laughter and broad smiles. I then move to Thomas the apostle, and the Resurrection appearance of Jesus who invites him to put his fingers in the Lord’s wounds and his hand in the Lord’s side. Thomas comes to faith in Christ in that invitation. He can see two things: first he sees that the Lord is not ashamed of His wounds, just as He is not ashamed of ours. He is not ashamed of our suffering or weakness, but literally holds them in His hands. But Thomas also sees the Lord’s glory, His power, His infinite love and eternal joy. He wants to be filled with those things, so He touches the Lord to become like Him.

So, the question is, can we show the world such a Lord, so they can touch Him through us? Can we not be judgmental of others’ sin, condemning them, or moralizing about them, but rather show them the Christ who bears their wounds in His hands? And can we by our joy and love show them His? I was brought to faith by such Christians, and I can see them here, but the abiding temptation of the Church is to act as though we were a place for “good people”, which is like saying a hospital should be full of those who are already well. I trust that, as we follow Him, the Lord will let us touch Him more deeply that we may become like Him, so that others may see Him revealed through our mercy and love, and also be able to touch Him by faith.

People seem encouraged. After communion, I head back to the house, eat briefly, then to the school Pilgrim runs in Soroti, Beacon of Hope College, where Jay and Mark and a few other visitors are already in worship with the community. This is the last Sunday of the term. 500 kids, many of them the poorest of the poor, are gathered with their faculty under the huge fig tree that serves as their church. The morning is rich. They dance, sing, praise God in so many ways. I preach again, a sermon of encouragement, of pride in them and their faith, their accomplishments, a message (I hope) of power for them as they go back to their villages for three weeks (many of them cry as they leave school- especially the girls who find here a dignity and respect that is not accorded to women many places in the countryside).

Our ajono group

Our ajono group

After lunch, we visit Pilgrim’s health clinic with Dr. Guy who explores the possibility of setting up detox protocols here, then later in the afternoon we go down to Pamba market to visit our old friends in the ajono group– about thirty men and a few women are sitting around a common pot of local brew sipping from long straws. There is a serious card game going on. Jay and I are invited in to kibbitz (i.e. watch, don’t help). The game is a mystery, sort of like Uno, but not quite. We hang around and talk with a few of them. They are always amazed to see a bishop and a priest who want to visit with them, but now a doctor as well? What is going on?

The evening is spent in a wonderful dinner with staff. By the end of the day, I don’t remember if I ever had a problem with my phone. Where is my phone anyway?

Sunday in Uganda– Part 1

Sunday the 19th

You know you are a Westerner when the main thing keeping you up at night is connectivity issues. Our Lord taught us to pray for our enemies, and last night my enemy was AT & T. All kinds of little tabs and options for cell coverage in my little iPhone– absolutely none of them works. Nothing. Zip. Nada. Dr. Mark has Verizon and faces the same problem, but bears it with a serene equanimity that is beyond me. And Jay? Jay is connected to everything.

seer_and_healer.JPGThanks to T-Mobile, Jay is getting e-mail from the moon. He got updates from his carrier in mid-air letting him know what country he was crossing into as he flew! He is surfing the web smoothly and efficiently, posting media to Facebook, graciously lending me his phone (they only charge him 20 cents a minute???) when I have to make a call. I have always loved and respected the considerable intellectual and spiritual gifts of my canon for formation: the way he connects recovery to a Biblical worldview, his affable good humor, his grasp of history and culture here. But I am now beginning to think he has a sixth sense about just getting through life. Jay’s flights were all on time. In a Kampala restaurant, Jay knows the absolutely best thing on the menu at the absolutely best price. From now on I am just going to do what he does: T-Mobile. Brussels Air. Fajitas (beef, not chicken– the chicken will kill you).

So, I have Jay on one hand, and on the other Dr. Mark Guy. Mark is obviously a first-rate physician, but he is also gentle, wise, able to communicate cross-culturally, and compassionate. Most important, he is a deeply formed Christian, and conveys scientific information in the context of God’s hope for His people and His Church, something that the Christian leaders here deeply appreciate. Yes, he has Africa experience from previous years in Sierra Leone, but the way he has been able to settle in among the clergy and people of Teso, gaining their confidence in such a short time, is really remarkable.

So I have a seer on one hand and a healer on the other. I am surrounded by a vibrant and hopeful Church. In Pittsburgh, I serve a wonderful Diocese with deep personal knowledge of the Cross, supported by excellent staff. I chair an NGO that is attracting international attention for our work in malaria, education, and food security, all carried out by some of the most talented and faithful people I have ever known.

