Category Archives: Pilgrim Africa ’16

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.