Most of us have secret questions that we must answer to gain access to our bank account or a credit card. One of the questions that I have answered in the past is “where would you most like to go on a vacation”. Wow. I could say Costa Rica or Bora Bora, or some other exotic location and I probably have. But one day recently I was thinking of this question and “Uganda” popped into my mind. Some people might look at me funny and say Uganda? As a matter of fact when I told people that I was going to Uganda this summer they did the exact same thing and added “why”?
Well, here is why. One of the first villages we went to was Kainagoga. Based on where I was sitting on the bus I was the very first person to hit the ground. All at once I was surrounded by a group of maybe 50 children shouting “welcome”! They pushed against me so hard that I literally lost my balance and if it weren’t for so many of them I would have certainly fallen. I have never before in my entire life experienced such a feeling. I was overwhelmed with their love and joy at seeing me. My heart and soul leapt and it felt like my brain exploded. This is the only way I can describe it. I thought then and now “who am I that I would receive such undeserved and unearned love”? This is a feeling that everyone should experience. There is no way to describe it. The only way to feel it is to experience it in person.
I could go on to talk about all the wonderful days that were spent in the villages. I could talk about the precious and beautiful children that hugged me and that I held. I could talk about the camaraderie I felt with the women and the special bond that was developed with them. I could do this because it was all there, but then again I can’t. Sometimes you read a book and then Hollywood turns it into a movie and those of us who read the book say, “the movie just didn’t do justice to the book”. Well it is kind of like that. The words cannot do justice to the experience. You just must experience it on your own.
It has taken me numerous attempts and a month to write my story. Sometimes I wake up in the night to a beautiful “Ugandan” memory and smile. I love the country of Uganda and I love the people who work there for Hearts and Hope. But most of all I love the people of the villages. Every single one of them. The thoughts of them always bring a smile to my face. I love to talk about them. I miss them. I will go back to Uganda again and again. It is in my blood.
As I eagerly prepared for this latest mission trip to Uganda, I began to notice a series of articles and blog posts circulating on social media criticizing short-term mission trips. These posts made the claim that the short amount of time that “Westerners” spent with people in impoverished countries, such as Uganda, really did more harm than good. If we’re honest with ourselves, we are exploiting the people we visited to make ourselves feel better without really putting in the work. We would be better off sending the money to the countries for resources and really doing something that mattered. We are kidding ourselves if we think that six days spent with hundreds of women and children would actually make any difference.
Of course I was offended and defensive and immediately thought of a million reasons why they were wrong and I was right and why I really was making a difference.
And then I remembered, it’s not about me. And it’s definitely not about what the blogosphere thinks. It’s about the tangible, the noticeable, and the incredible differences I’ve seen in the health, happiness, and overall well-being of five villages as the result of partnerships built by mission trips. It’s about the Holy Spirit working in incredible ways to create lasting relationships and transform lives for the glory of God.
On this latest trip to Uganda I was keeping this idea in the back of my mind. Were we really making a difference? Does making soap with 100 women under a tree really make a difference? Does holding this extraordinarily heavy child on my back for two hours really make a difference? Does playing soccer with a bunch of kids while I’m on the EQUATOR really make a difference? Does listening to this report and program from the leaders really make a difference?
The answer is and always will be a hundred times over: YES!
When three women spend half a day teaching other women how to make a product that will generate income for themselves, their families, and their communities, it matters.
When a child gets to be singled out and special for a couple hours so he can go home feeling loved, it matters.
When men interact with other young men and show them how they can use their talents and skills to benefit their community, it matters.
When a group of people from the other side of the world sit and listen to you share the experiences, achievements, and challenges of your one village, it matters.
It is difficult to really explain the impact that the partnership between the U.S. and Uganda through Hearts and Hope for Uganda truly has. This partnership is not only strengthened through mission trips. It’s because of sponsoring a student, attending a fundraiser, collecting donations, and just talking about Hearts and Hope and Uganda that there are people in Uganda whose lives are truly being touched.
It is always amazing how God works on these trips. Each member was affected in a unique and significant way. It is humbling to think how He had a plan for each of us coming together on the trip and for us to meet each and every child we came across. I felt so lucky to get to see nine new people fall in love with Uganda the same way I did and many others have before us. God’s ways are perfect, and it is a privilege to be His hands and feet in Uganda.
