What Really Happened in Africa

I found an orphan in Uganda; but not the one I was looking for or wanted to meet. This is the one I was actively pushing away. I didn’t want to acknowledge she existed. I tried to amuse her by being friendly and pretending she was a part of the group. When a situation arose that demanded truth, I tried to placate her by handing her a journal and telling her to write but that didn’t really work. Finally, I tried to ignore her altogether but she kept coming back, demanding my attention but not telling me why. She wanted to show me something. I told her no.

The veil between us and God is a little bit thinner in Africa. Here in the States it seems like a drape hanging between us and the throne; the kind that is so thick it blocks the light from coming in the window to wake you up. In Africa, it seems like gauze billowing in the breeze; you can make out images of the Spirit, but it’s still not completely clear. Minus the thick heaviness of gathering material possessions, or bank deposits, or the busyness of success, there is the freedom to feel—to allow—the breeze of grace and compassion to be the wind that carries you, that connects your soul to another.

My favorite part of the trip was shaking hands at a local high school we visited just outside of Lira. Our team was to be the highlight of their assembly. They weren’t ready for us when we arrived so they sat us in the middle of the courtyard to wait. Sitting in a fishbowl is an understatement. Several hundred kids, maybe a thousand, sat two or three deep around the perimeter on the sidewalks of the buildings…all staring at us, the “moonos,” the white people. Because of another assembly that was running late, it was decided we would not stay and talk to the students. Our team leader instructed us to go around the courtyard and quickly high-five the kids sitting and waiting. I didn’t want to be quick. I tried to shake as many hands as possible, looking each one in the eye, smiling, saying hello. Some shook my hand, some gave me the knuckle bump, some took my hand with palms up, and one young man put a fist to his chest. I asked what that meant. “Friend. You are my friend.”

For most of the trip I felt very inadequate and out of place. I painted the buildings at the COTN orphanage with other team members, but this isn’t what was needed. What was needed was something I didn’t think I had. I’m not a good conversationalist; mingling at cocktail parties is worse than a root canal. I’m not good at praying; especially out loud in front of an audience. I’m not good at imparting spiritual wisdom; I don’t know the right words to use to make someone feel better. I needed to offer them my soul but my soul was blocked off. I felt all I had to offer was a smile and a handshake. A simple touch that said, “You matter. You are not forgotten.”

That orphan girl, the one that wouldn’t leave me alone, needs to hear that she matters and that she is not forgotten. Physical poverty is one thing; wells can be dug, food can be brought, medicine can be supplied, to end the deprivation . But spiritual deficiency is something else entirely. It is up to the individual, a decision must be made, to see and believe. Spiritual fullness doesn’t get delivered in a package from another person. It is first a personal decision to reach up vertically and plug our soul into the soul of God himself, to allow Him to be everything we need, to depend on Him for the very breath in our lungs; and then it is reaching out horizontally and connecting our soul to the souls of our fellow human beings, validating them, breathing life into them, putting our arms around them and never letting go.

The orphan girl wanted to show me something. I told her no.

–Tara Schiro is the author of “No Arms, No Legs, No Problem: When life happens, you can wish to die or choose to live” NOW AVAILABLE on Amazon and Barnes and Noble http://www.NoArmsNoLegsNoProblem.com

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If you Serve, Expect to get Served…Fruit

Serving has a way of putting life into focus. For some people, the result is bad. It makes us question who we are and what our life is about. We might serve food at the homeless shelter, we might visit a safe house for inner-city kids, we might make a meal for a cancer patient, we might go to Africa and serve at an orphanage.  The point is that serving exposes us to situations that are uncomfortable: disease, dysfunction, filth. And once we are in that uncomfortable position, we are left with a choice: Do I invest in this problem and make a commitment to continue to help? Or do I pound a few nails so I can put ‘serving’ on my resume’ and then go back to my own life?

A question I’ve asked myself is this: the world is such a mess, there are so many starving people both here and abroad; why isn’t anybody doing anything? Why does there have to be such a disparity between the haves and the have not’s? I came across a quote one day that went like this: “A man was praying and said, ‘God, why aren’t you doing anything about this problem?’ And God said to the man, ‘I’d like to ask you the same thing.'”

