Jacob Zinn :: journalist + photographer

JRNL 4240 – On a Mission from God

JRNL 4240 – Social Issues

April 2012

On a Mission from God

Brent White was 21 years old and on a trip to Uganda when he was faced with the most heartbreaking decision of his life.

A woman, desperate but calm, pled with White to take her children.

She was a widow raising five children on her own after her husband passed away, assumed to have drowned in an apparent boating accident on Lake Victoria. She had lost most of her family in the Ugandan Bush War of the 1980s, but managed to survive cuts from machetes across her face, wrists and chest. She had waited two months for the team’s return and spent the previous two days walking from her village to the cinder-block building where the Peace Portal Alliance Church missionary team stayed.

This was White’s fifth missions trip to the East African republic, having gone there every year since 2006. While he had been approached before by locals in need of money for medical care, schooling and food, he had never been asked to take children, an uncommon request.

He didn’t know how to respond; aside from a few casual phrases like Chi Chi (an informal “Hello”) and Bulungi (“I am fine”), there was a language barrier as thick as a brick wall. Translating through the local pastor, a tearful White told the woman “I’m sorry, you are their mother and they need you, and they need to know the love of their mother.”

“There was this shame of having to talk through the pastor,” White, now 23, recalled in a Tim Horton’s. “I summarize it and it definitely wasn’t this easy ‘cause there was tears on my part and there was tears on her part.”

White first went to Uganda when he was 17, just after he graduated high school, on PPAC’s inaugural trip. He’d always wanted to go overseas and volunteer his help, but situations like this were helpless. He couldn’t even give her money without breaking the church’s missionary guidelines.

After she calmed down, he drove her back to her village – a two-and-a-half hour drive – and spent time with her on what the team calls Care & Compassion. The group visits peoples’ homes and talks with them, hears their stories and prays for them.

He prayed for her, because he could do nothing else.

• • •

As a current team leader, White is one of five people in charge of preparing newcomers for the trip he’s taken six times. At a team meeting in the basement of one of the first-time travellers, White and youth pastor Geoff Stewart went over some of the basic things the room full of teenagers needed to know before they can even set foot in a foreign country.

“These are only two-week, three-week trips,” said White. “For these people that go on these trips, sometimes this is their one and only encounter with Uganda. We really want to make it impactful.”

“We want to make it something that is not just about them, it’s not just about us. It’s about us coming together and serving and working together.”

He remembered his thoughts and emotions as he waited outside of YVR to embark on his first trip. “In my mind, I was expecting God to really show me what the rest of the world is really like,” he said. “Beyond the WorldVision ads, beyond the comforts of western society, I knew I expected something different than what you see on TV. And to really transform my heart in that way to respond.”

Now it’s his duty to prepare the team – especially the first-timers – for the nervous anxiety that they’ll likely endure leading up to and during the trip.

This year’s team is largely made up of teenagers, almost all of them still in high school but mature beyond their years.

Tikvah Pickard, 16, is returning to Uganda for the first time since 2009. She went on that year’s trip after she was approached by the youth pastor at the time, who thought she would be an excellent addition to the team for the fourth-annual journey.

“I said ‘yes, sign me up!’” she spouted enthusiastically. “‘Guess what, parents?’”

Connor Robinson, also 16, jumped at the chance to go on this year’s outing.

“Something I thrive for is new opportunities,” he said. “There’s a great group going. It just seems like such a good opportunity to take advantage of.”

Through the leaders, the team is learning responsibility and proper behaviour, and developing discipline to carry overseas to Peace Portal Community Church, the local ministry in Uganda.

In a handout, the leaders outlined limits on photography (“we do not want to be perceived as ‘poverty tourists’”), opinions (“keep them to yourselves”), gifts (“all donations are to be left with the church leadership to be dispersed at their discretion”) and hygiene (“leave perfumes at home… just attracts bugs”). Even what people post on Facebook before the trip can reflect on the church.

Pastor Scott Dickie, the outreach leader in charge of the Uganda trip, echoed much of the same sentiment.

“Our mandate first is to do no harm,” he said while sitting inside the Starbucks across the street from Peace Portal Alliance Church. “That requires some education, the people that are going understanding our objectives and our rationale in doing things.”

