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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 13, 2006

Learning in Uganda about hope

By Rebekah Ernst

In the middle of classes, projects, papers and exams of the fall semester of 2005, I felt the Lord tugging at my heart to look beyond myself to the needs of children suffering around the world. I was drawn to the passage in the Bible that says, "Religion that is pure and undefiled is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (James 1:27).

Specifically, my attention was drawn to East Africa, where war, poverty and disease have ravaged the countries and left so many orphans. I stumbled across a Web site for Africa Greater Life Mission, run by the pastor of a church in Uganda. I sent him an e-mail and, from the other side of the world, Pastor Joshua embraced me with an open invitation to come serve with his organization. It was then I knew that Uganda was where I was being called to go and serve.

Although I had participated in a study-abroad program in China and Vietnam, I'd never traveled outside the country alone, much less to Africa, to live among strangers. I also didn't have the money for a plane ticket across the globe, so I gave my plans to the Lord. If he wanted me to go to Uganda, then he would provide the funding.

During winter break, I sent letters to friends and family to ask for their prayers and support. I raised $2,500, covering my expenses and confirming this was the right decision.

I arrived in Uganda on Christmas. My first day was spent at Pastor Joshua's Pentecostal church. The Christmas morning service was unlike any I had ever experienced. Everyone was on their feet, dancing and singing without inhibition. I became very conscious of my white skin. They were so focused on praising God, though, that I soon forgot I was the only Muzungu (Luganda for "white person").

Walking around, I often heard "Muzungu! Muzungu!" shouted by children and adults alike, soliciting for some relief. The church sanctuary was one of the few places I could forget I was from a different world, because in it I was part of one body of believers. In this church, I experienced the power of the Holy Spirit to connect people from different worlds when they worship. It's a relief to be unified in prayer with someone through the Holy Spirit when you cannot understand each other's language.

After a few days, I headed to the Bulabakulu Children's Village, a Africa Greater Life Mission project. Standing in front of the orphans for the first time, I tried to reconcile what I saw with the life I had taken for granted: dirty little boys and girls in rags, and bloodshot eyes, stunted from disease and malnutrition. My first instinct was to run over and embrace each one.

The older kids soon began tossing a ball around. Playing with them was exhilarating. We laughed, running all over the place. Hours of fun went by. I thanked God for the gift of delight and, of course, the invention of the ball.

That first day in the village revealed the stark contrast between privilege and poverty, and the huge gap between the children's monumental needs and my inadequacies. What could I offer them that would even remotely measure up?

Gloria was raped and impregnated at 15, forced to leave home, and unable to take care of herself. She came to the village a year ago with her infant son, who was emaciated and suffering from malaria. I met her Christmas Day. The previous night, she'd been bitten by a snake and was fighting for her life.

One of the women who nursed Gloria back to health, Mamma Robert, is a three-time widow and mother of seven. When her first husband died of tuberculosis, she had to either find another husband or be shunned from her village. Her second husband died shortly after from a gunshot wound, and her third husband died from AIDS just last year.

Also this past year, the village lost a child to AIDS. At age 4, he was the size of a 5-month-old baby.

In February, another child from the same mother died.

Even in their condition, children were so full of energy. Their faces would light up when I arrived each day and they absorbed everything with so much faith.

Children all over the city would follow me around, often screaming "Muzungu! Muzungu!," but one little girl remains in my heart. A street child, she was found by Pastor Joshua in the neighborhood, severely burned, eating feces and stunted from malnutrition. His church began to feed and care for her. Now, instead of shying away like many other children who have been traumatized, she's always smiling, assertive and playful.

Another child, named Ukuru, never spoke to me because he knew no English. He was captivated by the game of kickball, though, so we communicated through the universal language of laughter: His could melt a heart of stone.

Driving away from the village on my last day, I watched as the children ran after me, laughing, and screaming "Rebekah! Rebekah!" I was no longer just a Muzungu visiting from America. I touched these children by reflecting something positive in them, by valuing their existence.

I couldn't change their living conditions or even educate them properly, but I could show them they are precious. In turn, I learned that despite everything, people can have hope.

Rebekah Ernst, who will graduate from Hawai'i Pacific University, attends One Love Ministries.