Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Christmas with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus taking refuge in Egypt
Another Christmas full court press is on.   Some may ask what drives me. I like people. I like Jesus. It seems pretty simple. Anytime I can host a party and tell a Jesus’ story I’m eager.

However, I many times feel like I am a living Joseph narrative. What went wrong many years ago taught me lessons that are a deep part of my being. I am a wounded healer. My first African Christmas was a disaster. The scars from that day will never leave me. Like the scars on my back that motivate me to run, the scars on my Christmas spirit motivate me to celebrate. I cannot stand the thought of someone in my community being alone and discouraged when the world celebrates the profound truth that God became flesh and dwelt among men. As a result no matter what our trauma we can find joy and peace.

I think I’ve finally hit that Joseph moment where I can say, “You tried to harm me, but God made it turn out for the best, so that he could save all these people, as he is now doing. (Genesis 50:20-21. Contemporary English Version.)”

Let me tell the story of my first African Christmas.

Childhood photos of the Christmases of my youth look like nostalgic Americana - Snow, snow, and more snow. Toboggans, sleds, and inner-tubes rapidly sailed down the hills. Family and friends gathered beyond measure. Meals of turkey, ham, stuffing, and potatoes with grandma’s pies filled our stomachs.

I came to Uganda in 1993 with a heritage of Christmas celebration. However, my church heritage was distinctly non-liturgical. In fact, the extremists in my church heritage used the Christmas season not to proclaim Good News of God Incarnate entering the world, but as an opportunity to bash “the denominations” that through syncretism turned the pagan ritual of Christmas into a religious tradition. (I never quite bought the theological implications of these extremists, but I feared the social implications of holding them to account.  Though in Rwanda God finally gave me the courage to stand up to denominational bullies.) Thus Christmas for me was largely a secular gathering of family and friends.

As a result of the social implications of theological extremism I had almost no spiritual friendships outside of my church heritage. Jana and I have always been people gatherers. However, our early career was a season of loneliness when we were in situations in which we could not gather from our church heritage.

I also came to Uganda heavily influenced by spiritual naivety that was nurtured by my seminary training. I assumed if I came to help people would reciprocate in kind with no ill motives. I assumed that I could be candid with supporters and they would understand. I assumed that each struggle of mine would be met by a quick answer that would make good newsletter material. I assumed that prayer was the only substance of sustenance. My first African Christmas broke my naivety. In a way it set in play events that stripped my innocence, left me distrustful, and only in Rwanda have allowed me to return the purity of heart I first had as I entered Africa.

Dave, Jana, and Sophia just before departure to Uganda
Our family in February 1993 sent almost all our earthly goods to Uganda. In March 1993 we moved to Uganda. In May 1993 we found a home, hired a staff, and tried to settle into life in Kampala. In May 1993 we also became embroiled in a life defining church conflict. In June 1993 our container arrived. Our possessions would not be released to us until January 1994. Christmas 1993 broke my spirit.

However, it also set in play a series of maturing events that taught me to make many diverse friends, not take visitors’ impressions too serious, avoid the entanglements of government and church corruption, and to celebrate in community at each possible moment.

Jana and I did our pre-departure Uganda budgeting by listening to Kenyan missionaries from the Churches of Christ. During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Kenya was a dirt cheap country to live and work. On a minimal salary one could live well, serve fruitfully, and put money in the bank. We had never heard the term COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment). We spent over a year discovering funds assuming our future Uganda experience would be the same as other’s past Kenya experience.

When we entered Uganda we faced a tremendous economic shock. Homes were renting for two to three times what we had budgeted. Uganda’s cost of living was approximately double Kenya’s. When we asked other Americans where they shopped, their reply was, “Kenya.” Uganda was just recovering from over 20 years of chaos and very few goods were locally produced. Uganda’s currency was unstable. At one point the exchange rate dropped in half. In one year’s time we lost half our buying power when we had initially come to Uganda already underfunded. We tried explaining this to our supporters, but made no progress. In fact at one point they remarked, “All you asked for us to do is pray. Why are you now asking for more than that?”

To save money and still practice our spiritual gift of people gathering we rented a large home outside of Kampala on Lake Victoria that was horribly run down. Our rent was low and we labored for 2 years to restore the home. We used it as much as we could to serve through hospitality.

