PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — An Uganda Journey, Part 2

After a mostly sleepless night, thanks to the loud bed-shaking music playing outside our hotel until after 5:30 a.m. — which, I might add, seemed eminently unfair since they must have been the only place in Adjumani with electricity — we spent the morning getting supplies to provide for breaks during our day at the Mungula Settlement. Hospitality is a key value, so we need to always honor those who join us for workshops with food and beverage to sustain them.

We then drove out to the Mungula refugee settlement, which is an hour from Adjumani on the most rugged roads you can imagine, past huts as we avoided livestock in the road, prompting a question from me as to why the chickens kept crossing the road. I was very pleased with the outstanding skills of our driver, Eric. To be completely honest, my greatest fear for personal safety when I come here is traffic accidents.

Once we arrived, we were greeted with the warmth only someone who has experienced true African hospitality can appreciate. Denise, having been here many times, was embraced with incredible love, and I was deeply moved that they also remembered me. One of the things that we’ve heard again and again is that we come back. We have a commitment to them as individuals. I wish my language skills in Dinka were better, but the language of love is universal.

When we asked what the cooperatives wanted from us for training, the top answers were Bible studies that helped with dealing with trauma and peace building. So one of my roles was to provide those, with the help of the superb materials available from The Trauma Healing Institute. Our group was mostly women since that is our target audience. However, there were several men present as well.

Before we could begin the trauma, healing and peace-building work, we had to corporately mourn the loss of John, our founder, who earned the name Babba John, which means Father John. I think in addition to the pain of losing him, there was a fear that with him no longer alive they would be forgotten. So part of our mission was to assure them that they will not be left behind.

I chose to focus the study on the Samaritan woman at the well, who I was able to connect with the story of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter who was raped, a story the refugees know too well, along with many other scriptural references interspersed. We used those stories to begin a discussion about loss and times they had felt grief and pain. A key tenant of trauma healing is lament, and the power that comes from naming your brokenness.

As they broke into small groups for discussion, the weight of the pain they bore was palpable. After moving through the grief exercises, some individuals were asked to share their stories. The reality of all of the violence and brokenness they have experienced as victims of two wars (one in 1991 that resulted in the Lost Boys of Sudan, and later, the Civil War, which began in 2013, when South Sudan became the youngest nation in the world) is overwhelming. Every parent there has lost at least one child — and some many many children— to the ravages of war. And every single person present had lost one or both parents. However, the pain of war was not their only loss, but also the pain that comes from living in a refugee settlement, where they really are not free, food is scarce, and they struggle finding purpose and meaning for life.

After that, I moved on to some peace-building exercises built around the differences between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. I must say as a preacher, talking about the Samaritan woman at the well at noonday in the heat of the summer to women who understood it completely because that was their reality, made the isolation of this woman all the more profound. The refugees know no one goes to the well in the heat of the day if there isn’t a good reason for it.

After that, we talked about the woman’s relationship with Jesus and the fact that he saw her. He really saw her. The discussion that followed about being seen moved my heart and increased my conviction that sharing their story with the world is one of the great purposes of my life. These women feel unseen, unheard and forgotten. They matter. Their stories matter. Their existence matters. And in the coming days, weeks and years, I wish to tell them. To help them be seen.

The workshop ended with a reminder that they do have a purpose and that God hears the cries of the brokenhearted. They are seen and they need to carry forward the tools they were given today to share with others. That is the goal of the time we spend with these leaders that they might take what they learned and spread it so others can address their trauma and have skills for peace building.

Knowing that purpose, we were able to close with a celebratory worship and praise. I told them at the beginning that I wish more people from Africa could come and teach Americans how to worship with an unbridled sense of the Spirit of God. For indeed, the spirit was profoundly present as we sang, danced and many ululated.

These people in exile from their native land said they often feel like the dry bones Ezekiel described, and they long to be reconnected with their being. But their spirit is alive and well, and in the hands of the Holy Spirit, who gives them the ability to find joy in what could be a hopeless place. And that  joy provides the spark of hope that moves SSLCD forward in our mission.

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