Author Archives: Dorsey McConnell

Sowing the Word

Dawn in Ajoatorum

During the dry season, the roads in Katakwi turn into a long ribbon of ochre, sinking into the occasional pothole and running through intermittent dust storms. So, it was no fun when the air conditioning in our Land Cruiser walked off the job in mid-afternoon yesterday. The car was packed with five of us, our luggage and several cases of Bibles we are bringing for the pastors in the region. We were headed to Usuk (pronounced OO-sook) and Ajoatorum, the village of Simon Peter Ojaman.

Simon Peter Ojaman

We first met Simon more than ten years ago. At that time, the whole area was essentially a refugee camp — hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the destructive wave of the Kony rebellion and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Today, the area has been resettled, many of the cattle have returned, and the villages are peaceful. Simon, once a young man in his twenties with an ambition to go to vocational school, is now a husband, father, district counselor and a prominent leader among his people. [For more on Simon’s story, click here].

My cow Lily and her calf

We finally did make it, dusty and tired, and were greeted like royalty. We shared greetings, had something to eat, walked around Simon’s property, inspected my white cow, Lily, and her jet black calf, and turned in early.

Today is the day of the thanksgiving ceremony, a sort of East African potlatch. Even though this is a largely Roman Catholic district, Simon has told me repeatedly I am to preside and preach at a Eucharist, which will be the centerpiece of the day. I have done this once already, in a much smaller gathering, with Father Aloysius, a Roman Catholic priest, cheerfully serving as Deacon. Still, there will be 600 people here today, and it strikes me as odd that I would be allowed the same privilege in a crowd this size.

Choir rehearsal

My reservations turn out to be warranted. Prior to the ceremony, I meet with two Roman Catholic clergy, Father Wasiwasi and Father Paul, priests new to the parish whom I have never met, and as I outline my understanding of my role in what I thought was to be an ecumenical service, I can see in their shocked looks that this is not at all what they have in mind. In spite of Simon’s assurances, it is clear they have been sent by their superiors to say Mass, to preach, and to make it back to Soroti in time for the six o’clock service there. It is also clear that not a word has been mentioned to them by anyone about me. I backpedal at high speed, and the moment is awkward but saved. Father Wasiwasi asks me if perhaps I could give “remarks” at the conclusion of the service. You bet, Father. Happy to.

The Ojaman family

I am not sure what Simon was thinking, anyway. Betsy and I are given special clothes, and are expected to walk in the procession with the immediate family, in the position of godparents. My outfit is bright purple (I kid you not) as is Simon’s. He can bring it off, being black, tall and slender, but I think I look like an enormous grape. Fr. Dan is amused and helps me feel better by taking several pictures and promising to post them on Facebook. By contrast, Betsy has a lovely dress that is the mirror image of the one worn by Stella Rose, Simon’s wife.

The Word about to be sown

The little clearing where the festivities begin is surrounded on three sides by plastic chairs under large canvas tents that provide shade from the searing sun. The crowd is already singing songs of praise as we enter. Betsy, Dan and I take our seats with the family on one side of the tent in which the altar has been set up. In the middle of the clearing, near the loudspeakers, are the cases of Bibles, in Ateso and English, along with Bible covers, waiting to be given away.

The Mass is brief by Ugandan standards, about an hour and twenty minutes. Fr. Paul’s homily is very good and the two priests lead with good humor and reverence, helped by an enthusiastic choir. Beyond the fifty catechists in attendance, few people come forward actually to receive. Betsy, Dan and I go forward for a blessing, which Father Wasiwasi earnestly gives. Afterwards, there are (of course) speeches. Simon stands and thanks every one and spends considerable time on Betsy and myself, recounting the decade of our help and friendship to the people of Teso, and I see that the rather cool regard of the presiding clergy is warming up fast.

During the speeches it also becomes clear that this is a political event as well as a social one. Simon is already a masterful politician, and singles out a dozen or so prominent friends to give their own remarks. He calls up one by one the leaders of various constituencies, and personally thanks everyone who has had anything to do with pulling off this day. Finally, he asks the representatives of the churches present to stand, and they do so in turn: Roman Catholics, Church of Uganda, two varieties of Pentecostals, Baptists, and two or three non-denominational assemblies — a remarkably ecumenical assembly.

Bread on the waters

When Fr. Wasiwasi asks me to conclude with my remarks, and I have thanked everyone I can think of, I shift to a little homily on Jesus’ famous assertion, “Whoever does the will of God is my mother, my sister, my brother.” I note that he was not rejecting his own family, but expanding it, and that the presence and work of Pilgrim Africa, along with Betsy, Dan and myself, is proof that God has done the same thing here, bringing great good out of the suffering which for so long engulfed this region. I ask the people to be reconciled within to one another within their own churches, so that the churches may continue to be reconciled to each other and work together for the common good and for the sake of the Kingdom. It’s all well received, and after the applause, we distribute the Bibles — 272 of them to pastors lay readers and catechists, Protestant and Catholic, blessed by a Roman priest and handed off by an Episcopal bishop and his wife.