Lydia Bagira with her sons Emmy and Joel
We found our first household staff, Lydia Bagira. Lydia’s mother was a Rwandan refugee to Uganda from the chaos of 1959. Her father was a Mukiga from Western Uganda. Lydia always introduced herself as a Mukiga, but she seemed to always socialize with other Rwandans.  When we moved into our home we thought we would only be without our possessions for a few weeks. We slept on a mattress on the floor. We used Lydia’s cooking utensils and dishes to eat.

We chased getting our container cleared and made every possible mistake. We understood that personal effects of a missionary could be brought into Uganda duty free. However, we did not understand the social implications of Uganda’s corrupt tax gathering system. We ran into a man who noticed two skinny young white men (Greg Carr and myself), and saw an opportunity. This tax collector made us hop through hoop after hoop. We explained until we could explain no more. At one point when we were exasperated he remarked, “If you don’t like my answer go see the Minister of Finance.” Ironically, we had one Uganda friend, Peter Ngobi who knew Uganda’s Minister of Finance, Mayanga Nkangi. Thus we in good faith with Peter’s introduction went to see Minister Nkangi. We had one meeting that seemed to go well, and then all sorts of passive aggressive behavior began. (We years later realized how poorly we had handled both the meeting and the repercussions.) It seemed that we offended all. I now think that the tax gather was trying to work a bribe from us. On the other side Minister Nkangi concluded we were trying to bribe him and was deeply offended. Thus our poor cultural skills made us look like a prude to the corrupt, and corrupt to those with moral integrity. Thus from June 1993 until December 1993 we waited and waited for our container to be cleared with almost no movement.

Not only did we suffer at the hands of the Uganda Revenue Authority. We suffered at the hands of a church organization called Uganda Church of Christ. This church organization had a similar history to many organizations in Uganda in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. It had been started as a legal mechanism for missionaries from Churches of Christ to enter Uganda and to keep the churches they planted legal in the early 1970’s. When Idi Amin came to power the missionaries left. In the vacuum a corrupt system and leadership developed. When missionaries began to re-enter Uganda during the boom of the early 90’s the corrupt system went into overdrive to discredit missionaries who would eventually hold the system accountable.

In May 1993 we went to check our mail and found the first of dozens of accusatory letters generated by the Uganda Church of Christ leaders. A meeting had been called to discuss us, we had not been invited, and letters were now being circulated to our supporters. For the next 6 months, Greg and I traveled extensively in Uganda to try to explain ourselves to approximately 30 local churches. While doing this traveling we heard a continual theme. “We want to change our leadership structure. We want missionaries. We see a problem with the current leaders of the Uganda Church of Christ. Can you just pay for us to come to a central place and have a meeting? If you do, we will straighten out the Uganda Church of Christ and work with you.”

We decided to pay for the transport, housing, and meals for a group of Uganda Church of Christ leaders in early December 1993. Their instructions were for us to just introduce ourselves at the meeting, leave for two days, and then return to discover the results of the meeting.

When we returned we were shocked to be told that the Uganda Church of Christ had disfellowshipped us. They considered us “the greatest threat to the Churches of Christ world-wide.” In order to avoid this discipline we could turn over our homes, vehicles, and finances to them. If not, we were instructed to have nothing more to do with them or face legal consequences. We could not believe it. We had served for 6 months, taught and traveled widely, and financed a meeting when we were broke only to be disfellowshipped. My identity was so tied to Churches of Christ that I did not know how to respond. It felt like a complete stripping of identity. After the disfellowshipping, they began writing letters to our supporters and any others who would listen. In the end they even were able to get half truths about us told in Church of Christ watchdog papers.

We had made a key mistake in that year. Older Church of Christ missionaries in Kenya had tried for years to work with this group of churches with similar results. Their counsel was to have nothing to do with them. However, we believed in “unity.” We thought with enough love and good teaching these churches could be turned around. Instead, we learned through hard knocks some only use the language of unity as a means to manipulate. These churches were religious organizations masquerading as churches. We should have had the discernment and courage to call them that. Both our youthful naivety and pride were at fault. So we suffered.

