PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Uganda Journal, Day 9

I will be honest. When Denise and John suggested that I join them on this trip — OK, it also may have been me inviting myself — I was a bit concerned that the focus would be pastoral.

Yes, I am a pastor, but to be honest, I am aware of the heavy burden Africa bears because of colonial missionary work and the fact that the current trend is toward indigenous leadership. The simple truth is, Christians have done a lot of damage in Africa, and African spirituality is deeper and far more profound than anything I’ve ever seen the West. They should be sending missionaries to us.

However, I trust Denise and John with all my heart, and I knew that whatever it was that I was called to be a part of would be substantive, meaningful and help the communities with which we are working with needs they have expressed.

After having just spent the day doing Trauma Healing work with the leaders of Mungula Refugee Camp, I am absolutely certain that our work as pastors is not only important, it is vital.

The essence of our work involves my telling Bible stories, usually with a heavy emphasis on women and Jesus, and Denise weaving the key aspects of Trauma Healing into information sessions and discussions.

During the morning, we wondered if this group was just that far along that maybe it wasn’t necessary or if, perhaps, because the male church leaders were mixed in with women, it wasn’t as open.

Oh, we had a few key moments of awareness — when Denise mentioned alcoholism a palpable and knowing murmur passed through the crowd, convincing us that the next time we come we will do some focused work on alcoholism.

As an aside, it is extraordinary to find that two of the most broken pieces of my life — being a rape survivor and living with an alcoholic husband, as well as watching him die from that disease — find redemptive purpose in refugee ministry in Uganda.

But apart from that telling response to addiction, the morning was largely quieter and the process of writing laments went faster. We thought it might be a lighter afternoon.

We could not have been more wrong. After Denise did her presentation on suicide, it was like a seam had been ripped open in their souls.

Person after person got up and told stories of when they wanted to hang themselves. A soldier, not overtly saying, but nonetheless implying, that his heart had been wounded by some of his own actions, a victim of war in a different way; a woman telling of her desire to hang when she had to deal with not knowing whether her children were alive and if they were, where they were; a man who struggled because he felt personal failure at not being able to feed his children and as such, he deserved to die.

The stories went on and on and on. A chasm had opened up as they shared these stories of horror and grief so great it was impossible to bear.

In the midst of it, one of the pastors asked about doing funerals for people who committed suicide. He felt that people were hurting but he also felt it was sin. He was struggling.

After a few more people shared their stories, Denise adroitly circled back to him and talked about how Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted and wipe the tears away from the grieving, and how Jesus knows the pain and suffering of those who cannot keep going when the weight is too great. And how NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

As she was talking, it became clear to me exactly what it is that we bring, as well as what their church brings to each of these refugees.

The church is a central part of South Sudanese life. Worship and prayer order their days, and the community is central to their existence. Churches were also often pivotal in escape. Sometimes, if word comes that the rebels are getting closer, a church will hire a truck and the community will all get into it and flee ahead of the village attack. When they come to the border, they come together.

As soon as they arrive in a camp, the first thing they construct is a church. They need that space, and they need that community to move out of their grief, and they need a reminder of the presence of God with them in the struggle.

One aspect of trauma healing is to sing and dance because when you are singing and dancing, you are not focusing on the brokenness and pain. You are letting it leave you for a while to give your spirit a rest.

However, the churches as a rule tend to focus on the Old Testament. It makes sense when you think about it. Stories of exile and wandering in the wilderness and of warring tribes and their consequences and God’s presence in the midst of that parallel their own existence.

What Denise and I are bringing is a Gospel perspective. When you are in the pit, it is sometimes hard to see out of it. Oh, make no mistake about it — these people have a depth of faith and solidness of spirit that is nothing short of astounding.

But sometimes it is hard to throw yourself your own lifeline.

At times, I admit, it felt hollow telling these people to turn to God, who cares for them. I mean, who I am to them? What do I know of their grief?

But I know my own — however minor in comparison — and more importantly, I know the faithfulness of God to me at those times when I felt utterly dejected, abandoned and alone. I know the strength that God provides and I know that God keeps God’s promises.

Now, if all we did was come in and do what we are doing — connecting the comforting Word of God to their pain —and did nothing more, our effectiveness would be limited to nothing. Because it is easy to say God is with you and then leave them. They would keep God, but we would lose the relationship.

But when we are present in an ongoing relationship that seeks to work with the community to tend to all of their needs — physical, spiritual, mental and emotional — then we are able to be partners in ministry.

We don’t come in and just say, “Hey Jesus loves you” and leave, nor do we hand out food and leave. Instead, we want to extend their and our visions of who our neighbors are, just as Jesus calls us to.

The church is not a social service agency with sacraments. We bring something more than the midwives and English lessons and hopefully in the future things like education funds and seed money to make soap.

What we seek to bring is what Jesus brought. He healed people physically, he engaged with them mentally, and he offered light in the darkness to them spiritually. He built relationships.

I always say faith is for this life — to sustain us as we deal with the reality of a broken world. I know that is true in the U.S., and it is why I always tell people you don’t join a church because you need a place to be perfect — you join a church because you are broken and the world is broken and you need a place to find healing and companions for the way.

As much as I questioned at first the importance of doing on the ground work as pastors, I know that Trauma Healing is vital for these people, and I believe that connecting it to their faith is absolutely vital for them to experience any of the transformation it can provide.

When I meet people who may be interested in coming to my church, I tell them if they want a pastor who has it all together, to look elsewhere. But if you want a broken person who understands pain and walks with you for the journey, then my ministry may work for you.

In one of the most truly unexpected turns in my life, I found that all of the random pieces of who I am — my brokenness, my hurt and my pain — all come together in caring for refugees in Uganda as they deal with their trauma.

As I watched these men and women deal with pain I can’t even fathom, I know why I am here — and praise God for this opportunity to be a small part of a long journey of healing.

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