At the end of it all we change clothes and head to Mbale for a meeting and retreat of the Ugandan and U.S. Boards of Pilgrim Africa. As we roar down the dusty roads again, I remember the first time I saw this area — the ruined villages, burned fields, huddled refugees, and I wonder if in the midst of this apparent peace and recovery, the churches are finally ready to come together to do great things.

The Empty Waiting Room: Eliminating Malaria

The waiting room at Kapujan

This is one of the most beautiful sights you will ever see.

It is the waiting room of the clinic in Kapujan. Before last year it would have been full, mainly of mothers and small children, afraid and sick with malaria. During the worst periods, the staff would sometimes have 80 cases a day.

The reason is the Katakwi Rotary Malaria Project (KRMP). Pilgrim is the implementing partner for this three-year study. Applying a protocol we developed in 2008, the project covers three sub-counties in Katakwi District serving a total of about 38,000 people. Today we visit two of the sub-counties, Toroma and Kapujan, and the results are astonishing. The picture speaks for itself.

It is hard to exaggerate the extent to which malaria affects daily life in Uganda. Over 100,000 people a year die in malaria-related deaths, mostly pregnant women and children under five. When a child is sick, at least one parent has to stay home instead of going to work, which, coupled with the effects of adult cases, means that up to a third of the country’s workforce can be out of commission on any given day.

But this protocol, a combination of indoor residual spraying (IRS) and mass drug administration (MDA) has virtually eliminated malaria for the target population, and could be the key to the near-eradication of the parasite in sub-Saharan Africa.

When we ran a trial project in Katakwi several years ago, we saw the same success for a total of 177,000 people. But there were sufficient flaws in our methodology and data that it took years to persuade the major players in international public health that we had something really revolutionary. After winning the attention of the President’s Malaria Initiative and the global fund, we were finally able to secure funding for this three-year study through the generosity of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The day begins with a visit to the offices of the local district chairman in Katakwi. We are warmly received. Thanks to Pilgrim Africa’s careful work building relationships in this region over many years, we have the enthusiastic support of politicians and churches. This is extremely important, since the project depends entirely on grassroots participation: methodically spraying every hut, making sure every person receives a drug that both kills the parasite and provides protection against new infection, encouraging the use of bed nets and the elimination of standing water in villages and compounds.

Hearing from the clinic staff at Toroma

After our courtesy call, we visit the two clinics.  We sit with the staff and hear the same story with a few variations.  The wards used to be full.  Now they are empty.  Nurses and doctors can turn their attention to other complaints that are serious but not yet life-threatening, such as respiratory infections or diarrhea.  They are able to intervene early, and since malaria weakens resistance to other diseases, the overall general health of the region has improved.  What malaria cases they do see involve people who elected not to participate in the protocol or people who got sick while visiting from outside the district. It is especially helpful to have Dr. Dan Hall with us, to hear his questions and see all of this through the eyes of a physician.

My son is no longer sick!

The hardest thing for people to understand has been why we can, for the moment, help only the people within the three sub-counties, when we were able to help nearly five times that number a few years ago. But Pilgrim staff have been on a relentless information campaign since before the study was actually launched, taking to the radio waves, patiently explaining over and over what a study is and why we have to be so restrictive.

After the clinics, we visit three households which have participated in the study.  The stories are the same.  For many of them, this is the first time in their lives that they have gone for months without anyone in their families being ill.

We are all healthy. Please have some goat!

The third and last visit comes with a bonus.  We are greeted by a very senior lady who has put on a party dress to receive us.  As she sits on the floor to talk with us, a traditional posture for a host, her family brings in a large platter of roasted goat.  Nothing is better than roasted goat!

By the time we leave it is late afternoon.  We are heading to Usuk, to the remote village of Ajoatorum, where our friends Simon Peter and his family are gathering for a thanksgiving ceremony tomorrow.

Beacon of Hope: Pilgrim Africa Day Two

The visit to Beacon of Hope is always a high point of any visit here. Founded twelve years ago as a school for war-affected kids, this secondary boarding school now hosts a student body of over 600. A large number of the children are on full scholarship, and nearly all of them come from the villages of Teso. There are six grades, through the senior year in high school. For many of the kids, this is the first time they have been away from home. However, village life can be hard, and in many places there are deep patterns of abuse — alcoholism, domestic violence, disputes over property, as well as the endemic problems of the rural poor, hunger caused by drought or floods and, above all, malaria. Here the children find a stable environment and the guidance of a faculty and staff who see as their first mission the call to love the students no matter what.

The new assembly hall

Our visit follows a familiar pattern — talking with faculty and administrative staff, and then attending an assembly of the whole student body and their teachers. Over the last ten years this would have taken place under the enormous fig tree which had given shade to every full gathering of the school. Our lack of an assembly hall big enough for all our students to sit for national exams at the same time was a constant threat to our accreditation. The board prayed constantly, yet many of our fundraising efforts did not bear fruit, until in God’s time the donors appeared and the hall was built. As I step into it and see hundreds of children brought together under a real roof, I almost start to cry.

