If you need the rest of the story, it can be found here. Happy reading. ~ Holly
From our interaction with Ellya at the clinic, I learned he had lost a wife and a child. Now he had a child with cancer. Without question, he had endured more heartache than I could fathom.
I have to admit that when I first heard about the condition his children were living in I was indignant. When one of our translators returned from the village where Ellya lived she reported a one-room hut that was falling apart and had no door. There was no food for them to eat and their clothing was filthy. As she questioned neighbors there were reports of the children being left to fend for themselves while their father spent what little resources they had on alcohol.
And that’s when I got on my high horse. I mounted it and proudly rode around looking down my nose at this man who I didn’t even know. He should be more concerned with caring for his remaining children than with getting plastered. I looked at him with disdain, feeling as though he were beneath me. Beneath me not because of his meager life in a third-world country but because he wasn’t caring for his children.
When interacting with him I tried to wear my non-judgmental face but my scorn simmered underneath. Thoughts of how he should be doing things, how I would handle the situation, and all the ways he was falling short as a parent kept me from seeing him as an equal.
I knew my thinking wasn’t fair but I couldn’t seem to stop it. No matter how hard I tried I could only see what he was doing, not who he was. He was a drunk. He neglected those who relied solely on him.
As Steve and I spent time with him one afternoon at Mulago Hospital, all that changed. I saw a father who wouldn’t go eat for fear he would miss Joseph coming out of surgery. I saw strong hands struggle to keep his son from falling off the bed as he writhed in agony. I heard quiet, tender words spoken to Joseph in an attempt to sooth him. As I looked into his eyes I saw the beginnings of tears. All these things were a wet blanket on my fire of indignation.
Then came the moment when it was all washed away.
“Thank you. Thank you for what you have done for my son. I received a diagnosis and took him home to die but you Muzungus brought him here,” he said with shame in his eyes.
In that moment I believe I was given a glimpse into Ellya’s heart. I had mistaken hopelessness for indifference, sorrow for selfishness.
All the feelings of haughtiness and superiority drained from me and I saw Ellya in an entirely new way. For the first time I saw him for who he was. He was a single father with 4 children. He was a widower. He was grieving the loss of a child. He had a son with cancer and no means to seek treatment. He was a man. He was a human – created in Gods image, just like me.
I had been cruel and unfair.
Do I want people who don’t really know me to swoop in and pass judgment on my life? Do I want to be seen only for what I do? Would I like for people to focus on my mistakes? Never! But that’s exactly what I had done. I had judged. It’s so tempting to criticize what we haven’t walked through.
That’s the lesson for me: don’t look at people through the lens of their choices. When I do that I see them as nothing more than the sum of their behaviors, and looking solely at behavior misses the heart. If I truly want to see someone I must be willing to look past their choices.
Not many of us will find ourselves on the other side of the world passing judgment on a hurting man. But each of us will be tempted to do the same thing in our circle of family, friends, and acquaintances. Whether it’s an addiction, deliberate bad choices, or simply failure to make any choice at all, there are many people on whom we pass judgment. Instead of callously drawing conclusions I am challenged to take the time and make an effort to understand the person rather than their behavior alone.
I remember the first time I found myself in a country where English isn’t the native language. At eighteen, the furthest I had traveled away from home was to New York City. To say I was naïve would be an understatement; green, tenderfoot, and youthful. I knew traveling to India would be a different experience but I failed to grasp how daunting it would be.
The first time I noticed I was in a great minority was during a layover in Bahrain – the sounds, the stares, the unfamiliarity. The next 6 weeks in India were not much different. Our group had contacts there who spoke English but for the most part I was lost in a language that was foreign to me.
I learned only enough Hindi to tell the rickshaw driver when to go and when to stop. Gesturing never quite conveyed what I was trying to say. A feeling of restlessness as people on the street around me spoke unfamiliar sounds at breakneck speed became my new norm. I remember straining, hoping to catch a familiar word.
