Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Alumni Post - Marsha Allen

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

Friday, 11 April 2014

Relationships, Crossing Cultures and Social Work

By: USP Social Work Coordinator, Lisa Tokpa

I have had a lot of humbling experiences during my social work career.  One such experience happened within my first year with International Justice Mission (IJM) as I walked through a Nairobi slum with a client’s grandmother.  I was ready to do a proper, efficient social work assessment – I came prepared to sit with the woman and ask her questions about her granddaughter’s progress, ready to point her towards some Kenyan counselors who we had identified.  Instead I walked with the older woman slowly and in silence (which I’m sure now was much more uncomfortable for me than for her).  Were we going to a confidential meeting point?  I tried to follow the lead of my Kenyan coworker.  The woman pointed out her granddaughter’s school along the way as she greeted friends that walked by.  Once she felt ready, she started talking about the rape of her granddaughter.  I asked some questions as we continued to walk, overlooking miles of corrugated roofs and stepping over sewage.  She went on to share with us that her granddaughter still had nightmares about the incident, but they were getting better.  I questioned in my mind if that was really the case since I knew she was not yet seeing a counselor.  The woman looked at me with her tired face and brightly colored head wrap, and said in Swahili “When she wakes up screaming, I just get down on the floor with her and rock her back and forth, singing hymns until she falls back asleep.”  Humbled, I thought: that is powerful social work.  

During another assessment I came prepared to see how the child was doing psychologically after the trauma of a past assault, but quickly discovered that he hadn’t seen or heard from his mother in several days and hadn’t eaten since then either.  The five-year-old asked me, “Do you have any food?”  This type of scenario happened more than once with IJM clients.  I realized I needed to quickly mobilize a different plan of action in the face of the more immediate needs of many of these young survivors. 

I didn’t do anything overtly wrong or unethical in these situations, but I was confronted with the naivety of my assumptions that I came with as North American social worker.  I don’t think I even had an awareness of my own assumptions that connecting people with resources in this context would mirror more closely what I was used to in my own.  My first few years as a social worker, as with any new professional, were filled with experiences that took my theory-heavy academics to their limit.  I laugh (and sometimes cringe) as I think about times when I used my social work theories and tried to apply it in ways that failed miserably.  Scenes go through my head of going door-to-door to obtain important “community-input and investment” in new initiatives in an apartment complex in Denver, when we were met with only suspicious glares or expletives that are not appropriate for this blog.  

With these failures also came successes, in part, because of those theoretical frameworks and host of internships within my MSW program.  All of this together captures the essence of social work learning; which in my mind is one of the most difficult professions that exists because at its core is relationships – which are sometimes messy and always dynamic.  I’ve learned that the minute we start to get prideful about what we know we step away from being a career-long learner, a core practice behavior within the social work profession. 

One of the reasons I love my role as the Social Work Coordinator with USP is that I get to walk with students through practicum experiences where theory meets practice in hard but incredible ways.  While I appreciate my domestic MSW internships, I envy the learning experiences and cross-cultural insights that USP students gain as a result of their practicums.  I wish I learned the importance of being present with people as a tool for effective social work when I was in college.  I wish I had more aggressively confronted my cultural bias’ including the value and worth we place on accomplishing tasks over showing compassion through relationships.  From my experience working in the US, there is not a shortage of social workers with solid theoretical frameworks of effective interventions.  I have seen a shortage of North American social workers working worldwide that understand the value of relationships as a powerful force of transformation.  I’m proud to be part of a program that doesn’t stop with theories, but builds on them in a dynamic, cross-cultural context that brings forth life-changing insights about what makes social work practice truly effective.

Lisa, far left with the junior and senior Social Work students, spring 2013

Social Work students at their practicum sites....

Monday, 7 April 2014

Magaret Opol

After nearly ten years of service to USP, Margaret has shifted within Uganda Christian University and is the new Financial Aid officer. While we will miss her dearly at USP, we celebrate her new position are confident she will bring great energy and enthusiasm to the Financial Aid office.

by: Abby Bartels

I have been in bible studies where people say that the Proverbs 31 woman is a representative symbol of the multitude of gifts that women offer to the home and society.

But having lived in Africa, I have met African women who singularly seem to embody the virtues of the Proverbs 31 woman.

Margaret Opol is one of those women that I’ve been privileged to know well for more than a decade.

Let me break down some verses from Proverbs 31 and give the Margaret manifestation:

Marriage:An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.  The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.”
Margaret and Sam 

If you know Sam and Margaret, you know that she is a trustworthy wife—here at UCU but also in their home place, Serere.  Together, they are respected and valued for their contributions in the public sphere and for their work in their private and interpersonal commitments.

Work ethic: She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands.  She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar.  She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens. 

I remember long ago when Mark was in Serere and Margaret went to fetch water.  Mark was reasoning with her about how her time might be worth more than the labor of fetching water, but with hearty laugh, Margaret explained that there is still gain in physical labor especially when it provides for the family.  Anyone who has been with Margaret in the village knows that she works physically and mentally to provide for the family and the community in that place. 

Margaret hosting students at her house in Serere on rural home stays.

Strategic/businesslike: She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.  She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong.

Both in physical management of their resources in Soroti and Mukono, but also in the mental strategy of building up her communities, Margaret is very strategic.  Because she is so strong in interpersonal skills, people can be surprised how that she enjoys/thrives in business.  She has masters in management with a focus on finance and she has brought those skills to USP.  She will surely be an asset to the scholarships office due to this somewhat unique combination of strengths—rational strategy and interpersonal warmth.

Compassion: She opens her hands to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy. 