Thank you to all of the senders – your job is the most difficult, and the most essential. Thank you for being a part of why mission trips matter.
God has His hand on this place and these people, and all glory belongs to Him.
Today, we continue our series of posts from Hearts and Hope mission team members. Thank you to Michelle Larkin for sharing her thoughts on the progress she witnessed during her latest visit!
This trip was my second trip to the beautiful country of Uganda. I was able to go four years ago, in February of 2012. I was anxious to go back and not only see familiar faces, but also to see the progress that had been made through donors & organizations that have partnered with Hearts & Hope.
What a true blessing it was to see the difference after such a short time – the improvements in the lives of so many. Four years ago, I can recall with great detail the makeshift building made from branches and mud that Kainagoga used for a school. The throngs of kids that were packed into this makeshift structure – each in need of a quality education – would make any teacher nervous, especially with no supplies, no pay, no staff training, no food, and no clean water.
What a difference 4 years makes! This past winter, a permanent structure was constructed from funds raised at the 2015 Party with a Purpose and from generous donations from donors in Vestavia Hills, AL. What a beautiful structure it is!! It sits on a gorgeous piece of land and the school building looks like it goes on forever. You could see the joy and pride that the teachers and students had in their new school building – so many of them had sacrificed for years, teaching without pay and learning in something that barely resembled a structure. We had the pleasure of handing out packets to the sponsored students in the school. This was our first of many days handing out priceless communication from US sponsors to each of their sponsored students across various villages. However, Kainagoga has so many more to students in need of sponsorship!
Each classroom in Kainagoga’s school has a magnificent breeze that flows across the land and through the big windows. The classrooms are adorned with chalkboards, alphabet banners, and hand-made teaching posters. I was lucky enough to put an extra loving touch on one of the classrooms by helping to create a mural on the wall.
Kainagoga was a picture of health, education and joy that simply did not exist 4 years ago. (Please join us this August 20th for this year’s Party with a Purpose to fund wells)
I also remember visiting Butangala the first time 4 years ago - the tree and small tarp we sat under to worship and hear from the village leaders. Now there is a well that supplies the children and families with clean, healthy water. There are now structures for the classrooms – although they aren’t permanent, they are functional for now.
Butangala is such a joyful place. The teachers and school staff are happy to show you their newly purchased land, where some day they’ll have a permanent school structure. They are proud to show you the gardens they have planted together as a community to feed the teaching staff and children.
And the music… the village is literally full of music. The headmaster for Butangala has a passion for music, so these children learn many songs; songs for learning, songs for rejoicing and songs to fill the air. They encourage and teach the children traditional dances and how to make & play handmade instruments. We were privileged to see these skills in action.
It quickly became apparent that the community there is full of self-starters. Community members and parents were in attendance at every village we visited, but this village impressed me as to how much involvement there is from the village and surrounding community. They are all invested in the success of the school and the community as a whole – and this is what Hearts & Hope clearly seeks to establish, a self-sustaining village. The spirit within Butangala’s people will carry it forward over the coming years. Butangala’s children look so much healthier and happier since I visited in 2012 and the transformation – while in its infancy – is clearly evident and progressing quickly.
Both of these villages had no US partner church or sponsored students in 2012. While Kainagoga still does not have a partner, both villages are shining a light that everyone can see. These villages have clean well water that improves the health of the community, have education provided by certified, professional teachers, and sponsored children that are fed each day and have uniforms to wear. Glory be to God!!!
Matthew 25:40 - “…Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
This verse was a theme of several devotions during our trip. It weighed on my heart over and over as we’d visit each village and look into the eyes of the children. When we did simple acts like painting the nails of the women and girls, this verse came to mind. When we helped to make liquid soap with the women of the villages, so they might reproduce to earn money for their families, this verse weighed on my heart. When we played simple patty-cake games on the grass or showed the children pictures of themselves on our phones, this verse rang true. When we visited a school for the disabled, the verse screamed at me. When we stopped, took the time, paid attention to each person, we can visualize this verse in action.