The next time I would experience this feeling is 20 years later. On my first trip to Uganda in 2011, there were a few more English-speaking people. But again, I was relying on gestures to try and communicate with the native people. The villagers who came to our medical clinics spoke no English, and even though we had interpreters there were times the language barrier still loomed between us like a dense fog.
A few of us resorted to using objects as a way of finding common ground with my daughter excelling at this technique. A rubber glove was transformed into a chicken balloon, complete with scribbled ‘Sharpie’ eyes. Bubbles became the catalyst for belly laughs. Things these children had never seen eased the fear of unknown Mzungus examining them. And the next year there were Matchbox cars.
I’ll never know if Joseph’s initial apprehension was related to our bleached skin or if he was weary of being examined. The usual tricks I had learned to rely on didn’t alter the detached look in his eyes. I felt inept as I tried to entertain Joseph and his brother, Godfrey, while their father was arranging details of the upcoming surgery in Kampala.
I don’t even remember where they came from, whose suitcase carried the unsuspecting ambassadors around the world. But I will never forget watching the veil drop and a smile creep up Joseph’s misshapen face. The squeals of unabashed, barefaced laughter are still burned in my memory.
We didn’t need words – English or Lugandan. Two brothers, some toy cars, and a table to roll them across… these were the ingredients to an afternoon of freedom; freedom from doctors, tumors, worry, and fear.
That afternoon I felt like they were the teacher and I the student. The subject: universal language. We didn’t need common vocabulary. We didn’t need an interpreter. We didn’t need to stare quietly at each other, wondering how to communicate. Smiles, cars, and belly laughs became the bridge that united us.
I’ve often wondered what Joseph was thinking. Was there a key to unlock the dialogue in his head? Now, I know it doesn’t matter. For a little while however, two boys were liberated, and I will never be able to put into words how fortunate I was to observe no matter how many languages I learn.
Click here to read previous posts in this series.
Here is the next post in a series I am writing about a family I met in Uganda last year. New posts will be posted each Tuesday morning. Thank you for sharing in this story with me.
I know my God is a God of miracles – staffs to snakes, water to wine, imparted visions of heaven. From Genesis to Revelation, God steps into humanity and alters circumstances. I recognize that God is always intimately involved in the lives of his children, but there are brief moments when God plants his holy feet in the dirt of humanity and what follows can only be called a miracle – the moments when the veil between the divine and the mortal is briefly parted.
These sacred moments are the hallmark of Christians. We are eager to see evidence that our faith is not in vain, that there is reason for our belief in an unseen God. This eagerness sometimes causes us to read into situations, trying desperately to make them fit our idea of a miracle. Maybe it’s the conservative denomination I grew up in, but I have always been hesitant to throw around the word miracle. I don’t deny their existence. I’m just judicious with how I use the term.
But even in my hesitancy, I couldn’t deny that the circumstances surrounding Joseph were miraculous.
When the staff saw Joseph in the clinic in Mityana, we were immediately aware that his needs exceeded the scope of our crude resources. His swollen face and bulging eye suggested a tumor, and conversations with his father, Ellya, substantiated our fear. With no way to help, we sent them back to their village. There was no peace with that decision. But what else could we do?
Then we met Dr. Jay. In our previous stay at The Enro Hotel we had never run into any other Mzungus, and suddenly there were six of them. Dr. Jay and his family were spending 6 months in Uganda running medical clinics. His contacts were vast and in a short conversation he agreed to see Joseph. On Tuesday we had sent Joseph home to die. By Wednesday afternoon he was in Kampala having a CT scan at Mulago Hospital.
It looked miraculous enough! How else do you explain the orchestration of people in the right place at the right time? Joseph had a biopsy, was treated and the prognosis looked promising.
And I think that’s how we Christians like things. We would never come right out and say it, but if we are honest some of us battle what I call equation theology; A (present problem) + B (doing the right thing, praying, etc) = C (the desired outcome). We found a sick child, prayed fervently for his healing, located the resources he needed and expected God to heal him. It would be a miracle. We could count on God to ante up, right?
