By Tim Groover, Sports Outreach Institute – Board Member
I’d Better Be In Shape For This Trip
I expected to be physically challenged as I did my workouts preparing for my first mission trip to Uganda. My wife and I, along with our two daughters, made the trip in the summer of 2013.
We travelled with a group from another church in the Lynchburg area. The trip was a chance to see firsthand the lives that had been affected in a small part by support provided to Sports Outreach Institute (SOI) through a scholarship fund we established after our oldest daughter died in a traffic accident in 2002 at the age of 15.
A key component of the trip was to help construct a shelter home for women who were victims of human trafficking and sexual abuse (now Christine’s House located on SOI’s Koro Farm outside of Gulu in northern Uganda). We also looked forward to burning a few calories helping to construct a preschool and daycare which was being partially funded by the contributions from the scholarship fund.
The heavy manual labor of clearing land, hauling bricks, mixing mortar, and spreading concrete was truly demanding in the heat of the Ugandan summer. I was ready for that. I actually enjoyed the challenge of minimizing the performance gap between me and the younger members of the group. In this regard, my preparation had achieved the desired objective.
Me? Evangelize? I Don’t Think So!
I was much less prepared for the more spiritually demanding aspects of the trip.
Thanks to my Mom, I was raised in a strong Christian family. Since adulthood, I’ve always been very active in my home church. However, when I was told before the trip that there would be opportunities for us to share personal faith stories, I felt a bit uneasy and thought I might simply blend into the background when that time came.
I’ve never considered myself to be very “evangelical.” I’ve admittedly not experienced a “born again” moment where everything became clear to me.
Being an engineer, I’ve always been very practical and analytical . . . and at times, highly doubtful. Imagine my struggle accepting that Moses (God actually) parted the Red Sea. It gets even harder when I try to reconcile “God’s plan” with the sudden loss of a precious daughter. I am usually able to clear my doubts from the forefront of my mind. Yet in the recesses, these doubts are still there. Perhaps my Mom should have named me Thomas.
A Small Dip In The Evangelical Pool
The day after we arrived in Gulu, we attended Sunday worship at SOI’s Koro Farm. The energy and enthusiasm of these amazing people was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
There was no bulletin for worship. The service flowed seamlessly from one component to another. A song. A sermon. A reading. A story. A dance. Another song.
About midway through the service, Pastor Aloysius invited the members of our group to share their faith stories. This was the time for personal testimonies.
The people we traveled with were well prepared. Their stories painted vivid pictures of how they came to know Jesus Christ. I was moved by how comfortable they were baring their souls to this very large group. As more of them shared their stories, I began to feel like I too needed to say something. My “blend in the background” strategy was starting to fade.
After the last of our fellow travelers spoke, I stood up not knowing exactly what I would say.
I thanked the congregation for their warm welcome and I introduced my wife and daughters. That was the easy part. I can’t say that what I shared next was anything like a testimony. Instead, I told them we were there because of a tragedy. I told them the story of our loss and how that great loss eventually lead us to that very place and time in Uganda. As I spoke, I felt compelled to share a passage of scripture that was read at my daughter’s memorial service over ten years earlier.
I recited from memory 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.
I memorized this after the leader of our men’s Bible Study challenged everyone in the group to memorize something from scripture that was meaningful to each of us. As I concluded the scripture recitation with “. . . and the greatest of these is Love!” I felt tears running down my face. I saw many in the congregation wiping tears from their eyes. I closed by saying we were truly blessed to be with them and were so thankful for the healing love of those present. I sat down feeling both exhausted and relieved. I truly felt my daughter’s presence and I thought that I might have punched my “testimony ticket” for the trip.
Time To Work
I found comfort in the physical labor that came from the next few days.
Construction on Christine’s House was progressing, even though the process seemed painfully slow when compared to what one might see in the US. I made the naïve comment that so much more could be done if we just had one small Bobcat. One of the local SOI leaders set me straight. “The villagers would not be able to take the knowledge of the use of this machine back to their homes” he said. “And such a machine would put many of the people you see working here out of a job. You are not in the United States my friend!” This was the first lesson learned on this trip. It would not be the last.
The Oasis That Is Pugwini
After a few days of hard labor, we travelled to some of the neighboring villages to “evangelize” to the local population. While I felt we were missing the chance to make more progress on Christine’s House, I was ready for the break and looked forward to seeing more of what life was like in northern Uganda.