The rule against giving money and gifts is to allow missionaries to bond with the locals and prevent setting a negative standard.

“People with good intentions can often create unhealthy dependency or conflict just out of the goodness of their heart,” said Dickie. “They’re creating a dynamic there that’s hurting the opportunity for an authentic relationship to develop and hurting the next team that comes.”

“It makes sense in people’s heads when you’re over here and you’re talking about it, but when you have a Grade 7 child in front of you crying because they can’t go to school, it’s pretty hard not to just want to give them the money.”

Lindsey Schacter, a LIFE Teams manager with Global Aid Network who specializes in helping missionary groups plan their trips, concurred with Peace Portal’s rules and educational preparation.

“Sometimes North Americans can go in with the mentality that they know better or that they know how to do things,” she said, “so instead of coming in with the attitude of a learner, they don’t learn well while they’re there.”

Of course, getting to Uganda, some 14,000 kilometres away, is itself a challenge. It’s a nine-hour flight from Vancouver to London and another nine hours from London to the major town of Entebbe – with a lot of wasted time in between. Once they’ve landed in Uganda, they drive northwest, detouring through the capital city of Kampala along bumpy, arid roads of red dirt to the 10-acre property in Mpigi, a town with an estimated population of 38,800.

The trip costs roughly $3,500, not including vaccinations for diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. The church provides fundraisers and encourages its team to ask friends and family for donations, but ultimately, it comes down to the individual to pay their way there.

“It’s definitely always on my mind, thinking about if I’m going to get all the money in time,” said Jordan Charles, 16, who is going on the trip for the first time.

Charles has an outgoing personality, but like many of the other team members, he has trouble asking for money. The group still has four months to get the money together, but even convincing people you know to lend a few dollars can be tough.

“I think it really depends on the people [you ask],” said White, who’s spent roughly $21,000 on past Uganda trips. “For the most part, though, I give the benefit of the doubt and say people are quite generous.”

Still, sitting in the basement after the meeting, Charles and the others don’t seem too worried about expenses. “I figure this is God’s work and if he really wants me there, I’ll get the money,” said Charles.

“Logistics and organizing and all that kind of stuff, that’s a challenge,” said Pastor Dickie, “but those are all secondary things to making sure our people are ready and understand what’s being asked of them.”

At the meetings, the team is prepped with cheat sheets for speaking everyday words in Lugandan, the native language. They are taught limits to photography on the trip, particularly when it is and isn’t appropriate to take snapshots.

Perhaps the most difficult part is relating to the Ugandan people. Schacter pointed out that the language barrier can be a large issue without the help of a translator.

“How do you communicate the gospel when you don’t speak the language?” she asked rhetorically.

The other issue of speaking with others is knowing what to say and what not to say. Voicing your opinion on the country’s issues can start unnecessary arguments, so the team is expected not to discuss politics, the military or other sensitive subjects.

Similarly, in instances when someone asks for help with something, the team’s choice of words is important. Even telling them “I’ll see what I can do” can lead them to interpret that as a promise to solve their problems.

The missionaries are also expected to ready themselves for questions that may catch them off guard. Simple, well-meaning inquiries can throw off missionaries who aren’t anticipating them.

“They’re hard questions to answer, like ‘where do you get your food?’” said White. “Try telling someone that you go to the grocery store and pick up your milk and your veg and your everything for the day. That goes beyond comprehension when you see these people struggling to get by.”

In that several weeks, the team meets hundreds, if not thousands, of needy people. They conduct Bible study at the nearby compound – where six hard-working women look after 52 children – but also at schools, hospitals and even a local prison.

“People are people,” White said of the inmates. “Some are repentant, some of them aren’t. Regardless, they love having the opportunity to talk to someone and we love having the opportunity to sit and listen.”

According to White, the hospital ministry is one of the most eye-opening parts of the trip.

“The hospital system over there is entirely different,” he said. “If you don’t show up with your own food and your own blanket and your own mattress, then you’re sleeping on the floor and you’re not eating.”

“You buy your own medicines, all these things that we really take for granted there. And a lot of these people have come from great distances, from the villages, to be able to go and take advantage of this healthcare system at great cost to themselves.”

Of the major diseases, the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s did the most harm and left a generational gap in the population.

