Sunday, 27 December 2015

Re-entry: An update from Mark and Abby Bartels

A year and a half ago, after founding and directing the Uganda Studies Program for ten years, Mark and Abby Bartels moved back to the US with their kids. As we just completed our fall 2015 semester's Debrief and Re-entry Seminar, we asked Mark and Abby to share a bit about what their re-entry process has been like. How have they have endeavored to integrate their experiences, beliefs and convictions into a way of life and being in the US? 

Daniel, Mark, Abby, Mary and Rachel Bartels At Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia.

1. What and why? Mark: vocation--- why we moved back, a desire to serve and invest in UCU as an institution and desire to create space/opportunity for Abby and I to share workload and have time and opportunity to be part of the formation of our children as they go through adolescence.

The decision to leave USP and Uganda was a difficult one. There were so many things we liked about our work and life in Uganda. In the end, there were three significant factors. The first is that we felt, for a variety of reasons, that we wanted our kids to experience some of their growing up years in their home culture. A big part of that was the fact finding a good schooling option for our kids was becoming increasingly difficult in Uganda. The second factor leading to our moving from Uganda was, ironically, the opportunity to continue to work with Uganda Christian University (UCU). We felt that this continued connection to UCU was an important part of our “integration” as we moved back. What better way to continue to process and think about our life in Uganda than to have a continued formal connection? The third factor was the reality that although Abby was involved with USP, being in Uganda did not allow her to explore her professional and personal development goals in the same way being in the U.S. would.

In some ways, we can look back at our transition and see each of these three factors playing a key role in our (relatively) positive re-entry. While we aren’t living in exactly the type of community we may have envisioned upon leaving Uganda, we are in a place that is working well for the kids. From school to activities to friends, the kids are all engaging their new/home culture in positive ways. The work with Uganda Christian University Partners is providing us a key connection to UCU and connecting our current life stage with our previous one. Not only has Abby been able to consider and explore more professional options since we have been back, but her current focus is on coordinating communications for Uganda Christian University Partners—something that utilizes her strengths and keeps her engaged with our time in Uganda.

2. How? Abby speaking for both of us from here on out!

I think about our USP alumni and community all the time as we continue to “debrief” our “re-entry” with ourselves, with you, with friends who were in Uganda with us and with others who face transition and an earnest desire to be pilgrims!

Photo of Mark 'debriefing' the kids: I think they love it as much as you all did!
We are doing our best to try to wade through all the commitments of our lives with the orientation of “patience/presence” because it is the piece from our time in Uganda that is most universally challenging to our American culture and most life-giving to us as people and to our family life.

I’m adding a link to an OnBeing podcast of a poet, John O'Donohue, who has a Celtic view of life and the inner landscape. He beautifully describes a quality of life and “presence” that we can cultivate in our inner beings regardless of our place, our culture, our circumstances. I find it comforting and inspiring.    

I recently read that C.S. Lewis said all great truths are a paradox. I do think there probably is a paradox involved with the competing cultural values—productivity/efficiency/stewardship versus presence, patience, kairos time (kairos being the quality of time, chronos being the quantity of time).  It is a paradox that most Americans and Westerners face while being in Uganda; it is a paradox worth embracing!

Almost a year and a half into our move back, I’m compelled by developing routines and rituals that would encourage us to be present/patient, because I don’t trust the worlds’ patterns or my natural emotions (as aided by technology and consumer culture!) to seek and submit to patience/presence. 

By the end of our time in Uganda, Mark started reading books by James K.A. Smith and I think he has another way of asking, “What is forming you?” He talks about liturgy (for you non-Anglicans; remember learning about liturgy while studying at an Anglican University in Africa?) in a bigger picture sense exploring the ways we have many “liturgies” in culture, in our routines, in our way of life that are training us to love the wrong things. Here is a Christianity Today article reviewing his work.

While I’ve been somewhat general in the motivations and the measures of how we are seeking to be present, I would say it really does affect many of our decisions and schedules.  From our finances (choosing to live with my folks), to schooling for the kids, to what activities they do, to how we do church, to how we make time for our marriage, to carving out personal space and goals, to investing in friendships (near and far), to food choices (a work in progress), to our consumerism, to our time at work and our time off, etc.  

One example that I’m still mulling over—Sabbath. For the last several months, I have been compelled by the thought of doing Sabbath well. I haven’t worked out what that means yet, but it is percolating in my mind and spirit as a way to counter our culture and embrace a presence that is abiding and deep and good for our souls!

So, if you are wondering if the Bartels have transitioned well… I think I can mostly say, “we’re working on it!” And we’re grateful for all the years of being immersed in a very present culture that has enabled us to imagine another way, enabled us to pause and consider our patterns and “liturgies of life”!

Marks parents visiting us in Pittsburgh where we live with Abby's parents. 

The attic space is our living room— that is a batting net for wiffle ball, my office desk,
a very heavy TV, etc.  Sometimes, the close quarters get intense for the introvert mother of the family!

Outdoor time is good for the soul, and the swings remind the kids of Uganda!

Living with my folks is overall good; but sometimes we need our own time and space:
 a weekend in a cabin!

If you want to follow the goings on at UCU and the work that Mark and Abby are doing through Uganda Partners' (UCU's US-based support agency) you can join the mailing list to receive newsletters about Uganda Christian University. You can also *like* the UCU Partners Facebook page


  1. Thank you so much for sharing!! It's so good to see how yall are doing and to re-ask some of the same questions of patterns and liturgy with you as I reflect on my current life. I am so thankful my time at UCU came before my transition to a very new culture within the US (deep south) and into graduate school. Graduate school has squeezed me in all kinds of uncomfortable ways and repeatedly challenged me to maintain presence/patience as core values. Presence and patience have been a large part of my sanity these past 6 years and as I begin my dissertation and the last phase of the program, I'm sure they will continue to be important!

    1. Danni Jo! Wow, so good to hear from you and to know that you are pushing into the questions and seeking integrity in balancing all the real pressures of life as they come. Would love to hear more about what you are studying and how that is going! Mark's folks are in Montgomery and I'd love to see if there is enough of an alumni group in the South to try a get together in the next couple years. Thanks for replying; it is encouraging.

  2. God bless you guys! I think many of us USPers and intentionally-minded former expats continue processing our "re-entry" as long as we are this side of the Pond...or should I say this side of Heaven. Soli Deo Gloria!