But a few months later Joseph died. Therein lies the problem with using the word miracle. In our culture it implies a positive outcome. Ellya had to bury another child. Pross and Godfrey lost another sibling. How is that positive? The result wasn’t what we prayed for. Does that negate the explicitly miraculous events that brought us all together? If we measure God by the outcome we desire we reduce him something as simple as 1 + 1= 2
It’s tempting to try and define what God’s will is in any given situation and in doing so we risk missing the bigger picture. If I tried to tie divine will into a neat package with a bow on top and call it a miracle, I’d be disappointed. How could I not be? Joseph died. When I take the time to look at the larger picture, I still see the miraculous. I see a beautiful little boy who is no longer suffering. I see two neglected children who are being nurtured. I see a father who was given the resources to do everything that could be done to save his son. And I realize one more time that even though I believe in God there will always be things I don’t understand, but God is bigger than my questions.
For the past three years I have been privileged to serve on a short-term mission team in Uganda. There is no way to put into words the impact these trips have had on me. I haven’t written about my experiences there before;not for lack of words but because I fear sharing them will never accurately portray what’s in my heart. And there’s a part of me that cherishes keeping these things to myself, as if they are too private to share. But now I am putting my selfishness aside and sharing a story about a family I met last year. I hope you can identify with the lessons I’ve learned from what unfolded!
“Come and see my bed,” the nearly inaudible whisper lingered in stark contrast to the excitement on her face. As I followed Pross, I was acutely aware of the austerity of the house. But enclosed in one of the concrete rooms was a bed. Her bed. We stood close, with barely enough room for us between the two sets of bunk beds. Pross’ bed was easy to spot; a riot of red floral fabric. Her face-wide grin conveyed her pride. I stood there shaken to my core by the flood of emotions. A widowed father. Joseph’s swollen face. Godfrey and Pross’s terror. Death. Loss. Abandonment. They swirled through my consciousness at movie-montage speed. I was transported back to the year before.
A year before, I thought things would turn out differently. I thought that we had caught the cancer in time. I thought we had provided a way for a father, who was still grieving the loss of his wife and a child, to bypass another loss. What had looked like a miracle had ended abruptly. The phone call came five months after we left Africa. I felt betrayed. For five months my cautious hope had secretly taken root, outgrowing my sense of apprehension. My hope had grown while Joseph had died.
“Holly, little Joseph died.” I struggled to hear. The words couldn’t be right. I failed to grasp meaning through the hazy molasses-thick fog in my brain. “What? Joseph?” My heart immediately heard what my brain tried to deny. The questions wouldn’t stop coming. Why did Joseph have to endure the treatment if the end result was the same? Why did I have to know? That sounds selfish, but why did circumstances cause me to meet him and get involved if my actions didn’t affect the outcome? Then I thought about the agony Steve and I saw him in after the biopsy in Mulago Hospital. No matter how hard I try, I can’t block the tormenting memories. What was the purpose of it all?
As I stood looking at Pross I began to understand what had previously only served to hurt and anger me. Could Pross and Godfrey be the answer? No, Joseph wasn’t spared and a hurting father lost another child. But the series of events that started with meeting Joseph in the clinic ended with changed circumstances. Pross and Godfrey now have a home where before they had remnants of a thatch hut falling apart. Crisp, clean school uniforms, food, shoes, and beds; these were all new to them. Last year I saw a timid girl who struggled to make eye contact. Now I saw a confident young woman with a stunning smile. Had she been left in the village, men would have seen an unprotected young woman and taken advantage of that. Instead, she is thriving in school while a family in town provides safety. She is free to be 14.
God also could have saved Joseph but he didn’t. “Could have but didn’t”. What does that mean? What are the implications? The tension between could have and didn’t still works a knot in my brain. After much reflection the only answer I can come up with is that I don’t know. I honestly don’t know; and I don’t understand. But a thought has surfaced over and over as I replay the scenes; lessons learned. There are lessons I have learned along the journey that were needed. Maybe I was the only intended pupil, but since the lessons seem universal, I will share the whole story. And in doing so, expand the classroom for anyone else who wants to learn.