And I am angry about my stupid phone. Exactly like Jonah angry over the vine that stops shading him.

I need to go to church this morning.

I am picked up at 6:45 a.m. to preach at the 7 am service at Saint Peter’s Cathedral. When I get there, the place is packed, about two thousand souls. I slip through the side entrance to the chancel and am greeted by old friends,while the youth choir sings traditional Ateso hymns. I think all Ugandans can sing, but the Iteso are sort of like the Welsh- they love choral singing with rich harmonies, and when you are in the middle of two thousand people doing that in the power of prayer, it lifts you into a different place. I get on my knees and pray that God will enlighten my heart with His Word, and fill my mind to preach faithfully. I am suddenly aware of the fact that everyone here has bigger concerns than their phones: they carry the burdens of poverty, sick children, unemployment, alcohol abuse in their families, disputes with relatives over marriages or land. There is no room for first-world dilemmas in this place.

What I need to preach has become pretty clear.

Sober in Soroti: Part 2

Saturday, April 18th

We resume the conference early in the morning with some prayer and singing. Yesterday, the focus was on information– alcoholism and its spiritual roots, pathology, treatment and recovery, and family dynamics.

Today we will see what our participants want to do about any of this.

Over many years in Africa I have learned that the most useless thing a Westerner can do is “help,” i.e. create a plan that makes us feel good but has no buy-in from the people who would be most affected. If there is to be a plan, it will have to come from them, and that is what today will be about.

dr guy

Dr Guy Works with the Churches

We start by hearing from them what they got out of yesterday. For nearly an hour, a roomful of normally reserved Ugandans give articulate responses to all they heard. It is clear that they took in the information deeply and that several lights went on-  addiction as illness, the ways families are affected and can make the problem worse by codependency, the problem of Law, the difficulties of church attitudes. I am again impressed at how well-spoken people are; English is their second language, but their speech is clear, elegant, and sometimes very moving.


Presenting their work

We move into four areas of emphasis for further discussion that became apparent yesterday: the formation of AA, advocacy for children, changing the attitudes of the churches, and the need for further training. In each category I challenge the group to come up with all the questions they can think of, then narrow the field to the two most important: this takes the next hour. After a tea break, they divide into four working groups, each devoted to one of the areas of emphasis. Jay convenes a “model AA” group, complete with Big Book, and Mark works with the group focusing on changing attitudes of churches, while I pile in with the group on further training. The common task of all four is to come up with one concrete next step to advance the work, including a “by when” and “by whom.” They work on this up to lunch. Then they come together for the final push– presentation of their small group work, and revealing the concrete next steps.

This is the devil’s hour. Lunch has a universal effect on human beings- personally, I just feel like lying down for a good nap. But we point it out, sing a couple of rousing choruses, and just plow ahead.


The First AA Group in Teso!!

It is an exciting afternoon. By three o’clock, two people have stepped forward to form the first AA group in Northern Uganda! Jay gives them each a Big Book and we all applaud. Each of the other three groups appoint a leadership team and agree on the next steps. When we adjourn, they stay in the room to schedule, exchange email addresses, and then pass on the information to us. Mark, Jay and I agree to keep in touch to support their work and make plans for an eventual return for a further training  conference. Florence, the bishop’s wife, yesterday voiced to the whole group her strong feeling that this ought to be heard by every pastor in Teso.  While that may be a big ambition, given the lights I am seeing in people’s eyes, I wouldn’t be surprised to see something even greater.

Sober in Soroti: Part 1

Friday, April 17

Jay did indeed get in on time, and the Kampala team meets us at the airport.  We get in at 4 pm on Thursday, eat dinner, change cars, and head directly to Soroti.  First, we have to get out of the capital.

Driving in Kampala is a near-death experience, even under the best of conditions. At rush hour it reminds you of what someone once said about war: hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. You can sit in a traffic jam for what seems like days. Fortunately, Solomon knows the city like his own hand, and is possibly the most skilful driver I have ever met. He takes us off the main road through a tangle of alleys, dirt paths, and narrow streets. We go up and down hills, in and out of neighborhoods, and barely an hour later are clear of the congestion of this city of six million. His driving defies both law and physics, but I am happy for it.

