This story I’m writing is hard for me to share. In the bare truth, I feel exposed in front of you. Yet, I believe I am supposed to write this, and, your eyes were never meant to give me peace anyhow. I’m not sure why I’m supposed to share this, but maybe some of you will.
No one should think that me here in Uganda means I’ve reached some higher level of “being spiritual.” Those of us who follow Jesus are following a man, yes? A Jewish man who is God. And learning to trust that man is a long journey… Learning to love that man more than anyone or anything is a long journey. When I am exposed to myself – seeing the truth of my heart nakedly – its horrifying, to be honest. Even thinking about it now, a sick feeling trembles deep inside.
When I came to Uganda, I brought myself with me… with all my issues – hard places in my heart, bad habits, and sins I didn’t want to let go of. I know I came because I followed Him and He told me to. But He’s had a lot to teach me once I came about some basics: i.e., following means you actually stay behind the person you follow.
Upon arrival, I asked God where He’d want me to invest my time and explored different areas of Moroto, one being Moroto High School. They have a club called Scripture Union (which is in schools across Uganda), and I attended their Sunday service every week with a Ugandan pastor from a different tribe. The first time at the service, I inwardly whispered, What do you think? You want me to be here? and heard a whisper back – It’s an open door.
I didn’t like that, honestly – fear tucked itself like a blanket into my insides. Uh, for real? If anyone thinks that teenagers are intimidating, wait until they meet the Kjong. My skin color had made me a target on the road for harassment by mocking teenagers more than once. So, I tried to forget what God had whispered to me, thinking – Ok… I really don’t like that. Maybe I didn’t hear Him right… Or maybe He’ll change His mind.
Both of my language tutors and many friends I made in those first months live in a subsection of Moroto called Kakolye, on the western side of town – many blocks of one-room mud apartments, many bars, many young people. The place is wild and dark; violent and sexual spirits roaming under the skin of the seen, under bright hot sun. Partly, my own vulnerability weakened my limbs as I would walk through. Partly, my heart connected to and ached for this place because it is the living space of hardened and hopeless people that I love. And partly, I felt pretty hard core to be there. A subconscious thought – Isn’t this why I’m here in Uganda? To be where people actually live?
I remember that day, last October. It began with a conversation with the King in which I knew He was inviting me to go out with Him, and a thought placed on me that it would be a good day to go to Kakolye. At some point, I became aware of heavy sadness over me. That was the entry point for anxiety. The anxiety birthed itself out of fear, which had tucked itself in my insides again, then began to vibrate. The anxiety vibrated something like this: What a waste for you to be in Moroto, doing nothing. Aren’t you supposed to be ‘out in the community’? Are you going to let fear keep you from going out? Mm. Good thing you can’t see God’s face – I bet He’s not too impressed with that. It sounds weird, but somehow anxiety started holding hands with excitement – Wooh, it’ll be pretty cool to go to Kakolye and finally get more steeped in peoples’ home lives.
In the spirit of that vibration, I got ready to go find my friend who lived there. A tall, skinny lady named Nacap Rose (pronounced “Nah-chahp”). She’s a funny lady – smirky, chatty, and pretty sassy. I felt off inside but began the journey anyways. As I left my apartment and walked down the pathway through bushes and a corridor to get out of the compound, a whisper the tone of a bass note, Don’t you think you should talk to Me about this first?
It was a reminder of what we were learning as a team: Listen to the Holy Spirit, the way Jesus did, instead of relying on our own strategies and wisdom in each situation. We are in so deep over our heads; there’s no chance we can make good decisions without guidance from Someone who knows better.
Unfortunately, in my eagerness I ditched the whole following thing and rushed ahead of Him. “Can I go? Is it ok if I go?” Without a clear answer, I just pressed on. The vibration continued and began to pulp up with fear. Yet even underneath that, the whisper initiated an alarm that began clanging deep inside – a warning.
After the twenty minute walk through and past the center of Moroto, Camp Swahili, I almost turned back. Upon nearing Kakolye, I had such a negative sense about me that I just stopped on the sidewalk, looking and feeling foolish. Should I go back? What do You want me to do? I asked and just waited, trying to put into practice a bit late what we’d been learning as a team.
It’s ok, you can go. In hindsight, I think He allowed me to go because of what He wanted to show me about me. Do you know that even good things turn to sour, sick mush in the pit of your being, when apart from Him?
I knocked on the door of Nacap’s apartment, pink flowered curtain swaying over a wooden door. No answer. As I wasn’t a frequent in Kakolye, all eyes watched me. A group of Kjong, young men and women, sat drinking a pitcher of booze at a bar across the road and started shouting at me, “Bua! Bua! You first come!”
I ignored them until someone in the group shouted my Karimojong name, “Napeyok!”
A beaming face, familiar from Moroto Prison – Akiteng Helen. How could this not be from Him?! I thought as I crossed the road, her arms and chest like pillows wrapping me in a moment, then grasping forearms eagerly, we greeted. Her large hand grabbing mine, she led me across the street amidst protests of her booze-mates. “You come back!” They demanded.
“Eh,” I said, the Ugandan assent.