Jason and Cornelius
Let me start by saying that this was my first trip to Uganda. In my mind, I knew my reasons for going were to spread God's Word, to show His Love, and hopefully touch a person or two. But I was not entirely sure how I was going to accomplish this. I thought I was fairly well informed about what to expect during our trip there. I had many discussions with those who have had the privilege of going previously... my wife, various friends, pastors and took every opportunity to read numerous blog postings about past trips. But none of that actually can prepare you for the experience of being there. I feel like now I truly get it!! From the first few moments upon arrival there I noticed the very different and unique smells, sounds, and visuals. None of these can be explained or even translate without really actually having the experience. I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to experience this wonderful trip and visit a beautiful place and meet extraordinary people.
Every day of the trip was different and remarkable, each village was unique and special in its own way. But the experience that I want to personally share was from the day we spent in Butangala. This was the day that I was most excited about and eagerly waiting forward to experience. Butangala is the village my congregation from Immanuel Lutheran Church in Wentzville sponsors. And I was very anxious to meet in person the two boys our family sponsors, Martin and Sanon.
Our arrival into the village was absolutely incredible!! As our bus drove down the narrow road to pull into the village, before anyone was visible, you could hear children joyously singing "You are most welcome!" You could feel the excitement in the air. As we got closer, we were greeted by the children cheerfully waving Eucalyptus branches, delightfully smiling, all while continuing to sing. It was an amazing scene. As we departed the bus, we were greeted by children and adults alike, with warm embraces and smiling faces. After our friendly hellos, we were invited by the village leaders to tour the perimeter of their land. It is beautiful village surrounded by breath taking views of green hills, their various crops and Eucalyptus trees. I immediately noticed the difference from past pictures I had viewed of the village, the new structures that had been erected, the grass that had been planted, and the vast amount of hand crafted musical instruments.
The people of Butangala are very proud and have achieved lots of growth and prosperity in a short amount of time with their extreme hard work. After the tour, we sat down with the village leaders and members for an opening ceremony and an incredible concert of sorts. This is where Butangala genuinely stands out. Their dedication to the arts is astonishing. It's hard to put into words, but we observed a wide array for the senses. We witnessed magnificent singing, graceful and rhythmic dancing, and outstanding musical instrumentation. I could not help but to feel proud of their accomplishments. Shortly after a few more speeches, another moment stands out for me....we were actually gifted a goat!! How often can you actually say you were given a goat?!!
As the day progressed, it was everyone's favorite part of the day, the chance to spend time with the children. In Butangala, I was able to help with the opening of the sponsored kids packets. After some time distributing packets, I located my family's sponsored kids, Sanon and Martin. Their English is limited, so with Nicholas and Maj's help, we made our introductions. The immediate smiles that came across both of their faces when they realized who I was is something that will stick with me forever. Sanon is very shy, and it took him a few minutes to warm up. Martin, on the other hand, is extremely outgoing and was taking my hand and putting it around himself instantly.
They were both so grateful for every little thing we were able to give them. The next hour or so, just hanging out with them, playing and showing them love is something I will forever cherish. I'm getting emotional just thinking and writing about that experience. They loved playing catch with a Frisbee, were fascinated with taking pictures and selfies on my phone, and had a blast with their new Cardinals hats (even though they had no idea how wrong it was to take a picture with Pastor Chuck and his dreaded Cubs hat, lol).
I also met a few more very special kids that day. Cornelius was a special needs boy with an absolutely tattered shirt on, held up by just a few strings. He had the biggest smile when I was able to give him a brand new, bright orange shirt to wear.
And then there was Moses, who was forced to drop out of school because of the pain caused by a growth on his neck. Moses also received a new, bright orange shirt, but even better and more importantly he is now sponsored and will hopefully get treatment soon!! Later that day, Violet and Mariah helped me find Brenda, and amazing girl who is sponsored by my wife's parents....she has an infectious smile and a kind soul.
Every single day in Uganda was unique and special. God is evident everywhere you look. Not enough can be said about the Hearts and Hope staff, from the wonderful team in the US to the inspiring team in Uganda. Every single person has been a true gift!! I sincerely thank all the staff of Hearts and Hope for their dedication to spreading God's love. I look forward to returning to Uganda , and I look forward witnessing the growth and prosperity of the villages, especially Butangala! If you are interested in going, do not hesitate, this is a life changing, inspiring, heart breaking and hear warming trip!!
Hearts & Hope is a nonprofit organization focused on unlocking the potential of people in Uganda through relationships with people in the US.