But there is a shadow over the morning. Today there is also an announcement that the head teacher will be leaving to pursue other opportunities. Justin is well loved and has been at the school for ten years, and the news is received with sadness. The adults in the room have to address this.

The death of a giant

I talk about the fig tree. Twenty minutes earlier, as we were driving through the gate, the first thing I saw was that the glorious old fig tree had been cut down. I couldn’t believe my eyes. In its place there were only enormous stumps and logs awaiting removal. The tree, I was told, was old and weakening, in danger of dropping its huge branches without warning. It had to be taken down. I tell the children that it is almost impossible for me to think of the school without the tree, but in fact the school continues, because it is not about the tree, not even about the faculty, certainly not about “Papa Bishop,” but about them and about the generations that will follow them. I then ask them to remember the teaching of Jesus. In a moment when his disciples are fighting over who shall be the greatest, the Lord brings a child before them, and says, “Unless you become like this child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” I say to them all, you are that child, chosen and precious in the sight of God, of infinite worth, each with a particular calling and with no limit as to what God can do with you and through you. And we are watching, so that as you grow in grace and love, in wisdom and skill, we can pray that we will become more and more like you.

In addition to my own talk, Betsy gives greetings. She is revered as “Toto,” the Ateso word for “Mama,” and her words of encouragement and warm and gentle spirit are greeted with broad smiles. In addition, there are brief speeches by Henry, the new head of education for Pilgrim Africa and by Solomon, our agriculture director who has had a long-standing relationship with the school. By the end, the kids seem ready to take on the world again.

The dancers

A group of students, who are called simply “the MDD” (music, dance and drama), have been rehearsing a couple of presentations for the last three days. First, they perform two rousing traditional dances. The wars in the region over thirty years took away many elements of Teso culture, and the MDD program, under the direction of Moses Opio, seeks to re-establish those treasures among the young. The performance brings down the house. Another group performs a little play about a teenage girl whose father is murdered and who is nearly forced into marriage so her family will not be destitute, until the recruiters come from Beacon of Hope and offer her a place at the school.

Murder most foul!

Two things strike me about this little drama. First, this scenario is not fiction. Any one of our kids could tell you the ways that BOH is a lifeline for them, and I know of more than one case where a dead father and a forced engagement were the immediate background to a child’s admission. Second, the children are able thoroughly to enjoy the whole story. The murderer, the prospective fiancé and his father are played broadly and seem both horrible and somehow ridiculous. The children laugh with scorn at the “bad guys” and cheer the girl! This is a sign of healing. In the early days of Beacon of Hope, it was important to give space for the student to tell the stories of what they endured during the war, and they did it in various ways. At one point we distributed a few dozen inexpensive video cameras to let them make films; at first these were very sober, even dark. But as the kids healed, they discovered their power to control their own narrative, and treating their tormentors as an object of ridicule was an assertion of their own recovery. As I watch this skit play out, I laugh and cheer right along with them.

Hassan and Rover

The morning ends in a neighboring building with an introduction to the robotics program. It is hard to believe that a school with absolutely no luxuries has built a robotics team that is now winning recognition in international competition from New York to Israel. This is also led by Moses Opio and I am awed by the young people who are the backbone of this program. The lead student, Hassan, runs a rather frightening contraption through a series of maneuvers — picking up, tossing, dropping and parking a couple of different objects– all this taking place in a classroom where at one time we stored sunflowers before pressing their seeds into cooking oil, a technology leap across three centuries!

On the way out, we also note a few weak spots. The chem lab is virtually shut down, and needs an injection of fresh chemicals and glassware, and I ask for a list of these and other needed items. There are other matters — some administrative, some strategic — which I mentally note for the board meeting on Saturday.

Then, all too soon, it is time to leave. We say quick goodbyes. We learn later that the results of the national exams called the UCE have just come in. Our scores put us near the top among all the schools in Soroti district.

Most importantly, not a single kid failed.

Pilgrim Africa 2018 Agenda

Since 2007, I have helped direct Pilgrim Africa, an ecumenical ministry of evangelism and redevelopment for northeast Uganda.  I will be writing and supplying updates over the course of my current trip to that region to support the work of Pilgrim Africa in public health, malaria control, education, and agriculture; to build relationships for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh with the churches of Uganda; and to explore mission possibilities for us as a diocese, especially in the areas of medicine and education.

February 8, 2018   Day 1

The trek to Soroti is a pilgrimage. Flights from Toronto to Kampala via Istanbul and Kigali, then a journey by road of 360 kilometers to this small town which is the headquarters for Pilgrim Africa’s rural operations. Monday and Tuesday were days of travel, and today begins the agenda for the trip.

