PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Uganda Journal, Day 3

Our plans for the day shifted. Denise and I had prepared to focus on the women today and Monday, but the arrival of the food truck changed all that.

The truck arrives once a month, providing the food that will sustain the village until the truck returns. When the truck arrives, the refugees unload the 50 kilogram bags and stack them. They bring three different kinds of food — sorghum, mixed beans and oil.

The past six months, however, the wrong kind of sorghum was brought. Instead of the type that can provide nutritious meals, the kind used to for fermenting and making alcohol was substituted. But when you are a refugee with nothing, you take what you can get.

Today, however, the right kind was delivered and when it was opened, you could hear the ululating and shouts of joy throughout the village.

Once unloaded, people line up to get their food. Approximately 10 kilograms of sorghum, 4.4 kilograms of beans and less than one-half liter of oil per person. Then the refugees have to carry it home. That is easier for some, who live directly in the village, and harder for those whose plot of land is farther away. Some need to walk six miles to get their food home, but again, when it is all you have, one hardly complains.

As I watched this unfold, I saw firsthand the power and beauty of the United Nations. Is it perfect? Hardly. But it provides food for refugees and those who have little to nothing.

When I hear of a desire of political leaders for the U.S. to cease to fund the U.N. and USAID, I get physically ill because these are the people who would die. As citizens of the world, we have a moral obligation to help victims of war. It is what good people do. Help others. And this food is the difference between life and death.

The process takes the entire day, and one can sense the celebration in the village. There will be food tonight. This meager amount is augmented by the crops the people grow in their plots. But with the drought, there is little if any yield. And the occasional chicken or goat — for those who have them — provide milk and perhaps an occasional egg.

While the women and children engaged in the food truck events, Denise and I met in a small hut with about 25 pastors, church council members and other faith leaders.

The refugees with whom we are working are Christian. Most of the people of South Sudan are from Christian communities. The warring rebel tribe that came into their village, raping their women, burning their homes and pillaging their belongings were also Christian.

The thing about war is, it can’t be reduced to religion. Most of the wars in the Middle East are Muslim vs. Muslim. The victims are the same religion. But it isn’t about religion. Which is why a ban on a religion is both morally reprehensible as well as a simpleton’s view of the world, revealing ignorance as well as hatred.

Wars are about power, control and dominance. And oil. Don’t forget oil. Not religion. At least not directly. Hateful people take religion and twist it for their own perverse purposes. But not the truly faithful.

These pastors and leaders with whom we met — they are the truly faithful. They still worship and praise a God in spite of horrors I can’t even begin to imagine. If you ever want to see a miracle, the fact that they still praise God is one.

Our reason for being there in part was to help them with trauma healing. To name the pain and find where God was in the midst of it.

Denise did a lot of the teaching pieces, and I provided the stories and the theology.

I shared the story of the four friends who brought their friend who couldn’t walk to Jesus, breaking through the roof to reach him, reminding them that sometimes they carry others to Jesus and sometimes their friends carry them, but no matter what happens, we can break through to God.

I shared the story of Jesus, Mary and Martha and the raising of Lazarus. When you are in grief, you get mad, like Martha, and you can weep, like Jesus did. But when you come to Jesus with your emotions, you can become unbound like Lazarus, in the end.

I also did salvation history (the Bible in five minutes) — how the world was good when it began, and there was no death or suffering, and it returns to that in the end, and we are living in the in-between, as we deal with brokenness of the world.

But as we deal with it, we find in Christ the one who takes our suffering and defeats it with the promise of the resurrection. And that death is not the will of God nor is suffering. And it isn’t their fault. We just live in a really broken world.  But God in Christ puts the pieces of our broken hearts and broken world together.

I’ve taught these things before, but never felt the power as the words became real in their immense suffering. Denise focused on healing the wounds of the heart and finding God in suffering, and we talked about grief. And then, we sent them out to write laments — cries to God. I will talk more about those later. But if ever there were a people to lament, it would be these people.

We had a meal — as trainers we brought rice and beans that were made by women we hired from the village to make it — over fires, of course. When they served it, our quantities were huge. It was the least we could do.

The thing is, I was given far more than I could consume. FAR MORE. So I was left with a plate more than half full. As a child I heard that I should eat everything on my plate because of the starving children in Africa. Now I was trying to figure out how to share it with those children outside our hut. My guilt was immense. But I know the composted the leftovers — there wasn’t much — for the animals. Nothing is wasted there. Ever.

As the day neared its end, the chief came to join us. I knew as soon as he entered he was the chief. There are few older men in the camp, and his worn face carried the creases that came with the burdens of leading a people into exile. He was a man who cared and hurt for every indignity and atrocity visited on his people.

My phone had died, so I couldn’t take his picture, but I sat by him as we waited for our driver to come. He shared with me — through our translator Daniel — that he was so sorry that he could not greet me in his own village. He said if he could do that, I would see a beautiful and rich land, with wonderful crops and great prosperity. And that he would mark the arrival of a guest like me by killing a cow and having a feast. That, he told me, is how you treat guests.

With those words still ringing in my ear, I arrived back at our guest house and read with horror about the ban on Muslims — refugees and nonresidents alike. For more reasons than I can describe, it is cruel, heartless and wrong. But it is also just plain mean and inhospitable.

Our brothers and sisters in Uganda welcomed refugees. Our neighbors around the world see that we are part of the human family and that we are better when we are working together and sharing and giving.

As a child, my mother and father taught me the Golden Rule and emphasized that selfless was the sign of true greatness. How we treat people says so much about who we are.

What I saw of America today in those food trucks makes me proud. But what I read about when I got back abandons all of the core principals that made this nation a city shining on the hill. A beacon of hope. These actions don’t make America great. They make us selfish and self-centered. And those are not character traits that make anyone proud.

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