On Leaving this Land (for the time being)
David R. Weiss, April 2, 2013
After Easter chapel ended there was a line of people hoping to catch my ear. It was probably the least comfortable moment of my trip. Not in a bad way, but in an honest way. Four people, four stories of deep need. Quite beyond my capacity to respond to in any adequate way. Uganda is the “Pearl of Africa,” and amid the jarring living conditions of so many it does offer frequent and consistent glimpses of breathtaking beauty. But there are so many for whom the pearl that is Uganda has not been kind or fair. And in that moment I felt like Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, when he cries out, “There’s too many of you – don’t push me. There’s too little of me – don’t crowd me. Heal yourselves!”
A better man would’ve not felt so claustrophobic in the face of so much need, but I’m not yet that better man. Or, as Luther said, simul justus et peccator, at once saint and sinner. One moment I am the man speaking good new in the temple, the next I am cowering inside because I don’t see how there can possibly be enough loaves and fish to feed this crowd. Maybe next time I’ll know how to multiply the little there is into … enough … and then into abundance. But not yet this Easter.
Moses and I departed from the Centre on what seemed like a frivolous affair, but such are the contradictions that carry life forward. Rita, who hails from North Dakota and whom I was linked to via Robbyn, a mutual friend who hails from St. Paul, treated me to Indian food on Tuesday night. Tonight, leaving behind the teeming need at the Centre, we would both join Rita at an upscale, though far from exclusive Chinese restaurant. And we’d go Dutch. Fair to those at the Centre? Hardly. But a bid to help Moses meet the teeming need in his own life. Having lost his steady supply of work in the field of social research (most often assessing the effectiveness of public health campaigns) as a result of being outed as an Ally, Moses’ and his family are increasingly close to a day-to-day existence themselves.
Everyone’s needs cry out to me, and I owe everyone here more than I can possibly pay, but I owe Moses most of all. Hired “simply” to drive me around, he has also served as an almanac of Ugandan life and culture, a broker of conversations with activists, a treasure trove of insight and perspective into the LGBT community and issues here, a fellow father-husband-dreamer for justice, and a friend. So I asked if he and I could join Rita for a second meal with a soft but sure agenda, to see whether Rita, with her NGO connections here, might connect Moses to some income again. So alongside treating Moses to his first-ever Chinese cuisine and teaching him to use chopsticks (his competence outpaced mine in minutes) we recounted our week to Rita and then segued into a conversation about Moses’ skills and experience and whether and where they might intersect with Rita’s programs or her network of connections. No deals were made, but seeds were planted, contact information exchanged, ideas explored, live opportunities even mentioned. Time will tell where exactly it leads, but for now the path at least looks like hope.
Sunday night: where did the time fly? Suddenly packing looms as an unwelcome task after a long day. Of course, I’m ready to go home. I have a full life back in Minnesota, and I enjoy it there. I’ll be glad to be back. But maybe just one more day or one more week would be nice. I was just getting warmed up. Just making connections. Just beginning. So I packed my bags with reluctant eagerness.
At breakfast this morning I saw a new face at the Guesthouse. We’re pretty empty right now, and I’d heard a new voice moving her things into the room next to mine last night as I packed. So, stifling my introverted self, I brought my glass of juice over and joined her. After introductions and noting the irony that her first day here is my last, I cautiously explained the mission that brought me to Kampala. She was enthusiastic in her affirmation. I asked, in turn, “What brought you here?” “Well, I’m the buyer for this region of Africa for ‘Ten Thousand Villages’ – have you heard of them?” OMG. Heard of them? My daughter Susanna and I volunteer for them in St. Paul. Small world. Melissa, the buyer, knew some of the staff at the St. Paul store. She is here now to meet in person with some of the artisans and organizations she purchases from. I mentioned the Women’s Empowerment Project at Bishop Christopher’s Centre to her and I got a business card to pass on to Agnes, Moses’ friend who is a local craft vendor. I came here to open doors for Wingspan, but it’s also a big world, and if I can open a door for someone else, that’s good, too.