I am traveling with Betsy and with the Reverend Dr. Dan Hall, surgeon and priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.  Over the next five days we have the following tasks:

  1. Visit Saint Andrew’s School in Buwologoma. Thanks to Ann McStay of St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon, and with the sponsorship of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, the United Thank Offering made a grant of $76,000 for new construction in this institution which serves blind and hearing-impaired children.  My visit is to ensure the funds were spent as required and to nurture the relationships begun through the grant.
  2. Visit Beacon of Hope School, Pilgrim Africa’s boarding school in Soroti. Begun in 2006 as a sanctuary for former child soldiers and girls trafficked during the insurgency, BOH has evolved into one of northern Uganda’s premier secondary schools, featuring (among other things) a robotics program that is drawing international attention.
  3. Visit the Soroti branch of the Bible Society to arrange for the purchase of Bibles for churches in the Soroti and Katakwi districts, an ecumenical outreach that will benefit both Protestant and Catholic parishes.
  4. Attend a clan gathering among old friends in Usuk where Betsy and I are expected as guests of honor, and where I will participate in an outdoor Mass for several hundred people.
  5. Visit field operations of Pilgrim Africa’s anti-malaria protocol in Katakwi. This study, funded by the Gates Foundation, will likely eliminate malaria for the majority of 38,000 people and lay the groundwork for greatly expanded work.
  6. Participate in a joint retreat and meeting for Pilgrim’s Ugandan and American boards, with particular attention to strategic planning for the future.

The day begins with a visit to the Beacon of Hope, and travel will branch out from there.  Please keep us in your prayers!


To the Ends of the Earth: Part 5

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Church in China is booming.

On my last day, I paid a visit to the headquarters of the government department that oversees all officially sanctioned religious activity in China, called the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). In order to receive license to function openly, in addition to being vetted to ensure they pose no threat to the State, religious organizations must be self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating. These criteria came into being when the TSPM was originated in 1952, to ensure that foreign religious entities (e.g. the Vatican) would not interfere in Chinese affairs, and that religious activity would not undermine the goals of socialism.

The TSPM has had its ups and downs. Churches were tolerated or suppressed at different periods, crushed during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, allowed to grow beginning in 1979, and treated with a strange mix of encouragement and disapproval since the 1990s. On the one hand, there has been an exponential growth in “underground churches” – a house-church movement with Baptist and Pentecostal roots that is illegal and severely opposed by the government. On the other hand, with China’s transition to a hybrid economy, there is a renewed emphasis on moral education, and the government appreciates the possibilities offered by “official churches” to strengthen the spiritual and ethical fabric of the nation.

I knew some of this before my meetings in Shanghai. I had travelled to Guangzhou fifteen years ago as part of a study tour, and learned a fair amount about the Church in China. What I did not know was the extent of the growth and the increased security of the churches’ official position. This became apparent when I met with the Reverend Dr. Melissa Lin, the Deputy Head of the China Christian Council (CCC), and her assistant Meiying Shi. Dr. Lin is also dean of the seminary in Nanjing, the country’s largest. Her MDiv is from an Episcopal Seminary, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, and she has a PhD from the Graduate Theological Union in Claremont, California.

The CCC is the umbrella organization for all the recognized churches in China. I did not ask for the number of congregations, but the “official” estimate of Chinese Christians is about forty million and growing. This does not include members of underground churches, so the actual number could be nearly twice that. There are 23 established seminaries. A state-of-the-art plant in Nanjing is printing Bibles at capacity, and still cannot keep up with demand.

After our conversation, I was given a tour of the church next door, the former Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral. Neglected for years, it has now been meticulously restored, including stained glass windows in the apse donated by the Episcopal Church. The renovation has won a UNESCO world heritage award, and the CCC hopes to plant a worshiping congregation here next year.

Over lunch, Dr. Lin and I talked about the challenges facing the Church here, the two largest being ecclesiology and liturgy. The CCC is officially “post-denominational.” They call themselves Christians, not Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian. However, those churches which had been planted by missionaries before the revolution still retain something of the flavor of the denominations that founded them. Worship in a formerly Presbyterian church may still feel markedly Presbyterian, for example. It is no surprise that with so many doctrinal and liturgical streams flowing together into one huge lake, it is a real challenge to bring about a common understanding of the marks of the Church, or a common liturgical practice.

Of course, I found myself volunteering to help. Dr. Lin smiled. In China, she said, we think it important to make friendships first, before we embark on any projects together. Americans always want to sign contracts right away. That’s not our style. She offered one of the marvelous dishes on the table in front of us. Would you care for more fish, she asked. I appreciated the gentle reproof, and had to laugh at myself for being a “typical American.”

Nevertheless, we did discuss the possibility of my leading a trip back to China in 2019, and I am thinking specifically of bringing a team from the diocese including some of our younger clergy. I think they would benefit greatly from the experience of seeing what mission looks like from a “post-denominational Church,” particularly in the context of a secular and sometimes hostile culture.

To the Ends of the Earth: Part 4

Tengchong, Yunnan Province, China; December 7, 2017

IMG_0137F His name is Joseph Kowalick.

Where he was born? Cleveland, maybe. Or Chicago. Maybe even Pittsburgh. A Polish boy. Catholic, no doubt.

Was he called Joey? Or Little Joe? Or was he the big brother? Did his mom insist everyone call him Joseph, so he would always be respected? Was he the oldest son in the household of a widow, raising his siblings until he went to war? Or was he the delinquent kid his family hoped would straighten out once he joined the army? Or was he, like thousands of others, just a quiet young man who answered his country’s call because it was the right thing to do?