The bus ride to Pugwini was as exciting as any amusement ride. Once the rattling of the windows and the trailing dust clouds subsided, we found ourselves in an oasis of a community that was truly in the process of being transformed through the ministry of Sports Outreach.
Appropriately enough, the center focal point of the village was a soccer pitch. Two poles and a rope made up the goals at each end of the field.
A school, worship center, latrine, piggery, well, gardens, and various huts for both community and residential use encircled the soccer pitch. All of this constituted “downtown” Pugwini.
I was struck by how many more women there were than men.
The violent conflicts in northern Uganda in recent decades took a severe toll on the adult male population. The extreme conditions of day-to-day life have also pushed many men away from the practices of being strong fathers, husbands, and community leaders.
Shortly after our arrival, the women on the mission team gathered with the women and children of the village. The men in our group, Robert Katende, and three other SOI staff members, headed to a spot nearby where a little over a dozen men from the village sat patiently waiting for us to arrive.
Will You Share Your Story?
Robert called on each of the other men from our group to share his story of how he came to know Jesus Christ.
I told Robert earlier that I might not be comfortable doing this and he was very understanding. Once the last man in our group shared his story, Robert glanced at me as if to say “it’s your turn but you can pass if you want.” Almost involuntarily, words started coming out of my mouth.
I did not share a story of how I came to know Jesus Christ. Nor did I share stories about how hard my life has been. How could I possibly do that when my worst days on the planet probably looked a whole lot better to them then their “business as usual” days?
To my surprise, I found myself sharing with the group my many doubts and the many things in my life that separate me from God. Even more to my surprise, many of them actually seemed interested in what I was saying.
I closed my brief comments by asking a question of the group . . . .
“I’ve shared with you my doubts and what I believe separates me from God. What is it in your life that separates you from God?”
We All Fall Short Of God’s Glory
After a few moments of silence, the men began to share openly the things that they experienced daily that separate them from God.
Shame for not being able to provide for their families. Trauma from the horrible things they have experienced or perhaps even done. Alcohol. Tobacco. Adultery. Polygamy. Illness. Gambling. Ridicule from their peers who think that showing compassion was a sign of weakness.
The session evolved into an open conversation of our human faults and our struggles to overcome these flaws. No longer was our group separated by first world and third world experiences. We were now joined by our common struggles and doubts. By our frustrations and disappointments. By our vanity and our shame.
Well into the discussion, one of the leaders with SOI, Sam Lutalo, asked one of the more vocal men from Pugwini a question. “You have listed many things that separate you from God. In the last hour you have been with us, have you even once wanted to do one of these things?”
“No, I have not” the man replied.
Sam immediately replied “Then you have found the bridge that can span the gap between you and God. Christ can span that gap. These men who are here with you can support you and help you span that gap. It can be done and you can do it. Through Christ, you can do it! Through Christ, you all can do it!”
We soon divided into smaller groups and the conversations continued for some time.
My Evangelical Sweet Spot
Robert Katende shared with me that he had rarely seen the men of the village open up like that. He was very excited to see what they would do after such a session. I told Robert that whatever they may have received from the session, I received many times more. This truly was an example of a situation where it might have seemed that I was coming to provide healing when in reality it was me who was made whole.
The day ended with a celebration that included the entire village of Pugwini.
There would be countless other days to throw bricks and shovel mortar. God had something bigger planned for this day.
I have had plenty of time to reflect on what I learned about evangelism on this amazing trip.
A majority of my prior experiences with evangelism have been where the flow of information was in one direction. The evangelist preached to others in the hopes of convincing them to change their beliefs and/or behaviors. This is a proven approach that has worked for thousands of years. Yet it was this approach that made me uncomfortable with the prospect of personally evangelizing. I learned that I was much more comfortable when I openly expressed my own doubts and then asked others if they had similar doubts.
So I found my evangelical sweet spot under a tree in Pugwini. And all it took was deciding to talk less and listen more. To share less about what I might have figured out and more about what I continued to struggle with in my faith. And in the process, I found a renewed sense of peace and faithfulness.
P.S. As for the man who Sam Lutalo encouraged so supportively, I heard recently that he is now in a position of authority as one of the Community Leaders in Pugwini. I pray for him and his fellow villagers often and look forward to seeing them again when I return to Uganda.
By Tim Groover, Sports Outreach Institute – Board Member