The road to Soroti is much improved; most of the 362 kilometers are smooth going, slow in places because of the constant flow of trucks heading to the Sudan, but things only get a little rough on the last leg from Mbale. We arrive in Soroti at 1:30 in the morning, and are settled in by Pilgrim’s wonderful staff at the comfortable house of our founder, Calvin Echodu. We are up early, arriving at Saint Peter’s Cathedral to begin the conference we are leading: Alcohol Addiction and the Churches.

Some of our class

This is the second training. Jay Geisler and I introduced the subject last summer in the course of two brief seminars. This 2-day conference is in response to multiple requests for further help. We are enormously grateful for the third member of our team, Dr. Mark Guy, a family practitioner with Allegheny Health System who has extensive experience in addiction, medical treatment of severe alcoholism, detox protocols, and the like. A major goal of our involvement is to establish an AA-centered approach to recovery, based on the understanding that addiction is an illness, not a moral failing. Mark will be hugely important in this effort.

We are expecting 25 strategically chosen clergy, social workers, and elders. When we arrive at about 9:15 a.m. there are only three or four present. I feel my heart sink..

Of course, I am forgetting: this is Africa!

Jay gives the ABC's of Addiction

Jay gives the ABC’s of Addiction

Over the next half-hour the room fills, including the Bishop of Soroti, George Erwau, and his wife Florence, who will remain with us for the entire day. This is a measure of the significance of alcohol abuse in this region, and as we move through lively opening singing and prayers, into introductions of the participants, Bishop George disclose personal reasons for being there as well: family members he saw ruined by adiction while he was growing up. Many others have similar stories. It is clear this is not merely an abstract problem.

Dr. Guy at Work

Dr. Guy at Work

We have structured the first day as an intense dose of information, a morning of bad news followed by an afternoon of Good News: I lead with a Biblical exploration of the spiritual roots of addiction in idolatry. Jay does the ABC’s of alcoholism– how it begins, what alcoholic behavior looks like, why it is best seen as an illness. Mark gives a thorough descrition of the physiology of addiction, the symptoms and progress of the disease, and exactly how it kills. Participants make extensive notes, ask pointed questions, pay careful attention. By mid-day, the atmosphere in the room is, um, sober.

Bishop makes a Point

After lunch, we move into the Good News: I talk about God’s curing the soul through gracious love, what the Church looks like when this becomes a reality. Jay opens up the twelve steps through the lens of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.Mark focusses on successful treatment of withdrawal and the crucial role played by family and social supports..The afternoon ends with an animated question and answer session.

Returning home we find a feast:: Pilgrim staff greeting us and James  our wonderful cook having prepared a  magnificent spread of roast  goat  ((my personal favorite), pork and chicken..  We try to retire early..  Good luck  with that!

On the Road to Africa: Getting There Is Half the Fun

Thursday, April 16th

The fun began when Dr. Mark Guy and I arrived at Dulles International Airport early Tuesday morning to discover that our flight had been delayed nearly three hours. This meant we would be spending a day in Dubai, and leaving Thursday morning for Entebbe, Uganda. It occurred to me I had been praying all week for more time to finish work I brought with me and to prepare for the beginning of the addictions conference on Friday. I guess God heard me!

If you took the set from The Jetsons, pasted it into the Waterfront Mall, multiplied by 1,000, then dropped the whole thing into the middle of the desert, you’d have Dubai. Our flight attendant said it was a great place to go clubbing. (Isn’t this a Muslim country??) Mark and I both being middle-aged Christian nerds, we elected a more sedate option: lunch, followed by nap, some planning for the conference, dinner, conversation, prayer, and bed.

Woke up today feeling very rested (maybe this layover wasn’t a bad idea after all), made the plane in plenty of time. This, however, means we will be arriving in Kampala mid-afternoon, and leave immediately for Soroti, a rugged seven-hour drive. I am hoping Jay made it in from Brussels last night!

Epilogue: Back Home in the ‘Burgh

On the Way Home to Pittsburgh

It’s always interesting to read somebody else’s perspective on you.  So here is how Father Marc Jacobson viewed our time together, as reported in his most recent Prayer Letter:

I was in Manila a mere 36 hours before the arrival of Bishop Dorsey McConnell from Pittsburgh via Taiwan. We spent an awesome five days together as he experienced nearly every aspect of our mission work. He met the Executive Secretary of the Roman Catholic Biblical Commission with whom we have worked so closely to gain Imprimatur for SIL translations. He prayed with our scholars at 5am and again just before going to bed, and got to know them in a variety of contexts in between. He travelled by taxi, pedicab, plane, jeepney, motorcycle and outrigger canoe, failing only in his desire to ride a water buffalo. He met with Capul’s bishop and helped us gain his promise to sign the Memorandum of Agreement on October 8 for the continuing work of the Inabaknon Heritage Society.

