The Common Good
September-October 2000

Spectacular Works, Simple Obedience

by Ryan Beiler | September-October 2000

We planned to do great things. God had other plans.

Before leaving for Africa, I signed a liability release that said, "risks include, but are not limited to, the risk of death, incarceration, torture, bodily injury…exposure to war, terrorism, hazardous diseases." I didn't mention this to my mother, who when I was studying to be a photojournalist would say, "Just don't go off to some war zone."

But I wanted to tell a story that few others were telling. In Sudan, an Islamic fundamentalist regime wages war against the predominantly Christian and animist South. The regime—aided by the investments of multinational petroleum corporations—has been attempting to convert the region to Islam and drive civilians from oil-rich lands. Seventeen years of civil war have killed 2 million people. More than 4 million have been made homeless.

A Ugandan child waits in line with his father to receive medical care.

Our team of seven, all but myself from a Mennonite church in Pennsylvania, felt compelled to respond to horror stories of religious persecution and slavery in Sudan. A member of their congregation was now the Africa director for Safe Harbor International, the Christian relief organization that would host us. We hoped our emergency medical aid and the testimonies we'd take home would somehow make a difference.

We arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, and waited for clearance from the Ugandan government to fly to a base in Uganda and then to Sudan.

The clearance never came.

Though Safe Harbor is well connected and had been assured that the flight would be no problem, it would have been the first of its kind authorized from Uganda to Sudan. After two days of waiting in Nairobi, we had to cut red tape just to fly into Uganda. Tears of disappointment were shed. It felt as though we were being denied our call to do a mighty work in a place of intense suffering. As we spent our remaining days helping in open-air clinics in and around the rural village of Midigo in northwest Uganda, we struggled with our new calling.

We had been willing to offer great sacrifice. Instead we were being called simply to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, wherever that might lead us. This slower, longer-term approach interfered with our desire for spectacular visible results.

Only by squinting through the lens of Jesus' own ministry did the meaning of ours begin to come into focus. At the time, I was reading In the Name of Jesus, in which Henri Nouwen explains the core of Jesus' temptation in the desert as the urge to do spectacular works instead of simply being obedient. In our frustration, we struggled with the need to surrender our agenda to God's.

"But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?' Jesus replied, ‘There was once a man....'" —Luke 10:29-30

A bleeding man stood in front of me in our makeshift clinic in Midigo. He was a Sudanese refugee, now separated from his homeland by 25 kilometers of rolling hills and land mines. But he wasn't bleeding because of religious persecution or slavery or war. He had fled Sudan seven years ago at the age of 14. Recently a gang of youths had beaten him up in a dispute concerning his sister.

I saw this man's pain, but I still wanted to be in Sudan—where the "real" suffering was. But I didn't want to be the priest or Levite that passed on the other side of the road, so I listened impatiently as those caring for him spoke of the crisis in their own community.

Linda Byler of Williamsport, PA, and Ondoga Simon, clinical officer for the village of Midigo, clean the wounds of a Sudanese Refugee who was assaulted by local youths.

"We are amputated at the hands for lack of funds," said Ondoga Simon, the local clinical officer, bringing to mind the Islamic sharia law enforced in Sudan, which punishes criminals with amputation. Indeed, while their Sudanese neighbors have been physically mutilated, the violence here in Uganda is poverty. A nurse, a midwife, two medical assistants, and clinical officer Simon are the only healthcare personnel available to a rural population of 25,000. Their clinic has little medicine, no electricity, and limited access to clean water. People die from curable diseases and malnutrition.

The violence here was once more overt. The region around Midigo was part of the base of support of former dictator Idi Amin, whose brutal regime killed an estimated 300,000 Ugandans. As the rest of the country recovered from his repression, this area was largely excluded from government projects. Now, with war to the north in Sudan and to the west in Congo, it is a place most aid organizations drive through or fly over on the way to other needs.

"We are suffering—here," Taban Stephen, a translator, would repeat as I interviewed other refugees. Most of my questions were about conditions in Sudan, but he kept reminding me of this fact.

"One does not live by emergency surgery alone." —paraphrase of Matthew 4:4

The appeal of the spectacular isn't limited to individuals, and Safe Harbor has done spectacular work. They've flown surgical teams into Sudanese war zones within earshot of approaching tanks. But they have also begun to heed criticism of so-called "hit-and-run" relief. They don't want to be just another well-funded NGO (non-governmental organization) that circles the globe laden with the latest technology to dispense proverbial band-aids—and then leaves.

Safe Harbor had hoped to build an airstrip in Midigo to sustain long-term projects in Sudan, but continued difficulties with flights there have meant that such an operation will likely have to be relocated to Kenya. Since our trip, one plane was shot at by the Ugandan military because of miscommunications among Ugandan officials.

Despite our disappointment at being barred from Sudan, it seems that our team's role may have been to plant the seeds of long-term commitment to Midigo, as the community itself may become the sole focus of Safe Harbor's work there.

"Listen! A sower went out to sow." —Mark 4:3

Evangelism is another arena where Christians often resort to hit-and-run tactics to get results, but Safe Harbor has taken a longer-term, service-oriented approach. Their priorities, however, are clearly stated in their Midigo development plan: "All of the other work that we do as an organization is in order to earn the right to tell others about Jesus."