Who could tell? Nothing on the stone in front of me gave those answers.

IMG_0147FWhat I do know is this. After the ceremonies of gift-giving at the War Museum in Tengchong, after the group photos and the tour, after we had come to some appreciation of all that had taken place here in the worst days of 1945, we were led to the National Martyrs Cemetery, to a quiet little square paved with flagstones, surrounded by a grove of bamboo, and 19 gravestones laid flat in the earth, with the names of the Americans who died in the final assault to take back this strategic town.

Each of our party was given a chrysanthemum and told where to stand. Then we were asked to place the flower on the grave in front of us, to honor them the way the Chinese honor their fallen sons.

And Joseph Kowalick, Private First Class, United States Army, was my son.

Were he alive, he would be by now an old man and full of years, aged 93 or thereabouts, perhaps with children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It is hard to imagine a life cut down so young, harder still to think he had almost made it to the end. A few more months and the war would be over. Hard to die here, so far from home, yet so near to the rest of his life.

And the Chinese knew that, even in those days of chaos and violence. By the end of the battle, there was not a single building in Tengchong that was undamaged by artillery or small arms fire. Over 100,000 Chinese troops and civilians died in the last months of fighting in western Yunnan. Close to 1,500 American pilots and crew members died flying the “Hump” to support and supply them. And thousands of other Americans gave their lives in the final days of the Chinese campaign.

But these 19 were special. They died for this town. And even as the Chinese were burying their own dead, they wanted to give these boys their due.

The bodies had been given to their American commanders. Some were buried in U.S. military cemeteries abroad. Others were repatriated and now lie in hometown graves in places like Kansas and Vermont and Mississippi.

But the Chinese asked for the soldier’s clothing, the bloodied combat uniforms worn when they were killed. And these, they buried in the same way they buried their own sons, the blood forever mixing with the soil for which they died — a special honor, in this quiet grove of bamboo.

IMG_0132FI laid the flower on Private Kowalick’s grave. And then all of us solemnly bowed three times. It is the way Chinese people honor their ancestral tombs. It is their way of saying, “Joe, you’re family now. Now and always.”

And maybe this further explains the welcome we have received, the kindness we have been met with from the moment we landed. I have had this strange sense that I have been adopted, without fully knowing why, until going outside this quiet enclosure and venturing through the Martyrs’ Cemetery, up a narrow staircase on a steep hill towards the shrine.

On either side, as far as can be seen, are the gravestones of more than 3,200 Chinese troops killed in the last days of the Western Campaign. They represent a small fraction of those who died. They are buried among the trees, in the beautiful forest, much like the landscape they last saw.

Inscribed on each stone is a name. I ask Colonel Ma, “Are there many unknowns?”

He is serious. “No,” he says, “they are all accounted for. We know the name of each and every one.” He thinks a moment. “Of course,” he says, “we cannot be certain that the bones and ash buried under each stone actually belong to the name inscribed above them. There may be remains of two or three soldiers in one plot.”

He pauses. Then he continues solemnly, “What does it matter? They are all together now.”

IMG_0151FAnd that is the moment when I know I have not been walking here alone, that I am in the company of Nicodemus who was on my mind as I made my way here, that I am touching the wounds and holding the shroud of the Crucified — Americans and Chinese and, yes, Japanese — those buried here and those who sleep for a time in unmarked graves in the impenetrable forests around us. I know that if we were more able to grasp in life the truth that we are all together now, there would be less need to grasp it in death.

And I wonder if it is that lesson the Lord is hoping we will take to heart before He returns, as He patiently listens to the squabbling of the living, and the breathing of the dead, their blood at rest in their shrouds here in this garden, waiting for the stones to be lifted and life to begin at last.

To the Ends of the Earth: Part 3

Tengchong, Yunnan Province, China; December 7, 2017

You know by now, from Parts 1 & 2 of this saga, that this story centers around a saddle blanket, from Mongolia, presented to my father from Chairman Mao Tse-tung in September 1945, in gratitude for getting him out of Chongqing alive.

IMG_0013FThe most important part of the blanket is the image of a deer. He is reaching upward with his neck toward a tree branch, trying to nibble a leaf just out of reach — a moment of longing and promise.

For years, this blanket hung in our den on the back of a small rocking chair where I always sat as a little boy. I was fascinated by it, and I worried for the deer. I asked my mother, “Will he ever reach the leaf?” She smiled and said, “Someday, perhaps.”

This past week, as we gave the blanket back to the Chinese people after more than 70 years of our stewardship, I have thought of this more and more.

Over those decades, the friendship of our two peoples has been tested by wars and hardships, and torn by terrible conflicts of ideology and interest. Another war, in Korea, pitted American troops against Chinese troops. Allies became enemies, casualties in the struggle between Communism and the West. Today, with Mao gone, China rising, and America in a state of re-definition, now what does this blanket mean?

I think of China as the deer and America as the tree.