Then we took the first of three outrigger canoes to Capul where he videoed Bible studies, joined in morning and evening prayers, hiked five miles to the sustainable farm (and swam in the ocean) before returning to town by boat and “motorcycle taxi”. He saw the light house built in 1902 and with 20 distinguished guests of the IHS dedicated the Library and ground floor of the Center to God’s good purposes. Oh yes, there was a whole roasted pig and he was taught cultural dances. More evening prayers and a flawless return to Manila and his early morning flight to the US.

I was exhausted and went back to bed until noon….

My greatest blessing from the bishop’s recent visit was that his presence forced me to explain, and thereby to see anew what had become too familiar. I wish you could all visit Capul, experiencing first hand, as did he, that this island, and the Abaknon a people, are indeed well worth your commitment.

Now, this is fascinating.  In the first place I thought he was the “indefatigable one” and I was the one trying to keep up with

Mass with Marc+ at the Library

him.  Secondly, when I look at my schedule the way he describes it, it does seem like a lot; but at the time it just seemed normal. So since I returned, I have been considering my tendency to think something more can always be fit into my calendar. 

I have been back home a little more than a week, now, and at first, it didn’t seem like a big deal, all the travel. Yes, it did seem a little weird landing in the US an hour before I took off from Japan (the dateline thing), but I slept well on the plane, and went straight from the airport to the McLure Lecture at PTS given by an old friend of mine, Dr. Daniel Jeyeraj. Daniel is a great missiologist, now teaching in England. His lecture addressed the myriad ways that the Christian mission to India actually affected Christianity in Europe, Britain and the United States– a potent reminder that there is no such thing as “the local Church!”  Tuesday I had my usual meetings and taught in the evening on the English Reformation from 1520 to 1558 at PTS– the introduction to Anglicanism that Jay Geisler and I are leading. Wednesday

Seeing the Face of God in Squirrel Hill

began with a Bible study at the Rivers Club, then meetings at the Cathedral, ending with Solemn Evensong at the Church of the Redeemer in Squirrel Hill. Thursday was Staff, a long phone call with other bishops, and in the evening a webcast with TREC, the task force of resturcturing the Episcopal Church.  Friday and Saturday were the anti-Racism Workshop, and Sunday a great visitation with the good people of Saint Francis in Somerset.

I hit the wall Monday night just in time for Diocesan Council. I’m not sure what I said for my report, but blessedly, I kept it short. I started writing this on Tuesday; I have been getting steadily more sane, and am presently at the Clergy Conference in Ligonier, learning a lot more about preaching from my colleagues with the help of Fr. Jason Ingalls, Director of the Scholar Priests Initiative, which is proving to be an enormous blessing.

So let me draw two lessons from the conjunctions of these experiences– my life in the Pacific, and my life back home here in Southwest Pennsylvania.

Lesson One: Do not confuse your busy-ness with God’s work. Hopefully, my schedule is in service to Jesus; if that is true then He is the Master of my time. We read in the gospels that at times the

Jason Ingalls+ with New Friends at Clergy Conference

disciples were so busy, “with many coming and going, so that they had no leisure even to eat.” And yet Jesus is not harried, never hectic, always serenely Himself even in the midst of 5,000 hungry people. My Father is working still, He notes (John 5:17), and I am working. I am learning that sometimes the less I try to cram everything into my schedule, the more easily I can see God at work and see more easily how to come alongside that work.

Lesson Two: Jesus means what He says about the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32). A little Episcopal parish on Taiwan decides to start a kindergarten; thirty years later it has four hundred kids, has rebuilt twelve churches in another country, and occupies half a city block. An Episcopal missionary washes up on an island in the Phlippines with the idea of translating the New Testament into Inabaknon; thirty-six years later 30,000 people have received the gift of literacy in their own language, and a Biblical Renewal Movement is sweeping Catholic Churches across the country. Ask each of the players in these miracles and they will acknowledge that while they had something to do with it, it was all about the power of God.  