A Ugandan man pauses in thought during a meeting led by Hon. Menoah Achile Mila, a member of the Ugandan Parliament who accompanied the Safe Harbor Team Though the region is predominantly Muslim, it has elected a Christian, Hon. Menoah Achile Mila, as its member of parliament. He and Safe Harbor have formed a close relationship, as both hope to demonstrate the love of Christ by bringing much needed development to the region.

Our first night in Midigo, the leaders of our group had planned to present the gospel through preaching and testimony. They asked me to share. After prayerful consideration, I declined, unsure of how to express my faith to a culture of which I had little understanding.

Mila confirmed my reticence when just before the service he advised that at this early point we should probably not talk much about Jesus other than to say that we were there as Christians. Whether his sensitivities were more political or spiritual, I valued his caution. As much as we wanted others to know the love of Christ, we wanted to respect the culture in which we were guests.

Instead of preaching, each member of our group, which included several Ugandan Christians, shared about themselves, who they were, and why they were there. Mila led a prayer to "one God," and after greetings from local elders we concluded by teaching them the praise chorus "What a mighty God we serve," breaching the language barrier and forming new relationships with much laughter. The result: Instead of scattering seed on untilled ground, we were preparing soil that the Word might take root.

"When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." —Matthew 9:36

"This is so wrong," I wrote in my notebook, journaling to vent my frustration. Our third clinic was set up under a grove of mango trees, separated from the crowds by flimsy barricades of twine and ragged volleyball nets. Though our work was supposed to be part of a long-term development plan, it seemed to have all the flaws of a hit-and-run operation. I felt stranded somewhere in between.

A Ugandan soldier guards the perimeter of a temporary clinic.

A collection of petty dictators enforced crowd control. Soldiers with AK-47s haphazardly slung from their shoulders were mimicked by youth in second-hand American Boy Scout outfits who were mimicked by stick-wielding school-uniformed children. I was among them—at once angry at those cutting in line and ashamed at how easily I assumed the role of policeman, ordering mothers with children to "Get back in line! Wait your turn!"

Tension built, especially at the end of each day when hundreds of people who had waited hours realized they were not going to be seen. Whether desperate or curious, people cheated in line, sneaked under the fence, or grabbed what they could. Children fought over discarded latex gloves and empty food wrappers. It was difficult to see how God could be working through a situation so ugly.

Dr. Phil Byler, our team leader, later offered encouraging words. "The needs of the multitude are vast," Byler said. "Only Jesus can multiply the loaves and fish to meet their needs. We need to be willing to do the part he calls us to."

I tried to comfort myself with the thought that we were being faithful if not completely effective—but I sometimes wondered if we were being either. The multitudes were there, but barring a miracle we would not have 12 baskets of chloroquine (our malaria medication) left over. Why would God send us halfway around the world to hand out medication for malaria, worms, and pain relief to people who would get hurt, drink contaminated water, and get bitten by mosquitoes again even before we left?

"For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether you have enough to complete it?" —Luke 14:28

The schoolhouse we slept in during our stay is a metaphor for hit-and-run development. For its construction, the village had supplied the bricks and any materials that could be found locally. A European NGO committed to provide other necessary materials. Years later, one room has glass in the windows and a cement floor. A second room has glass in the windows and a dirt floor. Two other rooms have dirt floors and no glass in the windows. None of the rooms have desks or chairs. The community had done its part, but whether from lack of funds, an expired contract, or "donor fatigue," the NGO pulled out, leaving its job unfinished.

A few hundred yards down the road, a huddle of round tin shacks present a stiflingly hot version of the local mud and thatch huts—a testimony to another charity's misguided sense of appropriate aid.

Students carry bricks for the construction of their schoolmaster's quarters.

Safe Harbor hopes to pursue a more dedicated and sustainable program by closely consulting local government and community elders and working alongside them to provide what is most needed. Plans include the employment of a Ugandan doctor for a new, more remote clinic as well as a new teacher and supplies for the local school. They want to introduce new crops and techniques to local farmers that would allow them to produce more income and food for themselves—instead of their current reliance on the meager cash earned from growing tobacco for exploitative foreign corporations. They also want to strengthen the local church by training and developing local leaders.

But counting the cost for this kind of development can be discouraging. Finding support for a Midigo project—without a Sudan connection—will be difficult. Spectacular tragedies capture the most attention (and dollars). Most donors, it seems, would rather try to turn stones into bread than bricks into schools.

Safe Harbor's challenge is to find supporters who realize, as I struggled to, that it is not always the most exciting endeavors that deserve our attention. Even Jesus' miraculous works were only temporary. All of the walking lame, cleansed lepers, and wide-eyed blind eventually died. To commit to the greatest and most enduring endeavor, Jesus himself had to struggle to pray, "Not my will but yours be done" (Luke 22:42). Being obedient to God's call on our own lives—whether it be sowing, reaping, or something in between—is never an easy mission.

Ryan Beiler, Web editor at Sojourners, traveled to Uganda with the Christian relief organization Safe Harbor International (P.O. Box 80820, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688; 800-797-4673; info@ccrsm.org; www.ccrsm.org/safeharbor).

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