I am prone to forgetting so I want to memorialize my very first mission trip. I want to put my memories in writing for my grandchildren and their children, but also for me. Because remembering is sweet.
(Ignore the dates on the photos. They were all taken in March, 2007.)
In March of 2007, I took my first mission trip. A small team from my church went to Uganda and Sudan. Our purpose was to bring encouragement and support to a group of pastors and their wives. They would be traveling, many of them from very great distances and on foot, to the location of the retreats we were hosting. For most of them, it’s their first time being together as pastors. The majority of them are very isolated from the rest of the Church, because of the great distances and obstacles they would need to overcome in order to come together.
Suitcase ripped at O’Hare Airport. Team Leader pulled out his duct tape and went to work on it. That suitcase still has the duct tape on it six years later. Makes me smile when I see it. I wonder if Americans are the only ones who believe duct tape can fix anything, so we carry it everywhere.
First stop was London for a two-hour layover. Enough time to go out for fish and chips and my first peek at England. It wasn’t nearly enough. I hope I can go back there someday and really have a good look around.
Finally boarded the plane to Entebbe, Uganda. It was now late, and everyone settled down to try to sleep. It was the first and only time that grief welled up and almost became too much for me. I cried quietly, but deeply, with my head under a blanket on the dark plane heading to Africa. I felt like I had taken a giant leap down the rabbit hole, and nothing felt normal anymore.
On March 20, 2007, the day before I left for this trip, my mother died very unexpectedly. She lived in another state, so I was not with her when she died in the middle of a very routine blood transfusion. The news was devastating, and I had no idea if I was supposed to go to Africa or cancel my trip. About an hour after I had gotten the news, I called my dad. Some of his first words to me were “Go to Africa. Your mom was praying for your trip and was excited for you to go.” He held off on her memorial until my return three weeks later, and I left for Africa the following morning. Other than on the plane to Uganda, I did not grieve or cry for my mother until I returned home. I believe God’s grace surrounded me the whole time, and protected my mind and my heart from the fullness of the pain of my loss. It only occurred to me just recently what kind of sacrifice that was for my Dad to tell me to go, and to hold off my mom’s funeral until I returned. Three weeks without closure for his loss. Three weeks of waiting for the healing to even be able to begin. Three weeks of anticipating feeling fresh pain over his wife’s death. Such selflessness in the midst of such pain. Thank you, Dad.
Eight hours later we arrived in Entebbe, Uganda. I remember the smell when I got off the plane. It was the smell of dirt. Very earthy, hot dirt. Not a bad smell, just very foreign to my senses. And I remember the flight attendant standing on the tarmac to greet us when we came down the steps. She was dressed in a crisp uniform and was smiling at me. She looked professional. She fit my picture of normal.
Later, as I traveled through the overwhelming pain and poverty of Uganda and Sudan, the image of that flight attendant would continue to come back to me. Because it was deceiving. Most of the women I saw over the three weeks did not smile much, and nothing about their lives fit into my ‘normal’. I would learn that many of them had suffered atrocities that I had no grid for. I had no place to put the things I heard from these women. Their stores assaulted everything “normal” in me.
This deception is not contained to Africa, or to third world countries. It is everywhere, including here. In any city, any neighborhood, you could walk past someone every day who fits your picture of normal, but if you heard their story, it would feel like something in you was being assaulted. Things they are suffering or have suffered that you have no grid for, no place to put their pain so that it makes sense to you. All of humanity is broken, in pain, and in need of Jesus. We can’t just walk past what appears normal.
From Entebbe, we traveled to Jinja, Uganda, to a resort near Lake Victoria. We were hosting a church leader’s retreat, a first time experience for most, if not all, of these men and their wives. The “resort rooms” were small, thatch-roofed huts. They were clean and really rather nice. I shared mine with a large spider.
It was here, in Jinja where I met a woman from Sudan who told me her story of having to run from her village with her small children. Her husband had gone to find work, and while he was away, the war came to her village. She and other villagers, mostly women and children, ran for their lives. She described the fear of trying to stay hidden while foraging food and water for her little ones. She and her husband were finally reunited at a refugee camp in Uganda. They were hoping to be able to return to Sudan soon. I could tell that talking to me was difficult for her, and I soon discovered that talking to me was difficult for almost all of the women I encountered in both Uganda and Sudan. In their minds, how could I possibly relate to anything they would tell me? With my life of privilege and normalcy, how could I ever understand the suffering that filled their everyday lives? What was normal to them would be shocking to me, perhaps repulsive.
On an earthly level, they would be right on some counts. But the Holy Spirit closes all gaps, does away with ‘normal’ and levels every playing field. I did not need to relate to their lives in order to love them, to lay hands on them and pray for God’s healing in deep places, to feel overwhelming compassion and at the same time admiration for them. They had no idea that when I listened to their stories, I no longer felt strong. Their strength to endure made me realize my own weakness in the face of anything that deviated from my ‘normal’. But witnessing their love of God and their commitment to Him, even after all they had gone through, felt holy to me. Yes, in the natural, I led a privileged life by comparison. One I took for granted. But the real privilege was stepping out of my normal and into theirs, if only for a brief few days. Because it allowed God to re-define normal for me.