Friday, 14 March 2014

Alum Post: Phil Wilmot

I am a part of that small demographic of USP alumni that has a deep long-term commitment to Uganda, but this is the result of an unexpected accident.

In August 2009, I joined dozens of North American young adult strangers on a plane destined for Entebbe.  I suppose we all arrived well-packed with our own assumptions.  My biggest assumption, which retrospectively seems predictable for a self-focused, militantly single male in his late teens, was that I would return to Pennsylvania a more mature, more focused, and more qualified version of myself.  To achieve this, I would have to make the most of my experiences, and this would necessitate a degree of risk and discomfort.  I wasn’t alone.  Most of us were eager to take in everything around us.
During orientation, Mark made the suggestion that it would feel natural for all the USP students to sit together at the dining hall.  My stubborn entrepreneurial spirit kicked in, and I challenged myself to sit with people I didn’t know – not every day, but at least some.

On one of these particular days I sat down at a table with some quiet UCU students.  By this time, I hadn’t realized that raising one’s eyebrows was a response in the affirmative, so engaging these individuals in conversation became frustrating.  I thought they were giving me the silent treatment.
Thankfully, I was soon relieved from my awkward interactions when a friendly young woman sat down across from me and began asking me about my studies.  We talked about her Development Studies classes, and that’s pretty much all I remember about our conversation.  Actually, the next few weeks after that encounter are kind of a blur too.  All I remember is sitting across from this kind lady at the DH, eating from our respective plates, and then so quickly sitting right besides her as she heaped spoonfuls of her own lunch on to my dish.  (How could I possibly have eaten that much?, I wonder as I sit in our tiny apartment in this food desert called Harrisburg, PA, writing this reflection with nothing but a block of cheese, some old apple juice, and an almost-empty bottle of ketchup in the fridge.)
Anyway, the point is that my expectations were far from accurate.  If you would have told 19-year-old Phil that 23-year-old Phil would be married to a Langi woman he met at the DH, caring for his one-year-old daughter and working full-time for no pay while preparing a long-term homestead in Northern Uganda, he wouldn’t have believed you for a second.

Many of my expectations and assumptions were shattered and reshaped during my USP semester, but the reshaping is what is important.  When we dwell on the phase of shattering – that dissonant collision between one’s present worldview and the reality that stands before him, we can easily grow discouraged, cynical, tired, hopeless.  That moment is deeply spiritual and eternally important.  It helps us understand our identity, our niche in the world.  But unless we move beyond the shattering to the phase of reshaping, we have wished a ton of fruitless pain upon ourselves.

For example, I once held an ethic of rigid celibacy, but the possibility of romantic monogamy shattered my expectations.  I could have lingered indecisively between a former worldview and the possibility of a new one, but that would have resulted only in frustration, isolation, and regret – so I allowed my expectations of relationships to be reshaped.  I guess that metaphor is a bit unfair, because beauty always helps the reshaping process along.  Let’s consider something a bit more messy, something a bit more universally accessible for USP alumni:

I was raised, like many, with the understanding that Christian missionaries and the non-profits and churches they served were creating a fundamentally positive change in the world.  A few missionaries and organizations we visited in Uganda surely shattered this assumption.  At first, I grew bitter.  How could those who claim to practice the same faith as me be so self-righteous?  So racist?  So corrupt?  So condescendingly insensitive?  I think at one point I even made a silent pledge to myself that I wanted to have no association with this madness of international “good-doing,” but as time went on, I allowed my view to be reshaped.  I deliberately sought out people and groups that I felt were “doing it right” – however rare they are – and chose to align myself with their communities and efforts.  (Reminder to fellow USP alumni, especially those currently working in Uganda: You don’t have to become what you hate.  While living in Uganda, American expats in my community have sometimes dissociated themselves from me, and I think it’s because I strongly insisted they give a few chapters of The Primal Vision a chance before continuing their work.  A dose of skepticism and anger can be healthy and appropriate, but just remember you still need someone around who also knows how to talk about the NFL or trashy American TV sitcoms.)

If my expectations prior to USP had been merely shattered, not reshaped, I might not be doing the things I have discovered I love most about life: being married, raising a child, working with a non-profit (Solidarity Uganda), and of course, eating Ugandan food almost every day of the week.  I owe a lot to USP.  My semester helped me dig through my own frustration and doubt, reshaping my bitterness into hope and aspiration.

Can you think of a time your expectations and assumptions were shattered?  Have you allowed them to be reshaped?  How?

Phil Wilmot participated in USP during Fall 2009.  He lives with his wife Suzan Abong and daughter Nadia Aceng in Harrisburg, PA.  Their Uganda homestead is not far from Lira, where Phil is pursuing ordination in the Church of Uganda while Suzan helps facilitate nonviolence trainings around issues of land rights through their organization, Solidarity Uganda (

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