I had my final conversation with Bishop Christopher Monday morning at the Centre. I gave him Melissa’s contact information so he could pass it on to their Women’s Project coordinator. She’ll be in Kampala all week so hopefully a connection can happen. We discussed the many opportunities (and challenges) that sit before Centre. I need to review my notes and then share those thoughts first with Wingspan, but I can mention several themes.
(1) There is more to do than there are funds to make things doable. How – and how much – Wingspan can help will be a big conversation for the rest of the folks on the Uganda Team when I return. But there is no lack of energy, leadership, passion, or presence of Spirit at the Centre.
(2) One need that may be of particular interest to us is their chapel program. They would welcome worship resources (I left two copies of my CD and several copies of my lyrics with them). Financially they need support to allow them to do more outreach and pastoral care to those linked to the linked who are absent. And they need funds to provide subsidy for transport to those who come from a distance to worship there. For many who need the chapel’s spiritual support, the choice is between a meal or a bus ride. To date the bishop offers what he can out of his own pocket. He told me on Monday morning that St. Paul-Reformation’s $300 gift carried by me on this trip will be designated for chapel work.
(3) The bishop continues to dream about a “safe house” – as he puts it a hospitality house or hostel. At times in Uganda’s recent past the military had “safe houses” where dissidents got disappeared, so for many the phrase “safe house” connotes anything but safety. And he anticipates that others would say retort that Uganda is already “safe” for everyone – the same way many churches respond that LGBT people are already welcome, why do we need to say it out loud? A hospitality house or hostel could offer moments of sanctuary to activists whose safety is occasionally in danger. For a Centre that lives on funding week-to-week, this is a still just a day dream, but it’s Easter, and maybe a new day is about to dawn.
(4) Tomorrow is often on the bishop’s mind. What’s next? What does the future hold? Two things stand out here: youth and sustainability. The bishop’s work as an Ally began in a calling to raise a single voice: his. But over the past decade the Centre has aimed to take that single voice, that spark of passion, and gather it with other voices and other sparks, to create a movement with staying power. From the perspective of his eighty years, even my fifty-three counts as youth. But around the Centre several of the staff are in their late twenties or early thirties. And that clearly delights the bishop. The other thing he mentions repeatedly is sustainability. In a country where many people live on just a few dollars a day, sustainability is a real challenge. The Centre may never exist apart from outside donors. But one reason that economic empowerment is a priority in the programs is because, as you help people become self-sufficient, you help them reach a position where they can give back to the Centre. The bishop isn’t interested in charity, although he knows that in the short term that’s probably the best word for the aid that comes his way. What he really hopes for, though, is partners in the pursuit of justice, fellow workers in the kingdom of God, a community of midwives working to birth a world where welcome and opportunity are truly part of the common-wealth.
Wrapping up. My last conversation was with Andrew, the programs manager at the Centre. His story deserves more attention than my brain can offer now. (I’m finishing this post up in the Amsterdam airport, on too little sleep and with a throbbing crick in my neck from the little sleep I got on the last flight.) For now, I’ll say this. At twenty-seven Andrew is about six months older than my own son, Ben. Like Ben, Andrew is diligent and takes pride in his work. He knows what he’s doing, and he does it well. Still, it was humbling to know that many of the logistics for this trip rested in hands so relatively young. Andrew is a nephew to the bishop, and for some years offered his technological expertise and typing skills to the bishop as a volunteer. Eventually his own life experiences ignited a fierce passion as an Ally, and today his commitment to the Centre – and to its future – is remarkable. He is the bishop’s right hand. And a hand that is steady and sure.