“The 40-something demographic is non-existent in Uganda, it’s basically wiped out,” said Dickie. “You’ve got grandparents taking care of children.”

Dickie remembered one elderly blind woman who was looking after eight grandchildren because their parents had died from AIDS.

“This lady’s got a strength that I don’t know anything about,” he said.

White said, “AIDS decimated the Ugandan population and the Ugandan culture, and as a result, the government put into place this kind of awareness and prevention plan.”

“It’s dropped remarkably, and now there is access to antiretrovirals as well, which is an amazing thing. We know of people within our community that have AIDS that are on antiretrovirals and they’ve really prolonged life and given them a second chance at life, which is amazing considering just a few years ago, that wasn’t an option.”

While the death rate has decreased, other hazardous illnesses have spread through the country that continue to eat away at the population. As part of the preparation for going over, the team gets vaccinations and malaria pills to prevent contraction of the disease. They do frequent checks for insects and have mosquito nets up in their tents at all times.

“Malaria there is an epidemic,” said White. “It’s impossible to avoid, especially when you live there. There is no access to anti-malarials like we have, going over there as westerners.”

“I have not met a Ugandan yet who has not had malaria at some point in their life.”

What’s worse is that illness and poverty tend to go hand in hand: the poor can’t always afford treatment for infections that, to us, aren’t that costly.

“I recall sitting with a young mom who had just a week before lost her 2-year-old child who had died from malaria,” said Dickie, “which would have cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of about $7 to treat.”

“That’s pretty sobering when you’re sitting there with a woman who’s lost her child because of seven bucks. That’s the cost of these two drinks right here right now.”

The country’s growing need – and lack of solutions – can take a toll on visiting missionaries who want so badly to reverse the problems.

“Often times, the poverty is on a larger scale than you can imagine, so that’s really hard to deal with,” said Schacter.

“You hear these stories of missionaries and aid workers and all these people who go over there and come back kind of jaded, and I can see how that happens,” said White solemnly. “You go there and you’re experiencing so much and it’s hard, especially if you’re an emotional person, to let all those things sink in at once. You kind of have to block some things out.”

White said the culture shock is greater when you get home from Uganda, after witnessing the poverty of one nation to the greed of another.

“We call it re-entry shock or reverse culture shock,” said Dickie. “It takes a bit of time to sort it all out. You’ve opened questions that don’t always have neat and tidy answers.”

Having heard White speak about the stark reality of life in Uganda, the new recruits know they’re going to return as different people.

“I’m definitely going to experience a change in mindset,” said Charles, “going from a place where we take everything for granted and we’re spoonfed all these luxuries. And going to a place where some people are struggling to meet the needs for their next meal, trying to find shelter and water.”

Robinson said, “If someone complains about not getting a new cell phone, I’m just going to feel a lot more gratitude for my life, but at the same time be also kind of embarrassed to listen how ignorant people are when there’s poverty and famine, all this stuff on the other side of the sea.”

On her first trip over, Pickard noticed how time-oriented North American culture is, whereas Ugandan culture is more about developing relationships with others.

“It changed my perspective on what’s important in my life,” she recalled. “My whole perspective changed to people instead of time.”

“There’s a strength of community and family there that we lack here,” said Dickie. “I think there is a joy and a contentment and a faith that makes us look pretty pathetic over here in our western culture.”

“We’re pretty quick to say that they’re experiencing in poverty in some senses, and in other senses they’re very rich and we’re very poor.”

Despite all the suffering in the country, the team has met some remarkable individuals who’ve made the best of whatever situation they find themselves in. Dickie and White talked of a Betty, a spunky girl with wisdom beyond her years; Richard, a determined intellectual with supreme conviction; and Vincent, a strong, elderly man in his mid-80s who chipped at rocks to provide for his family until his dying day.

These and other stories keep the team motivated to come back year after year, and prove that the work they do over there – no matter how stressful and emotionally exhausting – is worth every long flight, every layover, every bump in the road and obstacle on the journey.

“There are people that I’ve met that are very bitter, that have cursed God, that have said this is unfair, and sometimes it is,” said White. “But it’s amazing to look at people that are struggling and doing the best that they can.”

“You can let it affect you, you can let it cripple you, or you can live your life.”

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