The deer, occupying most of the frame, is full, vigorous, and expansive, one hoof lifted in an energetic and ambitious pose. But for all his strength, the leaf is still out of reach. The tree defines its boundaries. It is only partially visible, but with all its leaves, obviously very fruitful.

The deer yearns for what the tree possesses. He depends on the tree. The fact that the tree also depends on the deer is implied — they are made of the same colors — but the nature of that dependence is not so obvious.

Here, I am not speaking about economic ties but of a spiritual stake, the kind that one people might have in another — as Americans have with the English and French, with West Africans, and the native tribes of our continent — a stake forced on us by history and inescapable, no matter how we may think of ourselves and them, whether we like it or not.

How can this relationship be made clearer? What if there was some way to illuminate this bond? What if the tree bent down a little so that the deer could feed? Might the tree discover its purpose? Might the deer discover its peace?

IMG_0083.FjpgEnter with me the War Museum in Tengchong. Its ceremonial room is the sort you would expect in official China, with overstuffed armchairs and doilies, side-tables with small pots of tea and, in the background, a large landscape scroll. Unexpectedly, a banner surmounted the entire wall. It reads, “General John Paul McConnell,” in English and Chinese.

The deputy mayor and the local Communist Party secretary were there, along with Madam Zhang Wu Zhen, the daughter of a heroic local leader during the Second World War. Our translator, Colonel Ma, was there, and several other of our sudden friends. Together, we had banqueted wonderfully the night before, with toasts and counter-toasts, in bewildering and carefully prescribed order.

IMG_0071FI have never been treated with so overwhelming a display of affection and gratitude from people I had never met. There were warm speeches, in order, and gifts exchanged, in careful balance. My brother, Bruce, and I gave appropriate remarks. His focused on the necessity of international agreements, on a global partnership for sanity. Mine centered on the opportunity at hand for reconciliation and deeper relationship.

I was called to speak of these things, I told them, as a Bishop of the Church, sent not only to Christians but to all people as an ambassador for Christ and a minister of reconciliation.

Bruce and I were both a bit nervous about that part of my speech. Official China can be a bit sensitive to matters of religion. We sent Colonel Ma a draft in advance, suggesting that he could amend any part he thought might be awkward or inappropriate. His response was clear, “Your speech is perfect, sir.” I have since learned that his translation followed my text exactly.

After the ceremony, there were many group photos, an obsession in China. Our little blanket was proudly at the center of everything. “Such a small leaf,” I thought. “Such a large and lovely deer. Why should they care so much about his reaching this?”

The museum held the answer. It documented the suffering of millions of people under foreign enslavement, the years of brutal occupation, martial law, war crimes, and “comfort women” — a compendium of human cruelty. Yet all around were testimonies to the liberators, especially Americans like my dad who flew the “Hump,” who trained and supported, and fought and died with Chinese troops.

IMG_0106FOur VIP tour ended in the museum’s Great Hall, a vast space at the front entrance, where a monumental bronze sculpture depicts three figures in the foreground — a Chinese civilian official, a Chinese officer, and an American general — while in the background, American C-47s and B-24s roar out of the mountains. Around them, mounted on the walls, are more than 2,000 helmets of Allied troops who gave their lives.

IMG_0107FI understood, in that moment, that the price of this friendship has been paid in blood. When my hosts greet my brother and me, they greet those who gave their lives more than 70 years ago. They are deeply moved that we have not forgotten what they have always remembered. When their eyes well up at the airport as they see us off, when they say they want us to come back, they are not only speaking for the deer, they are speaking for the tree.

There is something very deep in this for us, both as Americans and as Church. Saint Paul is always clear that our identity as members of the Body of Christ is always to be found in each other — that the secret to our own existence lies in the calling of someone else. Put simply, we need one another. In that great official room, as I spoke of the reconciliation won in Jesus Christ, I saw in the eyes of those who listened, one of the most attentive audiences I have ever faced, nodding their heads, feeding on the Word, knowing that they were now tasting something that they had been hoping for all these years. I wondered, how many years has God been preparing the hearts of this people for this? And how much have I yearned for them without even knowing it?

To the Ends of the Earth: Remarks at Tengchong’s War Museum

Tengchong, Yunnan Province, China; December 7, 2017

Dear friends and honored hosts. My elder brother, Bruce, and I are overjoyed to be with you on this occasion. As you all know, in September of 1945, a month after the Japanese surrender, a peace conference took place in Chongqing between the Communists, under Mao Tse-tung, and the Kuomintang. Mao was granted safe conduct under American protection to and from the conference. Our father, General John Paul McConnell, was the pilot who flew him from his base in Yunnan province. At the end of the return journey, Mao presented our dad with this saddle blanket from Mongolia as a token of his thanks.

The blanket has now been in our family for nearly seventy years, and it has been well loved. Sometimes, when I was a little boy, I would just stare at it. I was fascinated by its portrait of a deer stretching its neck upward trying to eat a leaf hanging from a tree, just out of reach. I was worried for the deer. One day I asked my mother, “Will he ever reach the leaf?” She smiled. “Someday, perhaps,” she said.

