I went to weekday mass this morning, for the first time in a few years. I’m getting over jetlag from a World Vision trip to Uganda last week, and as I lay in bed in the dark this morning my mind could not help but cling to the darkest portion of our many projects visits. While we saw plenty of positive programs, met communities engaged in their own transformation, and celebrated compelling signs of hope, the week was bookended by two riveting experiences that seem to overshadow the others, at least at this point in my recovery.
I had cringed when I saw our planned agenda a few weeks earlier, knowing the impact of these visits but also aware that the logistics of our travel would require that these be at the beginning and end of the trip. Knowing this in advance probably shielded me from some of the initial “blast” of the experiences, but even that could not protect me from the stinging and clinging residue.
On Monday morning, we visited a project designed to combat a hideous practice called “child sacrifice” for lack of a more accurate term. Children are abducted in order to harvest their blood and body parts for superstitious practices carried out by witch doctors. This happens in only one quadrant of Uganda, so I hesitate to even tell about it for fear of perpetuating old stereotypes of “deepest, darkest Africa.” But without a doubt, this is a very, very dark practice.
We saw all sides of it: First we met Robert, a lovely young boy with a fun-loving smile who was found and rescued in the midst of getting his throat cut. Today he is in a wheelchair, his spinal column mostly severed but hopefully healing. Nothing can keep this seven-year-old down, and he showed us how he can now walk again while hanging onto his chair or his grandmother.
Next we met an energetic committee of community members who have implemented an Amber Alert-type system activated with drums, loudspeakers, cellphones, and motorcycle taxis, with all the government and community leaders involved. Because of this project, which was underwritten by the Innovation Fund, there has been an 85% reduction in the incidence of child abduction and sacrifice!
The World Vision project leader, Obed, risks his life to come up against an unholy alliance of witch doctors, superstitious customers and kidnapper/body-snatchers, all powered by the money that the ongoing demand creates. The project is empowering the community to stand up against this evil practice, change hearts, immediately send out search parties, and prosecute the perpetrators.
About 80% of the 500-plus traditional healers have now taken a pledge rejecting this practice, and our next visit was to one of those. We all entered his compound, but only half the group ventured into his lair. At one point, Obed said, “You see these rocks in the bowl between us? That’s where in the past he would sprinkle human blood.” Obed had comforted some of the reluctant ones in our group when we arrived there, “You have nothing to fear. You’re covered with the blood of Jesus.” So I went into his hovel, to affirm the commitment this witch doctor made… but I can’t say I’m glad that I did.
Our last visit of the day took our breath away. Jimmy was 18 months old when he was abducted last year, his heart, genitals and blood ‘harvested’, and his body dumped back on his family’s land to be found by his six-year-old sibling. We met his grandmother, father and uncle. Mom has been sent away to recover, and Jimmy’s siblings are clearly traumatized. They clung to Jaaja (Grandma) until the conversation got so graphic that we sent them out to play. Wise or unwise, the adults wanted to show us the spot where Jimmy was found, and then the family plot where he is buried. But the young father couldn’t do it. He hung behind by a tree ten steps away and wept silently, breaking everyone’s heart. We witnessed the depth of trauma that this hideous act has wrought on three generations of this extended family, a broken, motherless home that will forever be scarred, and a killer who is still on the loose.
Mercifully, the next few days were encouraging ones of visits to other projects underwritten by the Innovation Fund, projects which include radio and cellphone training of saintly Volunteer Health Teams who are the first-line of defense in the health system; mobilizing faith leaders to advocate for sanitation and hygiene to their congregations; and a low-cost way to manually drill for water which is sometimes inexpensive enough for community members to pay for a pump-well themselves! Along the way, we visited a health center where a woman was just then giving birth and were invited to see the suckling 8-minute-old baby, we learned a lot about defecation in the Bible(!), and we passed through a national park complete with safari animals and a ferry ride across the Victoria (White) Nile River.
Then on Friday, before we flew home, we had the opportunity to visit the recently-closed Children of War center. World Vision’s regional office is now housed in this compound, and I’d heard about this program and advocated and prayed for it for so many years that I was very eager to see the place firsthand, even as an ‘historical’ site.
The center was created because of the 20-year reign of terror of the marauding bands of the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army, an abhorrent and aberrant-Christian version of ISIS. Among their despicable practices was abducting children between 10-16 years old, the boys to become trained killers and the girls to be given to LRA commanders as “wives.” The Children of War center was the primary facility for healing and repatriating abducted former child soldiers and child brides, and we were told that some 15,000 former abductees had come through this program since 1995.
We were hosted in our visit not by the World Vision staff, but by two former child “wives” (often one of 20 or more “wives” of an LRA commander) who had escaped with their children born while in captivity. Angela and Janet have now started an organization called We Have Hope, not so much to support former child brides, but primarily to help the fatherless children of these women, who face great stigma and behavioral issues, and who were sometimes brainwashed by the LRA before their mothers escaped with them.
Hearing about the ongoing, multi-generational damage from this evil and violence–after our Monday experience with the child abduction project and Jimmy’s family–became a very heavy weight. Lying in bed today, I realized I must take care of my soul to avoid hitting a wall, sinking into an abyss of unbalanced despair by allowing these searing dark memories to overly-shadow the bright light of the others.
That’s when I felt motivated to go to Mass.
I arrived late, and there were lots of distractions. But as the service was concluding, I gazed up at the cross. There Christ still hung, in proper Catholic tradition.
And as I gazed up, a song began to run through my mind from the musical Godspell. It’s a rendering of Psalm 137:1-4, with a lamenting melody that perfectly fits the lyric:
On the willows there we hung up our lives
For our captors there required of us songs
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion”
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion”
But how can we sing, sing the Lord’s song, in a foreign land?
On the willows there we hung up our lives
Captivity. Torment. Joylessness. Despair… Reverence.
That’s when I realized the solace so many have found over the centuries: by hanging their overwhelming burdens up there on the cross with Him who is crucified. He who bore the sins of the world stretches wide his arms to also welcome and bear our burdens.
I accepted the invitation.
The cross is a story of utter defeat, of no one coming to save the day.
But it was not the final day. Nor did death have the final say.
On that willow there, we too can hang up our lives.