A lesson I’ve learned since returning from my trip to Uganda is that many people are not interested in knowing about Africa or the orphans. I quickly discerned which friends or family wanted to know about the trip and which ones did not. I use a simple litmus test to decide how much information to give to the person in front of me. I bring up the fact that I was in Uganda for two weeks and then I wait for them to ask  questions. I will stand there as long as it takes to answer as many questions  as they like. But, if they do not ask questions, other than “how was your trip,” then I know that this person really does not want to hear about my experience. And the reason, I think, is because they do not want the responsibility of knowing there are people on the planet that need their help. These same people will turn around and complain about how messed up the world is but when the rubber meets the road, so to speak, they don’t want to get involved. They want to stay in the dark as much as possible so they can be comfortable in their own little world.

I wrote in a recent blog post that “serving isn’t about the doing; serving is about the relationship through the doing. It is validating one another, human to human, to say to that person: you matter enough for me to give you a hand and lift you up.” It is at this point where we who are serving get served. It is a humbling check of the ego to give to “the least of these.” Once we serve, the selfish side of us rears up and tells us we don’t need to be involved on a continual basis. Our house needs repaired, our kids need clothes, we’ve been talking about that luxury vacation for three years. If we commit ourselves to helping this problem, we can kiss our own lives goodbye. We will have to start saying no to us and yes to a stranger who is probably too lazy to help themselves anyway. They want that life. They choose that life. They were born in the wrong country, how is that my problem? Right? Don’t we say those things to ourselves? I know I do.

Knowledge is costly. When we expose ourselves to the atrocities of this world, we are exposing our heart to the possibility that it might break. When our heart breaks, we must do something to repair it. We can either go back to life as it was and either block or rationalize the experience to make ourselves feel better, or, we can re-prioritize our life and continue to make a difference. This is a hard decision because it means we need to give up being selfish. We may need to give up monetary goals or dreams. But when we make the decision to embrace humanity, to roll up our sleeves and forget about ourselves, we will be served the best kind of fruit on the planet: the Fruit of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,  faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. For against such things, there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23

–Tara Schiro is the author of “No Arms, No Legs, No Problem: When life happens, you can wish to die or choose to live” NOW AVAILABLE on Amazon and Barnes and Noble http://www.NoArmsNoLegsNoProblem.com

Serving Is Always More Than You Bargain For

A version of this post will be published in the Sept/Oct SFV-CAMFT publication, CONNECTIONS

Even though I’m not a therapist, I spend a lot of time sizing people up. I love to pinpoint why a person is insecure, why they take control of every situation, why they think they know it all. But on a recent trip to Uganda, I was the one who needed my head examined. I was in a third world country serving the poorest of the poor, the orphans–and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what I had to offer that was of any use.

Fifteen of us from Real Life Church in Santa Clarita were part of the annual trek this year to the orphanage that our church built in 2007. Back then, we raised $50,000 and in partnership with Children of the Nations (COTN), sent a team to lay the bricks for the school and dorms. Every year since, a team has raised money to go back to complete another project. This year we built a latrine, painted the dorms, and organized the sea container we’d sent last August. I signed up to be a part of this year’s team–initially not for the right reasons. I raised my hand because I was bored being at home all the time. I don’t get to go anywhere because I have kids and don’t really have any occasion to go anywhere by myself. I wanted an adventure. I wanted to see what the planet looked like on the other side. I wanted out for a while. “Serving” is always more than you bargain for. I put that in italics because I’m still not clear who was serving whom. We were there “to do” things for them, things that needed to be done, but they were much more interested in relationship. They wanted to serve us. We were their guests. Some of the locals gave us chickens and fruit in gratitude for taking care of the children. We stayed in a clean guest house where we were fed and someone did our laundry and made up our mosquito nets every day. More importantly, they wanted to know if we were coming back and pleaded with us to remember them once we left for the States.

If I were to size up the people of Uganda I would say they are hard workers for daily survival. They make three trips a day to a well a few miles away just to be able to drink and bathe and wash the plates. They sell food or clothes in the market and barely survive on a dollar a day. I would also say that the orphans, and the Nationals who take care of them through COTN, are grateful beyond understanding. They sing and dance praises for everything they have. I did not hear one of them complain about anything. They praise God for the abundance they have been given.

They have been torn with civil war and brutalized from vicious attacks by the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) rebels. Northern Uganda has suffered civil war for over two decades. The LRA was formed in the late 1990’s to resist against the Ugandan Government, but when support for them began to dwindle after the death of its founding leader, the LRA’s new leadership took a violent turn and began plundering villages, setting them on fire, raping, butchering, and kidnapping boys to force them to become child soldiers for them. The Ugandan government tried to help its citizens by rounding them up into IDP (Intentionally Displaced Persons) camps to try and give them military protection, but this lead to disease and famine and the LRA rebels often out-powered the military. In February of 2004 the LRA attacked the IDP camp of Barlonya where our orphans came from. The rebels are now hiding out in the Congo and causing the same kind of havoc in that area. Many of our orphans watched their parents burned alive in their huts, hiding in the human waste in pit latrines to avoid being raped or butchered with a machete. Many ran into the bush to avoid being captured and made into a child soldier. The ones that  were babies at the time of the attack are told the tragic story of their parents death by their current guardians; and they are told to forget about them because they are not coming back.