Margaret exhibits her compassion in daily interpersonal ways but also in a bigger picture way by building a school in Serere.  Margaret has shared about her own upbringing without resources and it is clear that her genuine compassion and hope stems from her own experience of being faithful with all the non-material assets God has given her.  Because of her own experience, she does offer real wisdom, compassion and encouragement to others who suffer from emotional losses or from lack of opportunity.   The school in Serere represents a sort of pro-active compassion that allows for opportunity before children suffer for lack of it.

Good-humoured/Grounded: Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.

I suspect that part of Margaret’s strength and humor comes from her family background—I know I’ve heard her tell stories of her mother’s strength and care for the family.  This inheritance of joy and strength and dignity are defining parts of what I’ve seen in Margaret’s character and personality.   If you haven’t heard Margaret laugh heartily, you are certainly missing out.  She handles the present stresses gracefully and I know that she has the internal resources to face the trials that life will bring—grounded in faith, hope and love.

Margaret is always good for a hearty laugh and a lot of fun.

Counselor/wisdom: She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. 

Everyone at USP used to laugh at the line of people coming to Margaret for counsel.  Her warmth, compassion and wisdom make her a natural well-spring of encouragement and guidance for many of us who need counsel at certain points in our life.  Not only is she sought after for private counsel, but Margaret is a coveted speaker for women’s events, conferences and church gatherings.  While we mourn the loss of her at USP, we do know that her role with scholarships will maximize the interpersonal wisdom and the wise decision-making that we’ve seen in Margaret over the years.

Mother: Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her.

It is clear that the Opol children do adore and respect their mother.  But it is also clear that their gifts, personalities and characters are beneficiaries of the love and commitment that Margaret and Sam have poured into them.  I personally can’t wait to see the fruits that will be apparent in the lives of their children who have such unique, fun, loving, intelligent, funny, and kind natures. 

I remember first meeting Sam and Margaret 12 years ago at a mission conference in the US when Janice was less than 2—it has been a unique personal joy to watch their family grow in the love and nurture of the Lord all these years.

Known by her fruits:
And her husband, and her family, and her work family, and her extended community praise her, saying:

Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.  Charm is deceitful, and beauty is in vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.  Give her the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.”

From every sphere of Margaret’s life, I know there are fruits of her hands that “praise her in the gates”.  In her marriage, in her family, in her Christian fellowship, her work community, her extended family and the village community, in the lives of all she’s counseled, encouraged and supported, let them rise up and praise her in the gates.  I feel privileged in my little way, a blogpost, I get to join those in the gates and thank God for the life and ministry of Margaret Opol. 

Margaret and Sam with their twins, Treasure and Favor. 

Friday, 4 April 2014

Alum Post: Alice Keys

Despite Of...
By Alice Keyes

Her hands glided over sore and swollen limbs for hours at a time. Perhaps it was the massage that brought patients’ relief, but I suspected a large part too was physical contact. The gentle lilt of her voice. Her presence.

She continued to work with Hospice Africa Uganda (HAU) patients for hours until, as the line grew sparse, she eased herself off her stiff wooden perch, stretched out her hands, and walked to pick up her case file from the dilapidated cardboard box.

She was a patient too.

It was the second time I had come with HAU’s team to this particular outreach site, located in the fringe of the capital city, Kampala. It struck me that in her actions I could see HAU’s mission exemplified. The organization is dedicated to helping alleviate pain in the sick and dying both physically and psychologically. It is a challenge HAU’s team of doctors, nurses, and social worker daily vow to tackle and one which I too faced during my four-month stint.

I requested to be placed at HAU for my senior social work practicum because I wanted to work with HIV/AIDS patients. I wanted to know and understand the ramifications of the disease which claimed the lives of millions. And, most of all, I wanted to walk in the shoes of an international social worker. 

I would come back from long days at HAU exhausted and, at points, shell shocked from what I stood witness to (stage four cancer is never pretty). But as I began to focus less on people’s living situations and the shock factor of tumors, I began to see evidence of faith, joy, hope, and…

I began to see God.

I began to see God evidenced in people’s lives despite their brokenness. I listened to patients’ unrelenting faith, to nurses’ prayers for peace, and to doctors’ infusing hope in God’s name into even the most seemingly hopeless situations.  I began to catch glimpses of how even suffering can be a part of our journey toward God.

In suffering faith evidences itself and God’s love overwhelms the power of fear, bringing about
peace and comfort. “God can and intends to let good spring from everything” despite evil. “For
this, God needs human beings who know how to turn all things to the good.”* I did not learn how to turn all things to the good (nor will I ever fully), but thankfully I am not the only one commissioned to complete this task—it is given to the body of Christ.

Throughout the four months it began to register with me how incredible it is that despite poverty, disease, mistrust, the presence of evil, and any other atrocity, God shows up. One of the greatest parts about it wasn’t a onetime thing—He’s there all the time.

He was with the mother who slept on the Cancer Institute’s floor with her little two-year-old girl and will be/was with her when her child’s brief life ends/ed. He was with each of the patients’ I interacted with.

And, dear reader, He is with you. He is with me now as I work in Honduras. He is with us despite our
brokenness. Despite of all we may do or not do,

God is with us.

 *Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The other USP SWE intern, Kelly, and I stepping in to assist the nurses with handing out medication.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Community Worship

Every semester the USP group, together with Honors College, has the opportunity to lead community worship -- the chapel equivalent at Uganda Christian University.  The team, decked out in blue, sang songs, read Scripture and led the congregation in prayer.  We are thankful that we get to worship weekly at UCU and we are thankful for the opportunity to lead worship too!