I guess I knew that dying was hard work, but I didn’t realize what that really meant until I sat with my Grandmother for a week and watched her do it.
She chose not to go to the hospital and not to have any life-preserving treatments – so she was remarkably unencumbered as she wrestled between life and death. At times it seemed as though her paper-thin skin could hardly contain her – that the boundary it provided was just not enough to differentiate between the adventure of her earthly life and the adventure to come. At other times, you could sense the tension in the effort of every breath, the breaths that grounded her to her bed, to the floor, and to the earth that spread beneath her.
The earth was a precious thing to my grandma. Whether she was coaxing food for her family from it’s rich depths, decorating it’s surface with colorful blooms, or exploring its marvelous breadth from continent to continent, she seemed to do it all with a love that encompassed not only herself, but everyone and everything with which she came into contact.
And the thing is, that particular gift of hers did not cease with her ability to speak or even swallow. As her children and grandchildren gathered around her during her last week, even then, her love filled us and all the spaces between us. It filled our conversations, our silences, our singing, our laughter, and even our tears.
This love of hers came from deep within, but did not originate with her. It was clear that it was fed by the ever-flowing spring that flows from the God who formed and sustained her. And as it filled her to overflowing, the boundaries between her face and the face of Christ began to blur.
I used to be confused and apprehensive about what Methodists refer to as “Christian Perfection.” We Mennonites don’t use language like that. The idea (as far as I understand it) for the Methodists is that there can come a point when a person perfectly loves God – when all their deepest desires align with the desires of God. This does not mean that a person never stumbles, but that it is possible to walk with God, at least for stretches, in a way that is perfectly in step.
When I think of this in the context of my own life and weaknesses, it seems absurd. But when I think of my grandmother, it doesn’t seem at all strange to think it possible.
We sang to her as she finally slipped away. We had been singing for about an hour when the end came, and yet, as we gathered around her bed, the only thing that came to our minds to sing was “Jesus Loves Me.”
Somehow I think that was just what she wanted.
Sometimes, if I shut my eyes when I run, I can see Uganda.
Suddenly, like a tree flashing past the window of a dirty, beat-up truck, my feet are no longer on pavement, but pounding rhythmically against the hard red dirt of the paths that wind their way back through the villages. I can feel my pace quicken as I push myself to keep up with Maranatha. I hear the banana leaves as they flap against one another in the cool morning breeze, and the building coming up on my right is a beautiful block home with a thatched roof, teeming with life as the children prepare to go to school for the day. Mangoes are ripening on the tree just ahead, and the sweet potatoes and maize are growing in carefully tended patches nestled between the bananas…
But when my eyes open again, it’s just corn.
I am currently preparing to speak about Uganda at church this morning, and was reminded of this, which is a reflection that I gave at International Chapel at Duke. Thought I would post it in case anyone still reads this and is interested in hearing more thoughts about Uganda…
Verbal language. Body language. Gestures. Words that tear apart and words that reconcile. Smiles that love beyond words. Nods of the head that mean totally different things on different continents. Muzungu – words that never stop reminding you that you are different…mukwanogwange – words that tell you that you do, and always will, belong. Offers of mangoes and cassava from empty stomachs. Repeating the phrase of a song over…and over…and over again and never getting it right. “Do you eat pork?” “Do you eat cassoli – corn?” Never have two questions that sound so similar actually been so different. What is your identity? Is it like mine? And in what ways does that matter?
Throughout our time in Uganda, I struggled with verbal language. I struggled to learn it, to sing it, and to understand what it meant when it was all strung together. Why do you use the word kukuba – beat – when you are playing tag, when someone is misbehaving, when you take a picture of someone, and when you call that person on the phone? Why does the phrase “you’re lying” make no distinction as to whether you are joking around or whether you are being accused of a serious offense? Why do you thank people for their work when you first greet them even though you haven’t seen them all day and you have no idea what they have been doing? Why does EVERYONE seem to spell things differently, and what on earth does “we’ll be back” mean???
