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.
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.
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.
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.
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.