I think that when Chairman Mao gave my father this blanket, he was expressing a hope that, though circumstances might separate us for a time, one day the people of China and the people of the United States would again share deep bonds of friendship. My brother and I believe that goal is now within our reach. And so we have joyfully put back in your hands the sign of the hope that Mao and our father shared, and that we share today.

As a bishop of the Church, I am an ambassador for Jesus Christ and a minister of reconciliation; I am sent not only to Christians, but to all people. In my own churches, I have seen that when people turn away from each other in pride or jealously or fear, they destroy their own work, and they break God’s heart. But when they turn again and embrace one another in forgiveness and compassion, they release a creative power that nothing can stop. For the Lord is gracious and merciful, and He loves humankind and desires that all His children should flourish.

Some may think this blanket is a small thing, and in some ways it is. But we have offered it as a small stone which we believe will be part of a great bridge of reconciliation, and the road across that bridge will carry the hopes of all humanity. We know the task is great. The world is still a fearful and violent place, and changing it is entirely up to us. And yet, as the writer Lu Xun put it, “Hope … is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.” My brother and I are thankful for your friendship and hopeful that many others will choose to join us as we walk together this road of partnership and peace.

To the Ends of the Earth: Part 2

Far western China, December 6, 2017

The city of Kunming reminds me somewhat of Denver, except the weather is better and the scale is massively bigger. At an elevation of over 6,000 feet, it has for centuries been a trading center on the ancient Silk Road. By some counts, about six million people now live here. When my father served here during World War II, it was a lot smaller and dominated by the American air base. From there, US and Chinese fighters and bombers mobilized to battle Japan.

After a brief morning visit, we boarded a flight on the final leg to Tengchong, near the border with Myanmar. These flights are in modern aircraft, efficient, clean, packed with locals, and managed by courteous attendants. They are smooth and quiet and on time. They sail well above the ragged peaks and turbulent winds of the mountain ranges below.

TheHump300The planes my father flew were the opposite in every respect. He guided bombers and C-47s from the Allied bases near Karachi, India, across the infamous stretch of the Himalayas known as the “Hump.” Those machines were loud, slow, unpressurized and freezing cold, threading the mountains at 20,000 feet. If strafed by Japanese ground fire or fighter planes, as they often were, the blood of the dead and wounded could freeze in puddles on the flight deck.

And yet, I have no idea what my father actually went through, because he never talked about any of it. When asked what it was like in the war, he just said, “We got shot at a lot.”

JetInt300C-47_interior_w_paras_1942-400I know I am flying in close proximity to routes he often flew, likely at times even following the same flight path. But the distance between now and then is immeasurable, with such incongruity between this commercial aircraft’s serene interior and that of the shuddering war machines filled with terror and courage that were his daily bread. Perhaps it is in order to understand something of what he and his Chinese comrades endured that I am making this trip, to revive a sense of connection between their world and mine.

This doesn’t mean my making sense of their suffering. War, like sin, is hideous. Sometimes we choose it against all reason. Other times, we stumble into it. On occasion, we have no choice, unless we want a greater evil to triumph. Regardless the reason, lives are cut short, families devastated, nations and cultures cut to pieces, and God’s fragile creation is scarred and desecrated.  One can only marvel that a conspiracy of pride, greed and stupidity – a perfect storm of the worst in human nature – should reveal the best, the love, the sacrifice, and the sheer bravery of so many, including those whose children I am about to meet and whose stories I am about to hear. So this pilgrimage is a Via Crucis, a journey in the Way of the Cross. I am seeking to bind my heart to this far-away world and carry it back into my own, because I know I have something to learn in this, about what it means to bear the name of Christ Crucified, to be His witness, in my own time and place.

In John’s Gospel, Nicodemus occupies this role. Before he meets Jesus, he is a comfortable man, well-born, educated and elite, a first-class politician. He comes to Jesus early on, by night, to see if there isn’t some comfortable way of following Him. What he gets instead is a crisis. Unless a man be born again…(Jn. 3:3). As soon as he hears it, he struggles, jokes, backs away. But the game is already over. He keeps his comfort for a time, hears the Lord preach, perhaps even invites him to his home, sees Jesus immerse Himself in the lives of the desperate, learns of His miracles, but Nicodemus keeps his distance. He is part of those who judge and condemn Jesus, even raising his voice in protest, yet still he is an observer – until after the work of the Cross is finished.

Then the distance disappears. Nicodemus braves shame and disgrace, pays for the burial spices, and goes by night again, this time to wrap with his own hands the pierced and beaten body of Christ, and lay it in a new tomb. It is hard to imagine a closer union with the Crucified One.

The Eastern Churches revere Nicodemus as an evangelist. I am sure he could never forget how the Christ had broken open his existence, how his personal landscape of council meetings, fashionable dinners, political jockeying in comfortable rooms, was shaken by his first visit to Jesus and shattered by his second. He was forever after a creature of two worlds – one very much the world of privileged human life, expecting smooth flight above the jagged peaks and howling winds of sorrow and loss, and the other, a life with the blood of Christ always on his hands, and with it a solidarity with those who suffer, with those who voyage through the unspeakable, the intolerable, the immeasurable dark.

