Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Heart of an Orphan- Part 1

When Laura Beth and I first came to New Hope Uganda in 2002, we were a part of the first class of the New Hope Institute of Childcare and Family. Needless to say, the course rocked our worlds (or we wouldn't be working with it as passionately as we are!). One of the most powerful teachings came to us from one of the sons of New Hope named Paul Kusuubira. Paul walked us through his own story growing up as an orphan. He then opened up for us what he called the "orphan heart". It was a teaching that was both eye-opening and heart-rending. Eye-opening because suddenly I realized why the kids I was trying to work with at New Hope met me with such resistance, why they did the things that they did and why they responded like they responded to different situations. I also realized that the kids that I had worked with for four years in Cabrini Green (government housing projects in Chicago) were fatherless (orphans), which was KEY for me looking back and trying to understand the hearts of the kids I had wrestled with for those years.

Paul's teaching was heart-rending because I realized that the heart of an orphan is simply the human heart, the sinful human heart, drawn out in specific ways because of the circumstances of becoming orphaned, and in that my own heart was also revealed. The Gospel became so much bigger to me as a result, something I hope to draw out in the following posts.

But let me begin by simply putting Paul's story here so you can understand a bit better the characteristics of the "orphan heart" that I will post next. Here's Paul's story:

Paul Kusuubira lost his parents during Uganda’s civil war in the 1980’s that shook the country shortly after Idi Amin’s regime collapsed. The bloody war centered 35 miles north of the capital city Kampala in an area that became known as the Luwero killing fields. Paul’s family fled from their home and spent three years hiding in “the bush” . They were constantly running from the warring soldiers, barely able to survive. The family ate whatever food they could gather from the “bush”, mostly wild yams and papaya. They drank any color of water they could find. They slept on leaves under the stars. During the rainy season they huddled together under trees. On occasions when they heard bullets coming from one direction they could walk all day in the opposite direction only to be met by more gunfire. Exhausted and too tired to walk any further, the family would simply lay down on the ground to sleep, prepared to die there if need be.

Through these years God miraculously protected Paul and his family. They all survived the war. It was with great joy that the family was finally able to return to their small home in late 1986. Shockingly, shortly after returning, Paul’s father fell sick and died. As the family was still grieving the loss of the father, the pain still fresh in their hearts, Paul's mother fell sick and died as a result of tuberculosis. The family was in shambles, and as the community gathered around the grave, Paul could only weep and weep. The war had taken his father and mother, leaving Paul, his three brothers, and one sister, all alone to struggle for survival.

As they buried their mother, the realization of what they had become, orphans, quickly set in. Men and women from the community roamed freely through their house, helping themselves to whatever they desired. Cooking pots, plates and clothing disappeared. The children were helpless to do anything. Where could they turn? Who would care for them now? They were rejected by their community, including those they thought were friends of their family. No one wanted the responsibility of caring for more orphans. The title “orphan” became a label that led only to mistreatment and abuse. Food, clothing, and warm blankets, items that their parents had always secured for them, were now hard to come by. Paul gave up all hope for living. He would rather die than live in such despair. He was ten years old.

Immediately after Paul was orphaned, a sense of abandonment overwhelmed him. He felt abandoned by both of his parents, abandoned by those he had always counted on, loved and trusted. He felt helpless and scared. A deep loneliness came into his heart. He felt like he did not belong to anyone anymore, including his brothers and sister. He simply existed as an outcast, a nobody. Rejection by friends and the community left him feeling betrayed. Hopelessness marked his sense of the present and the future. He felt worthless. He had lost his identity, no longer bearing his father’s name but taking on the name mulekwa, which means orphan. The joy that he had known as a boy was turned into extreme sadness, a feeling that went as deep as the pain in his heart from losing his parents.

Paul’s struggles continued to grow as mistrust guided his dealings with people. He felt he could count on no one and that he would only be abandoned, betrayed, or let down by all people. Even when people would approach him to help, he found himself hiding his true self from them out of fear. He would only open up what he thought would help him to get something from people, keeping all relationships on a superficial level. Manipulation and deceit were the keys to getting what he wanted from people. Fear became the defining mark of his life- fear of man, fear of rejection, fear of failure, and fear of death. All of these things led to a deep sense of independence where he would only do things “his way”, refusing to be accountable to anyone and pushing away any who might get in the way of his accomplishing what he wanted.

The survival mentality that was birthed in him led to a deep seated greed, always wanting more and more, never content with what he had. He developed a poverty mindset that told him that he never had enough, even when living in plenty. He would eat each meal as if it was the last he might have for a long time, even when he was promised many meals to follow. He was always striving, striving for acceptance, striving for approval, striving for success, striving for love.