Our church continues to serve these children so when they grow up they can hope to fulfill their dreams of becoming doctors or lawyers or teachers. They want to make a difference. They know quite well where they came from, but they also know that they need our help so their past doesn’t become their future.  They depend on us for three meals a day, an education, a clean and safe place to sleep, for clean drinking water and access to medical care. They depend on us to serve, whether or not our reasons are in the right place. Serving isn’t about doing; it is about relationship through the doing, human to human, that says we value one another and desire to lift one another up so we can all have a meaningful life.

Tara Hoke Schiro is the Associate Editor of CONNECTIONS. NOTE: There are many children on the waiting list to be a part of the program at the orphanage. Through Children of the Nations, $32 per month will drastically change an orphan’s life. If you would like to sponsor a child in the village of Lira, Uganda, please visit http://www.COTNI.org.

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Remind me, again, why we’re in Uganda…

We came to serve the forgotten ones; the poorest of the poor, the least of the least. It sounds good in theory, but after hearing the presentation at the mass grave site, I felt really stupid. How was I supposed to help? We were in Barlonya, the IDP camp just outside of Lira where a good majority of the orphans we were helping came from. Their origins were here. They were born here, lived here, and watched their parents die here. This was their history. The massacre in February of 2004 by the LRA was their start in life and we needed to learn it.

My kids have cell phones and iPods and a Mac laptop. They can open the pantry and eat whatever they want in an air conditioned room while watching a cake decorating competition or the latest experiment on Mythbusters.  We think this is living.

Helen Apio came from Barlonya. The LRA rebels jumped out of the bush and shot her mom between the eyes. Helen pulled at her and cried, “wake up wake up,” but she was already dead. Her father and brother were burning alive in the hut. The camp was in chaos. Women were being raped. Helen took a blanket from a dead man, wrapped it around her and tried to pull an old man, whose legs were on fire, into the bush. Her blanket caught on fire and burned her arms. Her aunt was able to rescue her and take her to a medical facility. She now lives at the COTN orphanage where we are “serving.” She is grateful to God.

I think I’d like to have an iPad. They are lighter than a laptop and checking my emails from a larger screen would be easier on my eyes than on my cell phone when I’m on the go.

Maureen Abura’s grandmother decided to hide them in the pit latrine when the rebels tried to get her to follow them over to the area where they were butchering people with machetes. Many of the kids were being abducted into the rebel army and as their initiation, were being forced to kill people they knew. The rebels kept calling, “are you coming?” and her grandmother kept answering, “yes, I am coming,” but they could not see her. She was hiding her family in human excrement. They found her in the morning and shot her in the leg. She died 30 days later. Maureen’s eyes are bright now when we hug her and play games with her at the orphanage. She knows she is loved.

Nook, or Kindle? I like the feeling of an actual book in my hand, and I love to take notes in the margins, but the thought of carrying ten heavy books in one little device is appealing.  Maybe I should add this to my Christmas list.

Janet Akello is an orphan. She didn’t say how her parents died. She lived in a village just outside of Lira. She slept on the hard floor. She thought she was useless. School was out of the question. There was little or no food and no clean water. She lived in the dirt. Her relatives told her to pray for a better life but she refused. Someone suggested her name to COTN and she was accepted. At first she was uncomfortable but after a week began to trust and enjoy being taken care of. She now had plenty of food, clothes, medical care, clean well water to drink and bath in, and schooling. She gets to study! In the village she had nothing and knew nothing. Now she speaks English and knows that God rescued her through COTN. Now she is excited to praise God for her many friends, the relationship with whites, and the many blessings that come every day. She has no mother, but she has many Mama’s that love her and take care of her at the orphanage.

I can’t wrap my mind around all this. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to help or what I can do for them. They are stronger than me, braver than me, more grateful than me. What am I doing here?

–Tara Schiro is the author of “No Arms, No Legs, No Problem: When life happens, you can wish to die or choose to live” NOW AVAILABLE on Amazon and Barnes and Noble http://www.NoArmsNoLegsNoProblem.com

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