As I flew toward Tengchong, I wondered if Nicodemus might be my companion in this most personal visit, to know in some measure the unspeakable things my father knew – the crews he lost, the death he averted while seeing others die, the senselessness and the carnage, and the strange emergence into light and peace on the other side. I had no idea what I might find. But even so far, I had learned this: that preaching the Gospel to the ends of the earth also means bringing the good news of Christ into the extremes of human experience, into houses of comfort and rooms of sorrow, into the days of our complacency and the hours of our terror, to find the Christ there, always with his word, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

To the Ends of the Earth: Part 1

Somewhere over the North Pole, on the way to Shanghai, 12/4 – 12/5/2017

DChina_Parents_IMG_8150_600uring World War II, my father was a young brigadier general in the Army Air Corps, serving in the Pacific theater. He flew bombers over “The Hump,” a particularly treacherous section of the Himalayas, and helped organize the composite wings of the Fourteenth Air Force, merging teams of Chinese and American airmen into a single unit against the Japanese over a front that stretched more than 700 miles. In Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka), he met my mother, a young Army major assigned to the staff of the Supreme Allied Commander for Southeast Asia, Lord Louis Mountbatten. My parents married in 1946 in Nanjing and continued to serve in China for two more years.

IChina_BlanketCU_IMG_8147_600wn our home, we have several pieces of art and furniture from China, part of my parents’ legacy. One of these is a small saddle blanket from Mongolia, a gift to my dad from Mao Tse-tung.

In September of 1945, a month after the Japanese surrender, American diplomats organized a conference between the Chinese Communists under Mao and the Kuomintang, or Nationalists, under General Chiang Kai-shek. Mao, considered a rebel and criminal by the Nationalists, was granted safe conduct under American protection to and from the conference in Chongqing. My father was the pilot who flew him from his base in Yunnan province. At the end of the return journey, Mao presented my dad with this blanket as a token of his thanks.

In October, my older brother Bruce, who spends a fair amount of time in China on business, called me up and informed me that the World War II museum in Tengchong was planning to honor our father on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of course, we both would need to be there, so I made plans to spend 72 hours in China. And, of course, we needed to bring a present of some kind. What better gift than Mao’s blanket? It’s in my suitcase, in the compartment above my seat, as I write this.

I confess I am a little ambivalent about giving it up. I have seen this blanket nearly every day since my childhood, with its twin portraits of a reindeer stretching its neck upward to reach a leaf hanging from a tree. When I was very young, it hung over the back of the little rocking chair in the den, from which I used to watch cartoons nearly every Saturday morning. It is a piece of my father – really of both my parents. They have passed on, so letting go of this now stabs me a bit. But the blanket is also a piece of history, and a part of the Chinese people. If I kept it, I’m afraid that over the next few generations the story behind it would be forgotten. I don’t want to see it go for five bucks should a future great-grandchild offer it at a garage sale. And it needs to be taken care of – cleaned up and restored a bit – so making it a gift to the museum seems the perfect thing.

Once we let this gift be known to the Chinese, the blanket turned out to be more cause for excitement than the party for my dad. I mean, sure, Pa was a war hero, but we are bringing back a relic of Chairman Mao! There is talk of an interview with the China Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, and there will be more than one banquet, I suspect.

Two other things about this trip.

chinamap600First, its crazy route: Pittsburgh to Minneapolis to Toronto to Shanghai. That gets me only into China. Then add another 3,000 kilometer trek west to Kunming and a final flight to Tenchong on the border with Myanmar. And back again. In six days. It is an odyssey, as if filmed in fast-forward.

Second, I am going not only as my father’s son, but also as a bishop of the Church. It turns out our hosts are very interested in this piece of who I am, and on Friday (December 8) I will have meetings with government officials and members of the China Christian Council in Shanghai.

All this makes it a pilgrimage, a sacred journey of huge import for my soul. Beginning with Nestorius, through the period of Mateo Ricci and the great Catholic missionaries, into the work of the China Inland Mission and the Anglican presence in Shanghai and elsewhere, those Christians who ventured to China must have felt as if they were fulfilling the command at the end of Matthew’s Gospel – to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth.

Over the centuries, there have been thousands of saints and thousands of martyrs in China. Since 1979, the Church has gradually been allowed to re-assert its life in the Gospel, under careful government oversight. And now, in a turbulent and dangerous world, perhaps the Christian mission to be ambassadors for Christ and ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5) may be more urgently needed than ever. Perhaps God will use this visit as a small but important addition to that work, a single stone in a bridge of His own making.

So, yes, I go to remember and honor my father – an act of filial piety the Chinese may particularly appreciate. I go to spend a little time with my brother, whom I love very much and don’t get to see often enough. I go to meet Christ, who is waiting for me in those who welcome me. And I go to learn from my sisters and brothers at the ends of the earth, to learn more about what our mission might look like in Pittsburgh, as God leads us on the road to love, teach and heal in the Name and power of Jesus.

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.