For many orphans in Uganda this striving leads to the practice of witchcraft to try to manipulate the spirits in order to secure success in various areas. Because death for a Ugandan is never by “chance”, but is always caused by someone, feelings of anger and revenge begin to rule the heart as they seek to find out who killed their parents in order to pay them back. This is often done through the local witchdoctors. Escape becomes the main “coping” mechanism for dealing with the pain and struggles, escape through sexual relationships, drugs, alcohol and even sports.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

An Institute of Ethnic Reconciliation

(George Opuche- my Ugandan partner- and myself at a baptism for Kasana Community Church)

The New Hope Institute of Childcare and Family would not typically be thought of as a place where ethnic reconciliation would be on the forefront of happenings. After all, isn’t it a training for people wanting to work with orphans or in the area of family? Yes, it is an Institute for training and equipping people to work in ministry to children and family, but in actuality the training encompasses worldview-confronting, life-changing issues, none bigger than the racial issues that divide nations and tribes and that our unique context presents to us in an “in your face” manner.

Can you (as a Westerner) imagine sitting in a room with three or four other Westerners (perhaps coming from the UK, Canada, or from east and west-coast America? Perhaps across the room sits a Congolese and beside him sits a Kenyan couple. To their right and left are twelve Ugandans, but seven of these come from different tribes within Uganda, some tribes extremely different from the others in terms of cultural beliefs and practices. And to top it off, just to your left sits and man or woman from India! Talk about a cultural melting pot!

One of the most exciting times in the course is right at the beginning when we begin exploring the different worldviews of the cultures represented. The Westerners are typically very shocked at how vastly different their own culture’s beliefs and values differ from one another. The shock becomes even greater as they uncover the vast differences in beliefs and values from one African country to the next, and then from tribe to tribe within the same country! You find Westerners saying of Africans, “You all really believe that?!?" And then the Africans say of the Westerners, “You are really believe that?!?" And all stand with gaping mouths at the vast difference of belief systems in an Indian context! And what is also quite shocking is to look at how each of the Christian cultures have been greatly influenced by the “secular” cultures they are a part of. Wow! The question then becomes, “So, who’s right?” Which “Christian” culture has it right? The obvious answer is no one, and it gets to be our joy together to work towards building a Biblical worldview that transcends culture, confronts “fallen” culture, and unites together in “redeemed” cultures that together unveil the beauty of the Kingdom of God. That’s what our little 20 week course is all about! And you thought it was just a course on “how to” work with orphans : )

Now to the point of this article- after we have explored the above, which is always a very humbling process, we then take a look at how we as cultures view each other. Talk about opening a can! It is here that the roots of “racism” or “ethnocentrism” really come out. Americans and British folk view each other vastly different then one might expect, and Ugandans from various tribes still carry much pain and anger towards others because of past atrocities committed against one another. But when one begins talking about Westerners views of Africa, and then Africans view of the West, oh my! Though of course, the true pain comes out when Africans talk about what they have been told about the West and Westerners in general. Without taking the time to explore this here, let me sum up what typically is presented as being passed on by media, family, and parents, by saying that at the core of many Ugandans is the belief that ultimately all problems in Uganda are a result of the West.

The first time we “uncovered” this fact in the Institute, as I stood and read on the board all that the Ugandans had written there about what they have been told or believed about the West, I wanted to run and hide in a hole somewhere! Though not all of what was stated was true, there were yet many that were true! I found myself standing before the group and simply repenting for the things that the West HAS done here in Uganda. Tears flowed from a few and it was obvious that these issues were very deep for many and that healing was coming. I should also note that when we asked the Ugandans what they thought of all that was written on the board, one young man spoke up, "We can't blame the West for all of our problems! We need to own our own failures and mistakes!" Amazing.

After that class time ended, one of our students asked to talk with my wife and I privately. She confessed to us that she had heard this and that and that she had vowed never to step foot in our home and never to eat in our presence! We were shocked. We were shocked because we had always thought of this woman as a friend. We enjoyed being around her and always had warm greetings from her, or so we thought. We forgave her and after time praying together she promised that she would begin to be a regular visitor to our home. And you know what- she has been, and to this day she is one of our closest friends and a dear “daughter” to our family.

One final note- I have been privileged to serve together with two other men who also reveal to me the amazing beauty of ethnic reconciliation that is found in the Gospel alone. George Opuche is my Ugandan partner. He comes from eastern Uganda from the Soroti area. Interestingly, when New Hope began as a ministry, it was in response to the orphans left as a result of the current president’s bush war with the former president, Obote in the 80’s. Many of the soldiers that fought for Obote were from the Soroti area. How beautiful to have not only George, but others from Soroti whose people were a part of the killing that took place in this area, now here as agents of healing and ministry to the children of this area (now orphans as a result of AIDS). My Indian partner also represents reconciliation, as typically Indians are not “liked” here in Uganda. Many of the store and business owners in this country are Indian, and for the most part they are not thought of well here. My partner is actually the first Indian Christian most Ugandans have ever met! They are amazed that he is here NOT to make money, but to serve Uganda and the children and families here at New Hope.

What a blessed privilege it is to serve here in the beauty of such a multi-ethnic community that truly is a picture of the throne room of God where men and women from every tongue, tribe, language, and nation will worship together forever and ever! Glory to the Lamb that was slain who has brought about (and is bringing about) such great and beautiful reconciliation of the nations and cultures of this fallen and broken world!