Let me be honest. I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed up to study in Uganda for a semester. Yet, I’m so glad I went. Perhaps it’s like a marriage. Before people say their vows, they may prepare tremendously, but who could ever know everything in store? Also, marriage is a binding together of two into one. No matter what, there will be a lasting tie. Of course, I did not know four months in this program would shape the rest of my life and permanently tie me to Uganda. I’m so glad it did though.
I’m grateful for the MANY trail blazers, especially Mark and Abby Bartels, who paved the way for students like me. I know they shy away from recognition, but it would be a disservice not to honor them for their courage, wisdom, kindness, and strength. Uganda and nations across the globe have been changed for the better because of them. Even in this moment, I am reaping the benefits of their investment.
August of 2008, our group landed in Uganda and started a journey together. Since we arrived at night and the streets were not punctuated by many street lights, our bus ride was very dark. Yet, I could clearly see Coca-Cola billboards along the mostly dirt roads. I am still in awe of this phenomenon. There is too much I’d like to say about this…Today, a huge part of what I do professionally is marketing. In the midst of that, I have clear mental images from Uganda when I consider the global influence that media has. God has entrusted this generation with powerful communication tools that previous generations did not have. We can communicate across the earth—even instantly. The Uganda Studies Program (USP) put names and faces to concepts such as “globalization”. Whether or not we are aware or consenting, we are shaping the nations. In view of that, we should take a time out every so often to examine what exactly we are projecting. My time in Uganda made that incredibly real to me.
I do not consider my profession today as a deviation from what I learned in Uganda, but rather, an expression of it. I feel such a freedom in marketing for a company called The Drying Company & ThermalTec, which solves moisture and comfort issues in homes and buildings. When we seal and insulate a home, it becomes more energy efficient. The benefits then ripple. It frees money to be used for other good and godly things. Energy efficient buildings also mean less pollution from places like coal-based power plants. Less pollution is not an abstract thing. It translates into safer, cleaner air to breathe, water to drink, and food to eat. The benefits are passed along to the health of our bodies and continue to ripple in myriad directions. I consider my experience in Uganda to affirm what I do. USP not only trains missionaries to change the world, it trains people from every major who might not ever do mission work (in the way most people define mission work). It’s glorious. USP supports students to serve God in whatever way God leads—even within realms labeled as secular or worldly. I bring what I learned in Uganda to work with me and, in fact, to my whole life.
Uganda is never far from my mind as I prepare to teach each week. I have the honor of hanging out with the youth in my church congregation and sharing God’s word with them. I have particularly grown to love working with middle school girls-they are so precious! I can bring a wealth of first-hand stories from Uganda to our discussions-- Real people. Real places. Real life lessons. I will never forget staying with my host family during the Mukono “suburban” homestay. At evening prayer time my family prayed aloud, which I loved. One of the things my father asked God for was money for his children’s school fees. When school fees aren’t paid, children do not go to school. That gripped me…and still does. The students I know in America are immersed in a different world than the students I know and met in Uganda. I’ll be honest, there’s a part of me that wants to throw my hand on my hip and tell my beautiful American students a thing or two, especially when they whine about certain things. The temptation is there.
However, I believe there is a more fruitful strategy. It’s a strategy USP both modeled and taught: tell stories. You see, I am no different than my students. We both can veer toward short-sighted and self-centered mindsets. When I entered USP, there was so much I didn’t know. Nevertheless, the program leaders were so gracious in the way they shared stories and exposed us to new environments. That’s what I aim to do--be a gracious ambassador for Uganda. I can point to my handmade jewelry and batiks from Uganda. I can describe how enrapturing it was to experience the Rwenzori Mountains. Then, I can tell of the beauty I saw in the midst of heart-wrenching needs. Pointing to pictures, I can talk about Jesus Cares Orphanage and the children who not only lost their parents to HIV/ AIDS, but faced an HIV positive diagnosis. I can cry as I share how taboos about AIDS have caused families and communities to reject their own--the very people who need love and help the most. I can reminisce about hand washing all my laundry and talk about families who had only a few sets of clothes. There was and is so much beauty in the midst of heinous things that made me want to not only turn my head, but run. That beauty, which encompasses so much more than aesthetics, comes from Jesus. So, I’m not only an ambassador for Uganda, but an ambassador of a fuller revelation of who Jesus is. That is humbling.
Uganda is beautiful. Just like the invisible cord called the equator that crosses through it, there is an invisible cord that ties my heart and mind to Uganda. Sometimes I can feel a tug more intensely than others, but the tie is always there. The same cord that ties my affection to Uganda lets me know when I’ve wandered too far and forgotten the anchor of what I learned. I’m feeling the tug very strongly at this moment. I am compelled to be a more compassionate, active ambassador for Jesus and his glorious nation Uganda.
|Still close friends today, here's Marsha with fellow Fall 2008 student Denise Puente|