One side note, if you’ve followed my blog from “First Flight” twelve days ago, you know that I brought a few simple gifts for Andrew and his young daughter. In our closing conversation he returned to those gifts, telling me how again last night he said to his wife, “Over the last three I’ve arranged for so many people to come visit the bishop and see the Centre, but until David, no one ever brought a gift for me of my child. This man is special.” Well, this man (me) is both a father and a grandfather, so I can’t take extra credit for seeing the value of children, but I will take credit for honoring the gifts of a person too easily overlooked. I’ve been that person, too. And I knew that as we (Wingspan, St. Paul-Reformation, and other partners as yet unseen) move forward in supporting the bishop’s work, we’re really supporting the work of a movement, not just a person. And Andrew is one of the faces of that movement tomorrow – and already one of the shapers of that movement today. Our work together is only beginning, and those simple gifts made it a good beginning in deed.
Leaving the Centre, Moses took me out to see where he stays in Kampala, a two-room 300 square foot apartment. It’s a brick and plaster duplex; his landlord has a 600 square foot apartment on the other side. He pays $100 per month, utilities included. It’s nicer that most of the homes I’ve seen in the poor neighborhoods: small, simple, clean. His kitchen is a small gas cook stove, used mostly to boil water for tea, a small three-shelf assortment of plates and cups, a dorm-sized refrigerator hosting a small tv, and a few staples: bread, margarine, jam, and sugar. It’s humble by any stretch of my imagination. Even reminding myself, as he does, that his goal, when he’s in Kampala, is to work and send as much money as possible to his family in Mbale. But sitting in his apartment, toasting our friendship with Mango juice, I realize that we both are wealthy. Family that love us (and that we love), dreams that we chase because they are worthy, other lives that we honor because they have dignity, and a God who opened pathways to a friendship that will last a lifetime. Kings have had less.
To the airport. One last errand. One of the activists I met last Thursday, Jay, a transman briefly profiled in “Company of Angels” (March 29) had e-mailed me hoping to at least say a word of farewell in person on my way out of town. Since meeting last week he has read all my Uganda blogs and plunged into the book I gave him. So I call him and put Moses on the phone and let the two of them identify a rendezvous on our way through town to the airport. It’s a gas station. Jay has used some of the small money I gave him last week to pick up a few diapers to send to some of his members in a rural area. After we say goodbye he’ll put the small package on a taxi-bus out to one of the villages.
I have a final gift for him. His last e-mail mentioned that part of his Easter day was spent listening to gospel music. So I bring my last CD to him as a parting gift. It brings him almost to tears. Like many of the LGBT activists (and LGBT non-activists), they’ve managed against enormous odds to claim the love of God despite all the rhetoric posed against them. But they have not experienced the gift of a book or songs that allow them to see that their stubborn claim is more than just a gut feeling – that it is also the very heart of the biblical story. In my words Jay is beginning to see that his gut feelings about God’s unconditional love have roots in the story taken away from him by the church, now returned to him by a long-haired bearded man born on Christmas Day. Sweet irony.
He tells me that he will share this – along with my book – with his members. In fact, some of them had already expressed the hope they might meet with me before I go. Our eyes meet, and together we say: “Next time.” A hug that seals this hope, and Moses and I are off.
An hour and a half later we reach the airport. We’ve driven much of the way in silence, savoring the ten days we’ve had together and dreading the final goodbye. It happens so quickly. Hello. Day after day of grace. Goodbye. But each of us is a new creation. Ambassador for Christ from one culture and one continent to another. I don’t say it out loud, but as he walks away, I think of the distance we have crossed to reached this place, and I borrow a phrase from Star Trek to send a final blessing chasing after him: Live long and proper, my friend. Live long and prosper. And may the justice of our God wrap all the world, so big, so small, in welcome.
Good-bye from Amsterdam. Next stop: St. Paul … and Margaret. Thanks be to God.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). He and Margaret have a blended family of five children, five grandchildren, and assorted animals that approximate a peaceable kingdom. A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at http://www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”