Since I have been home, I am seeing and hearing about this power breaking out in new ways through and around our churches– many of them small in numbers but leaning on Christ’s hope for them to grow in confidence about their future. As bishop, I will try to help that work wherever I find it, preach that hope where it is absent, encourage it where it is weak, bear witness to its fruit wherever I see it coming forth. I’ll put forward some more thoughts about this at Convention, how we can all do this better together, but for the moment, let me simply ask what would happen if we took in the full import of this promise of Jesus: My Father is working still, and I am working. 

Tropical Grace: Part Two


So, about this gecko.

When Evan was little we had a gecko. Evan named him Spot. It was interesting watching him shed, but he was a sullen pet. He once bit Evan on the finger, and their relationship was cool therafter. To my knowledge, Spot never made a peep.

So I want to know the story on this distant cousin on Capul, the one sounding a loud two-tone call under my window at 4:30 a.m. It’s not exactly mournful. He just sounds worried. Uh-oh, he chants. High then low, roughly a minor third. Uh-oh. Uh-oh.



Good thing I’m a morning person.

This little toko (that is its name in Inabaknon) is one of a myriad wonderful things I will experience this day for the first time.

Take coconuts, for example.

You may think you have had a coconut.

Best Ever Coconut

But until you have had an immature coconut cut from a tree in the middle of the forest, by a man who has climbed fifty feet straight up (in about ten seconds) just so you could taste it, and had Reuben whack a sluice into its side with a machete, until you have poured the silky sweet water into your mouth, then let Reuben cut the thing in half, scoop out the soft membrane, and hand it to you like a tortilla made of pork fat and tasting like … nothing I have ever tasted before: well, until then, you have never had a coconut.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

To get to that coconut, we have to climb over the little ridgeline that runs down the spine of the island. This followed morning prayers and Eucharist at 7:00, so by the time Reuben is leading Marc and me up the steep trail, it is 9:00 and already impressively warm. The sun is out in full force, but I am so glad for the exercise, I don’t mind. The elevation gain to the top

Capul Town seen from the ridge

is only about 600 feet. And the surroundings are brilliant: grove after grove of coconut palms, thick tropical forest, clearings that are the homes of family and friends and relations of the scholars and board members and translators, and of course Marc knows everybody, so it is really both a hike and a progressive pastoral visitation.

There is a goal, besides the coconut: we’re headed to Sawang, one of the coastal villages on the other side of Capul, where Reuben has been engaged in a remarkable work of evangelism for more than five years.  He’s leading the hike at an easy lope, wearing flip flops, and as I hump along behind him in my hiking boots, with Marc bringing up the rear, Reuben tells me a little of his calling.  Continue reading

Tropical Grace: Part One

[NB: More photos are coming, so check back later!]

Mark had told me that by the time we got to Capul, I would have used every means of transport common to Filipinos with the exception of the carabao, the buffalo. My reply was: why not a buffalo? The people of Capul thought that was great and are even now trying to find me one. I am secretly praying the beast will be unavailable.

So, a 3:45 a.m. taxi ride to the airport leads to a turboprop plane ride across the mountains to Catarman.

The plane arriving in Catarman

There we are picked up by a motorized tricycle and driven for our appointments in town.

…next, a tricycle…

Following that we climb aboard the “jeepney.” This is a piece of engineering genius: originally it was a surplus WWII American Jeep cut in half and extended to accommodate a dozen or so passengers. Now they are made commercially and used all over the Philippines connecting small towns to each other, the way Greyhound or Trailways used to operate when I was a kid: only these are packed.  The photo does not do justice to the efficiency with which this culture can fit an entire village into a shoebox! I wonder if this has something to do with why people are so gentle here. There literally isn’t room for someone with an attitude.

…next, a jeepney…


The Jeepney takes us to Allen, a seaside town named after a WWII American general (I would love to know the back story). We put our luggage on board the outrigger canoe, and hail a pedi-cab for the marketplace: there we pick up some fresh produce, and make it back to the, um, pier in plenty of time.

The outrigger canoe to Capul

The outrigger canoe to Capul

The boat for Capul is supposed to leave at noon. However, as in a lot of non-Western societies, time here is relational. The hands of my watch go past 12:15, then 12:25. Finally, a bus pulls up with about thirty passengers: they are all Abaknons, of course. So, the lower value (leaving on time) is submitted to the higher value (don’t leave your family behind). Maybe we in the US could do with a little more of this kind of thinking.

The canoe is a marvel: first, it is pull-started, like a lawnmower. Only this thing has twin Diesel engines with screws that must way close to a hundred pounds apiece. These young men get both engines going on the first pull.

