A while ago, I was burning limbs from a freshly trimmed Crepe Myrtle tree. I piled up a massive clump of limbs. I rummaged around to find an accelerant because I am not a real Boy Scout that can actually start fires without help. All I had available was a can of tractor diesel, so I (irresponsibly) poured some of that over the pile and successfully (and safely, surprisingly) got the pile lit.
In that first moment when the diesel caught, the smoke drifted into my face and I smelled diesel smoke and burning wood, and suddenly I was in Kampala, Uganda. The smells poured over me, transporting right back to when I was sweating on a bus with my face out the window. Bodas (motorcycle taxis) stacked seven people deep with massive sacks of charcoal or g-nuts were weaving in and out of traffic, and huge trucks all named “God Will Provide” formed three lines on a two-lane road. The diesel fumes mixed with bricks baking in a homemade kiln on the roadside.
And I was with a team of like-minded friends, part of the Field of Hope network of volunteers.
And the memory of our experience flooded me.
I remembered that blue patterned seat cushion on our bus (‘God is Good’). I remember Edgar, our driver and motivator, proudly shout “Yes!” in an awkward American accent when I called him Captain. I remembered how life-saving a bag of fruit snacks were in that mid-bounce nap-inducing ride from Restoration Gateway to Lira.
I remember Dyllis’s kindness and laughter and hugs from the whole Alpha staff every afternoon. Dyllis was a staffer at our home base. She laughed at all my jokes and had genuine care for our group in ways that weren’t contrived or awkward. They were sincere and expected.
I remember smashing my stupid, sweaty face up against the wall in the shower/bathroom chamber. In some contorted yoga-esque stretch, I would sling cold water up from the lower water spout and throw my face into it hoping to get some parts of my upper body wet. Mostly I just managed to splatter water into my trashcan and over the toilet paper, since the bathroom and shower were like one multi-tasking exercise in efficiency. I can still feel the minty aftertaste of Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 soap in my mustache. Maybe because I never could get my face close enough to the water to rinse it all the way out, or maybe just because I want to be back there.
These memories kept coming. It made me filled, and also longing. It made me joyful, and nostalgic.
It made me thirsty for a Krest soda.
As I revisited these memories, I went back through our pictures.
I suspect that all of you who read this and have gone on international service trips will identify with this introspective recollection. I don’t know how each of you are integrating and seeing Uganda in your lives upon returning to the states, but I know I summon these memories daily. Your stories are my stories. My story is our story. Our story is a hopeful story, a collaborative story, and a bright shining spot. So I go there often.
I go back to a hilltop with a radio tower, and a line of pensive and reflective people breathing in a view and a spirit. And I remember thinking how badly I hoped the photos and the stories would stick, vibrant and clear. I can see each of you on that mountain.
I go back to the garden. Irene effortlessly outworked me – she outworked all of us (except for maybe Charles; he worked circles around me, too). And in Irene’s effortless swoops with a hoe, she piled and dug. Nearby, my clumsy chops spattered mud in all directions and destroyed perfectly usable mounds. I go back to that garden and I remember Colossians 3:23. I go back to the garden and I wonder what I am doing in my daily life that I can be proud of, that I can see progress on, that relies on others, that benefits others, and that matters.
I go back to Doug and Leah facilitating a pile of Ugandans in a human knot. And they are awkward, and fresh, and new, and inspired. Israel talks, when he hasn’t talked in hours. And they derived meaning well beyond our intended direction. I go back to the human knot, and I want to throw my hands in, because I wonder if I ever did that activity right to begin with.
I go back to that bus after the first day of the workshop. Mercy is singing. Simon Peter is answering in high notes I can’t even reach. Then Mercy and some of her seatmates are singing. Then all Ugandans are singing. Then I am singing. Then the whole bus, the whole world, all of time is singing. And there are 5, or 7, or 13-part harmonies in cadence and call unfamiliar to me that are so natural and real that they roll out of my lungs like they were meant to be there. I go back to that bus and I sing. I sing as loud and as hard as I can. And my boys sing with me – my 4-year-old, Eli, now sings his new favorite song from Uganda for the drive to school. I go back to that bus, and I sing. And I listen.