We entered a doorway next to Nacap’s, covered by a lacy curtain – into a dark cube of bare dirt, graced by one bed and a small pile of dishes. I sat on the one small stool and she squatted awkwardly, and communicated as best as we could in Ngakarimojong as she spoke no English. I told her as best as I could what we had talked about at prison the day before –This is so productive, right? This is what You want, right?
The wild darkness pressed around the edges of my consciousness as I rejoined the group again across the road. The alarm grew stronger again, and a distinct phrase unearthed inside and sat on the dividing line of subconscious and conscious thought: Sheep among wolves. A distinct impression began to grow that someone wanted to eat me – maybe everyone.
Yet there I sat.
Do you know it felt smoothly sweet to hear their pleasure
when I greeted them in Ngakarimojong?
A mom with her daughter named Sharon, her daughter’s friend, a few young men.
“What do you do Napeyok?” Asked Sharon.
“Ok, tell us a story about God,” she said.
Her hollow eyes stared listlessly at me.
Their hollowed eyes hungry gulped at me.
Young, attractive men, all vying for my attention –
do you know that it felt sickly sweet to feel beautiful?
The clanging loudened,
and, with nauseated heart,
I turn away and ignore them to focus on Sharon.
“Tell us a story about God,” she says.
Ok. Do you know that slightly drunk people like to be entertained?
Do you know it felt productive and puffened sweet to pull out my tattered notebook,
to share a life story about me and God in Ngakarimojong –
who knows, thought I, maybe the story of my mess and the awesome love of God
will soak into their buzzed heads.
I’m pretty awesome right now.
And yet it was wrong – it was all wrong.
It took place quickly – and inside began an urgency –
Let’s get away from this group, I think.
“Where do you live?” I say to Sharon,
hands linked we go to her street,
to her baby.
In a moment, I’m cradling a sweet chocolate treasure in my arms –
do you know that felt sugary sweet?
— and move back to the main road, to the bar.
The urgency again —
Girl you gotta get out. Now.
“When are you coming back? When?” Pressed Sharon.
“I don’t know!” I said, “Maybe Monday!” I said,
without a thought for the God-man I followed to Moroto.
“Ok! That’s New Years Day!” She eagerly exclaimed.
And suddenly, plans rolled forward,
and I’d just agreed to enter the New Year
with a group of wolves drinking.
With smile on my face,
somehow I thought God’s Name on my lips
could make up for the total stupidity
and pride inside,
which had now ballooned to a gigantic height,
enough to darken even the physical sun.
And all that attention
suddenly sickened me
when I thought about His face.
– I’m not saying that sheep shouldn’t be with and truly love wolves –
I’m saying that
a sheep getting stroked by a wolf
is walking into slaughter,
and that all
sheep need to be with the Shepherd.
Walking home, my heart began failing in me as it dawned on me what I had just done. It’s not a light thing, to run away from the Shepherd – when peoples’ forever-lives are literally in the balance and you’ve just pushed them a step the wrong way. When you live in a culture characterized by violence – killing was a way of life less than a decade ago. When what you ran away for was the caress of an invisible beast, and you enjoyed that caress in front of the eyes of your only Love whose body is literally scarred for – and because of – you. Arrival to my apartment found me stricken on the floor, begging God to show me what to do, to please forgive, but more than that – please totally kill my destructive desires and make me like You. Every time I envisioned Kakolye in my mind, I saw a Red X drawn across it.
Some people pray for God’s Word to come alive. But the truth is that His Word never died, it’s our hearts that get dead to it. Because Proverbs slapped me in the face – “Whoever puts up security for a stranger will surely suffer harm, but he who hates striking his hands in pledge is secure” (Proverbs 11:15) then Proverbs said, “Get off your tush and Go!” – “My son, if you have…given your pledge for a stranger, if you are snared in the words of your mouth, caught in the words of your mouth, then do this my son, and save yourself, for you have come into the hand of your neighbor, go, hasten, humble yourself, and plead urgently with your neighbor. Give your eyes no sleep and your eyelids no slumber; save yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the hand of the fowler” (Proverbs 6:1-5). It knocked so hard, I sobbed all of it out.
A slap never seemed so sweet,
never came with such relief,
a knock to reality,
– You are not trapped to continue this path! –
Why are You so patient with me?
Less than 24 hours later,
I rode a boda (motorcycle taxi),
then walked quickly on the same sidewalk,
under same hot sun,
sunglasses on and didn’t greet a single stranger.
Limbs moved weak in vulnerability,
yet a deep peace sounded on the inside,
a quiet roar,
in a different Spirit than the one in which I’d moved the day before.
I found Sharon close to her home.
She seemed so young and empty sitting on the bench,
and that is what hurt the most –
that my idols now negatively touched her.
“Sharon, you know I told you I’m a follower of Jesus?
That means I follow Him.
Well, I have to tell you I am really sorry,
I didn’t even ask Him about spending New Year’s with you.
I can’t come.
I’m so sorry, please forgive me!”
She slumped limply as I walked away.
That is the story.
Do you know that He stood with arms wide to receive me?
– Scarred for a reason –
Do you know this was never about my ability to “do it”
in the first place?
Do you know He’s always known exactly where my heart is?
And do you know that’s a big reason we’re on this journey
in the first place?
It’s a big reason He brought me on this journey in the first place.