The journey across the Strait is uneventful. This is a good thing: during the period of the Spanish galleons, more ships sank here than anywhere else in the world– over 90 wrecks were recorded off the coasts of Capul. When the National Geographic Society came here a few years ago to do a survey of the remains, they found there weren’t any. The swift waters had long since scrubbed the ocean floor, up to 90 fathoms down.

Canoe landing at Capul

Canoe landing at Capul

The canoe drops us on the beach at the entrance to the town of Capul, and we are soon on a motorcycle taxi wending through narrow streets which take us to the IHS center. I meet two of Marc’s “mother-tongue” translators, Weny and Reuben, and get a quick tour of the building. It is still under construction, but about two-thirds completed. In addition to the computer room (where I am staying, on a very comfortable cot), there are two kitchens (inside and outside, a Filipino norm), a bedroom and bath for the director, the library, the translations office, and upstairs hostel-style bedrooms for the students who will be in residence. These students, both girls and boys, will come from the three other villages on the island to attend the high school next door to the center. As at Agata House in Manila, scholars here will receive room, board, and a small stipend, and live under the same modified Benedictine rule. The vision is clear: learned Christians, in community, in the world.

Marc out and about

After a nap, we take a brief outing. By then it is almost six o’clock and the sun has very nearly set. Still, as Marc goes out and about, it seems every ten feet he runs into someone he knows: warm greetings, asking after family, Suzanne, the kids, the grandkids. I am introduced at least a dozen times. I already know the word for “bishop” in Inabaknon, borrowed directly from the Spanish obispo, and when it comes up there are smiles, raised eyebrows, someone takes my hand and either kisses my ring, or touches it to their forehead. (I am going to be impossible when I get home.)

Among those we meet is a member of Marc’s board named Mercy; she is a retired teacher and now on the town council. Her husband Pantit is one of the Center’s translators, and she is a wonderful tour guide. She shows me the old parish church, which dates back to 1496, still surrounded by remnants of the original town walls, and the same spring used by the Spaniards, still an important feature of town life. The crews of the galleons loaded their casks with fresh water here, the last service station until their next stop– Acapulco.

By the time we get back to the Center it is dark. Warren, the Center’s 16-year-old scholar/caretaker, has prepared us a soup for dinner, and by the time it is consumed, I am about ready to fall asleep into my empty bowl.  But there is still the Bible Study.

Yes. You remember. The Sower and the Seed? People have been organizing their friends around this for most of the afternoon, and by the time we finish our soup, people are gathering in the library. In a few minutes there are twenty in all. This is a much more diverse group than in Taiwan or Uganda: several members of the Board, half a dozen high school students, some retirees, a couple of young parents. The range in age is from 14 to well over 70! I use the same protocol as before: I do a brief introduction, we go around the room reading the passage (Mark 4:1-20) a verse at a time, in English, then Inabaknon. Then I ask them to divide into three groups to discuss, as specifically as possible, where they find the Hard Ground, Stony Ground or Thorny Ground (respectively) in their own lives.  They take about fifteen minutes, then come back to share. There was more than I can report here, but the most interesting emphasis, I think, is the sense of shame.

a few of my new friends

In all three kinds of “soil” there is the recurring presence of the “higher status person” who makes them feel inferior– the idea that what you have to offer isn’t valued, because of others who are higher up in the social ladder. That is the “hard ground” that won’t admit the good word of our infinite worth before the Father. As in Taiwan, the “stony ground” is being made fun of or mocked for their faith, especially among the students; but the “thorny ground” has more to do with daily worries about family, money and children, and I am instantly reminded this is a much poorer community than I was in a few days earlier. At the end, I ask them to go back into small groups and ask one question: where in their lives is the good soil from which God brings the fruit of His Kingdom. When they come back the answers are many and various, but I’m going to save this piece for a later blog!

After prayers are offered, all the good-byes are said, and everyone leaves, I am seriously ready for bed. Marc and I debrief a little, and I head upstairs thinking I might fall asleep on the landing. I do manage to make it to my room, however. I thank God for His mercies, for Marc and Suzanne and the lives of everyone I have met; I pray for Betsy and Evan and the Diocese, but I don’t remember getting more than halfway through the Lord’s Prayer. I pass out somewhere in the middle of “forgive us our trespasses” and not even the persistent evening crow of the roosters, or the weird chanting of the gecko outside my window can trouble my sleep.