I go back to church. Everything about that day was huge, important, memorable, perfect. The quiet walk in the cool morning was only interrupted by rogue bodas, or random chickens, or curious children wondering why the mzungus were migrating. I knew in my heart on that cool, calm walk that the day was important. And then, in my memory, I see church. Well, I hear it before I see it. That cracked woofer in the corner thumps from half a kilometer away. The pop of another microphone and feedback from a loose cable crack across the morning. And then we turn the corner and follow the sound. And when we approach the building, I pause. Thankfully, Alexa courageously leads our lost troop of wanderers inside. And I can hear them praying. Two women chanting in hushed tones on the back wall, and another woman loudly syncopating open and honest invitations to God. It’s a wall of sound, a wall of love. And sweet Agnes hugs us all, and quickly hands off her beautiful child so she can join the clamor. And it’s a clamor. It’s worship. I find myself mumbling repetitions that I am not sure about the words. I find myself swaying. I find myself swinging my arms. Ooops, too far – I touch elbows with Doug. That doesn’t happen in the First Baptist Church of Muleshoe, Texas. But despite the awkward silent negotiations between space and Spirit, between fear and feeling, we all find a space to worship. As I take it all in, I look out the window and see kids playing hide and seek with my gaze. They giggle and dance. They sing. And I realize why a 7-million-watt speaker is needed for a room the size of my bedroom. The praise is for all the congregation not in the room. And then Agnes is singing, and she has the microphone, and she prays, and she tells us to convey our truest hearts’ needs to God. I ask for peace. I am at peace. I choke up every time I think about it. I feel overwhelming, heart-beating peace. I go back to that church often, and I ask for peace – and every time, I get it.
I go back to church in other moments. Like when I need joy. I go back to that moment when the prayers are wrapping up. The drum machine beeps a countdown to signal it is changing tempos, the keyboardist snaps his fingers, the dude who has been wrangling cords and plugs for the last half hour snatches up the microphone, and the world suddenly pops awake. Its lit. Its worship. Its WORSHIP. Its loud and intense and unstoppable and even Doug was clapping (albeit on a different beat and time signature than everyone else). And the singer makes it his personal mission to get Charles to dance. And I want to high-five a stranger. I go back to church, and I let the beat drop.
I go back to aerobics, and I wish I had stretched more.
I go back to our first bus ride. Mike leans in to every story about proposals and relationships. He leans in with more than just his body. He takes in every word. He hangs on every syllable, and he cares for every component. And he tears up at all of them. And then when we ask him to tell his story, he begrudgingly shares it. And I secretly realize that despite my drama and antics and jokes and lines about losing a diamond in my pants and all my efforts to steal the attention, his story is infinitely better. And I see how he talks about his wife, and I go find my own wife, and I remind her how stupidly awestruck I am by her. I go back to that bus ride, and I learn how to listen and how to love from Mike.
I go back to the bookstore. A motorcycle is parked in the self-help section. A speakerbox large enough for a convention hall bumps the bass line for some sort of pop song that turns out to be a commercial for the exact store we are in. A stream of ‘helpers’ haggle over which box or pens or paper we actually need. I go back to the bookstore and I rethink why I shop in the US.
I go back to the dinner table with Tim and Janice. I go back to the rainstorms. I go back to the hotbox of a breakfast room and chug one more cup of coffee. I go back to find out whether that dude in the Indian soap opera ever figured out who his wife was. I go back to pet that nosy cat. I go back to see the teachers spill enthusiasm about changing their environment. I go back and see Geoffrey teach. I go back and see Immanuel planning expansions. I go back to see Moses’ eyes light up in Skyland. I go back to his chicken coop IN HIS HOUSE. I go back to Mercy’s classroom in RG. I go back to that pavilion at Otino Waa. I go back to a discussion about teaching. I go back and Mathias raises his hand.
I go back to Uganda often. And each time, our team is there with me. Andrea is trying to fight me. Morgan is kindly sympathy laughing at my dad jokes. Emma is framing research. Leah is humming “Come thou fount of every blessing.” Irene is questioning whether my name is really Redwine. Charles is designing a goat mansion. Alexa is praying over our group and refusing another slice of pineapple. Anna is asking intelligent questions I wish I had thought of. Katie is kindly accepting someone else’s overpacked items. Doug is snorting like a hippo at the club on a Thursday on spring break in college. Edgar is driving… with the windows closed… and ignoring the air conditioner that he had THE WHOLE TIME. Romeo is trying to teach me a secret handshake.
I go back to Uganda often, and each time I realize that much of me never left. I suspect that you are in a similar frame.
So, let’s go back there together in our quiet thoughts and reflections. Let’s do the awkward handshake. Let’s pray for each other. Let’s share some pineapple. Let’s continue to be part of the squad.
Let’s go back.
Dr. Tobin Redwine – Texas A&M Professor
Doug Keuker – Vivayic Co-Founder
Leah Gibson – Vivayic Curriculum Development Team
Andrea Tenney – Vivayic Curriculum Development Team
Morgan Walkup – Vivayic Curriculum Development Team
Anna Pratt – University of Idaho volunteer
Emma Cannon – North Carolina State Graduate Student researcher
Charles Cannon – Volunteer, North Carolina
Katie Schrodt – FOH/MIAP Intern
Irene Amito – Ugandan Team Member
Agnes Obote – Ugandan Team Member
Alexa Major – FOH Program Manager
Mike Hafner – FOH Co-Founder, Executive Director
Edgar – driver
Dyllis – staff member at Alpha Hotel, where the team stayed
Bodas – motorcycle taxis
Krest- delightful, bitter lemon soda