I was behind, and language took on a significantly different bent as my ability with words was minimized. I was a divinity student – an avid consumer and producer of words – suddenly faced with the verbal language skills of a toddler. Many of the people with whom I interacted were fluent in English, and with some, I had very profound theological and philosophical conversations – but that didn’t change my audacious insufficiency in Luganda.
What I found in this struggle was that God was transforming my concept of language. It became much less about being understood or understanding, and a whole lot more about loving. Words lost none of their significance, but my feeble attempts at the traditional greeting ceremony and at reassuring people that “nsanyuse okuba wano – I am happy to be here” were far less about cognitive understanding and much more about the attempt itself. “Good evening” – told us, more often than not, at 2 in the afternoon – was a greeting that mattered due to its intent, not its words. Mangoes, tea, hugs, a welcoming smile, these things were fully language, and I became aware of that in a way that I often miss in my rush to understand the exact meaning and presuppositions that are wrapped up a person’s, or theologian’s words. A piece of dirty corn from a child’s pocket – corn that should have been her lunch – becomes the liturgy of the day – the only Eucharistic feast that this Mennonite could share with her Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim children. But this life-lived liturgy, like the beautiful Eucharistic prayers that rose with the dawn each morning in the church, took, and takes, time. It cannot be rushed – it is what community does. As the psalm that Maranatha read stated, “how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.”
In Uganda, I gained a new family and a new community through learning a language that only partly has to do with words. The challenge is doing that here, in a place where most of us are able to communicate fluently in the same verbal language, and therefore we take for granted that we understand what a person is saying, stopping at words rather than taking the time and attention to focus fully on what a person’s whole language is saying. We stop at words and a brief hello as we run to classes and field ed, missing the rhythm of a person’s life and the rhythm of our community. When we stop to sit, drink tea, and share what we have (or often, in the case of “time” – what we feel we do not have), paying as much attention to the person’s presence as we do to their words, I suspect that we will enter a liturgy of moments in which God will teach us what it looks like to see each other more fully.
If there is anyone who has been anxiously awaiting updates from me on this, I apologize for the scarcity of my writings. I don’t have long to write at the moment, but wanted to give a quick update.
We about a week and a half left here in Uganda before we fly back to the US. Time is hard to gauge sometimes, but it is starting to sink in that time is short. There are moments when I look forward to coming back to see family and friends, and other moments when leaving the family and friends that I have met here seems that it will tear me in pieces. But, as one of my beautiful students reminded me a couple days ago, “I will cry, but you have to go. I know that. I think that when you are done with your studies, you will come back.”
The past month since I updated last has been busy and wonderful. Maranatha and I are feeling like more and more a part of the community every day as we deepen relationships, learn more of the language, and have even been adopted into clans. (Maranatha addresses this on her blog, if you are interested. You can find it at http://anoblepursuit.blogspot.com/)
I still spend most of my days at the schools, but my evenings are split between practicing with the choir that sings for second mass (the mass that is Luganda, the local language), playing volleyball and other games, having hours of theological and philosophical conversation with the seminarians, and learning to cook Ugandan fare.
I fly back to the US on August 1, will attend the Bridgefolk conference, and then will return back to Indiana on the 8th.
I know this update is very bare bones, but I will give you more to read upon returning.
In Uganda, there are only two seasons: the rainy, and the dry.
One of my favorite things to do is to play in the rain. Sometimes that involves puddle diving, once it included climbing to a high place in a thunderstorm, other occasions it has centered around running and singing joyfully with children, and many times it has meant simply standing in the pouring rain, letting it soak to my skin and experiencing the way that, in running over me from head to toe, it seems to clean every bit of my body and soul in a way that few others things can.
When I am playful, I go to the rain. When I am thoughtful, I go to the rain. When I am hot and exhausted, desperately in need of cleansing and refreshing, I go to the rain. Each huge drop of God’s Grace and Hope pounds on my head, face, and hands as it does on our metal roof and this dry land. These drops wash away sweat, tears, and pain, bringing new life and growth in all the cracks and crevices between the one room houses where some are eating and some are dying. They hit the ground with surprising conviction, splashing dirt on my feet: the same dirt that cakes unwashed faces and hands that offer brilliant smiles and juicy mangoes; the same dirt that cultivates food with abundance; the same dirt that encases the bodies of parents and siblings who will never see a student’s 8th birthday.
The drums and voices echo from broken rooms in thriving parishes, where children take refuge from the downpour and sing and dance songs rejoicing in the saving power of Jesus. In these rooms, they laugh and play with wooden guns and wooden crosses – destructive power in the left hand and redeeming vulnerability in the right – while the same rain that brings abundant life threatens to flood fields where livelihood grows.
Hope. Pain. A whispered word that definitively promises to heal all things. And still it rains.
This past Friday, we were pilgrims.
We journeyed to a place called Namugongo, where 23 Anglicans and 22 Catholics were killed for their faith between the years of 1885 and 1887, with the majority of these deaths being on June 3, 1886. On every 3rd of June, hundreds of thousands of people from many different countries come here to worship and to celebrate the faith of the martyrs. There were people from 16 different countries at the celebration, and each of the Catholic diocese take turns leading the Catholic mass. It was a 3 hour Eucharistic celebration, full of singing and dancing. For me, it brought up a lot of questions regarding the limited Ecumenical relationships within the celebration – the opportunity to unite in remembering the Anglican and Catholic faithful who were killed side by side seems ideal yet untouched. I don’t have time to write more right now (there are children waiting for me, and I think their patience is wearing thin), but if you are interested in knowing more about the martyrs or the Martyrs’ Day celebration, look it up. Also, if you are HC Theo ’08, there is a chapter in our “My Life with the Saints” book about the Uganda Martyrs that I highly recommend.
So, I wanted to post. I don’t have much time to say anything profound, thought through, or well crafted…but I thought I would let anyone who reads this know that I am, in fact, still alive and well.
We had our first real day of teaching today. It was very good. The language barrier is very difficult with the younger classes, particularly in subjects like religious education, but the priests and the sisters keep telling me that it will get better as they get used to me, and as I slow down. I am working on losing some of my accent. This afternoon we were with S1, which is approximately equivalent to our 9th grade. We will be teaching them a combination of English and Bible, but this week is focused on getting to know them, and letting them know us. 9th graders are the same everywhere, apparently, so it was rough at first, but by the end of the class, we were asking questions of each other and laughing freely when we simply couldn’t understand each other.
More later. Life is good. I had my second variety of mango today…fantastic. There are 5 kinds, apparently, so the others will come later.
For some reason, the language barrier was a concern that was very low on my list before arriving in Uganda. That has changed.
I had not anticipated the way in which my inability to speak the primary language of the community would be the thing that is most difficult to overcome in my first few days here. Although most adults with which I have interacted so far speak at least some English, usually only time that I hear them speak it is when they are directly addressing Maranatha or me.
We live in a compound with 3 priests, 1 deacon, 1 religious brother, 2 girls who clean and work in the kitchen, and 2 boys who are students at the primary school and who help around the parish. All wonderful people, and all of whom know quite a bit of English…except one of the boys.
Quiet, with a smile that lights up his face, he says “good morning,” “good afternoon,” and “good evening,” as fits the occasion. At first I thought he was just shy, but I soon realized that he knows only slightly more English than I know Luganda (currently, my vocabulary consists of “how are you,” “good,” “thank you,” “okay,” “table,” “chair,” and “white person”). However, this language “issue” cannot hide that he is gracious, caring, compassionate, and keenly aware of the actions and emotions of those around him. Yesterday, as we shared cookies together, he made sure to turn the TV almost exclusively to channels that were in English. Today, as we came back from a walk, he made sure to have the gate open for us, telling us (with his beautiful smile) “Good evening.” I tried out my feeble Luganda, greeting him with, “oli otiya,” and something clicked. We spent the rest of the evening wandering around the compound, teaching each other words in English and Luganda (with him doing that vast majority of the teaching), connected not by a commonality of language, but by a lack of this commonality which many take for granted. I don’t remember many of the words, and I am sure that he does not remember many either…but we will.
I am flying to Uganda in 6 hours!
More on the name of this blog and the beginnings of my time in Uganda once I get there and have the time to do so.