Years later I would find that some of those who disfellowshipped me in Uganda also had been also exceedingly unkind to Rwandan refugees in Uganda. A Joseph like moment was realizing that God through this experience taught me what it was like to be harshly and inaccurately judged outside of one’s home. I pray for my Uganda persecutors. I hope someday they will find redemption. Their hearts must be much more troubled than the hearts of those who suffered under their abuse.

After we were disfellowshipped, Greg and Debra Carr returned to the USA for a few weeks to spend Christmas with their family. We were left “alone.” We had few friends. However, somehow four visitors from the developed world came in contact with us through a friend of a friend. (I won’t share their national or denominational identity to protect them, but it is different from my own.) They had done well in life. They were on a church sponsored trip in Africa. They came to Uganda after a stop in pre-Genocide Rwanda. They were spending a few weeks in both Rwanda and Uganda.

We invited them to share an evening dinner with us. They were wise and delightful people. However, two bits of counsel from them did not set well. At the time I was too naïve to argue. It just did not feel right.

The first bit of counsel was their belief in “faith missions.” They did not believe missionaries should live on a budget, deal with COLA’s, know what to expect from supporters, etc…. Their belief was in the power of prayer. If we just prayed, God would move in hearts, people would give, and our needs would be met. We tried for years to follow this counsel, and it always seems to end in cycles of financial disaster. Prayer changes many things. However, COLA is real. No international organization has stable personnel if they do not deal with COLA.

Second they debriefed from their Pre-Genocide Rwanda experience. According to their Rwandan counselors Rwanda before 1959 was a feudal system ruled by arrogant and exploitive Tutsis. In 1990 the sons of these past rulers had invaded Rwanda with the intent of restoring the monarchy. Rwanda was now taking action to prevent Rwanda from falling back into a feudal state.

They discussed their political observations while we ate a meal cooked on the utensils of a Tutsi woman, Lydia Bagira. Intuitively I knew their political observations were inaccurate. However, I did not have the cultural, historical, or political tools to argue. Also, I was lonely and wanted friendships from a similar culture to my own. I’ve never quite forgiven myself for not pushing back harder on their observations from Pre-Genocide Rwanda’s politics. Five months later the world would see what these flawed prejudicial presuppositions produced. Today, I’ve probably become much more ornery in arguing against assumptions about culture that fuel stereo-types and prejudice.

So in early December 1993 Jana and I had been disfellowshipped, dined with expatriates empathetic to future genocidaires, were in Uganda with no missionary co-workers, and had yet to receive our household goods.

Finally, after months of arguing with the Uganda Revenue Authority we relinquished. We would pay the taxes even though we did not believe we owed any. We paid tax on personal effects. We even paid tax on Bibles. We filled out the forms. We were told to come to the warehouse on Christmas Eve, 1993 to collect our household goods.

We came to the customs bonded warehouse early in the morning. No matter how difficult 1993 had been we anticipated on Christmas Eve we would receive our goods. We would go home and unpack and unload. Camping would end. We would sit on our furniture, sleep in our bed, eat from food preserved in our refrigerator and cooked on our stove. Our toddler, Sophia would play with her old toys. We would be whole again.

We spent the day waiting. We missed lunch. We asked questions. Where was the man with the key to open the warehouse? He was gone, but he would be back we were told. We waited some more. We asked a few more questions. Then finally the end of the day came. The guards began ushering all out of the outskirts of the warehouse. No man with a key had come. We were lonely, tired, hungry, and more discouraged than we had ever been. We left realizing that for a day people had been polite, but there was no intention of us taking our possessions home on Christmas Eve.

I had grown to have a strange habit. Because we had received so much criticism I avoided checking the mail unless I was at the top of my game. Most trips to the Post Office in 1993 found critical letters and threats. Opening the mail was traumatic.

However, a new communication tool was developing in 1993 called e-mail. We had started using it. We shared an account with Greg Carr that went to our 1 phone line in our office. The account went through a server ran by Makerere University.

We were desperate for good news. Could something encouraging come from home? We decided that surely on Christmas Eve one of our supporters in the US would choose to find a way to encourage us.

We came to our office, turned on the computer, and hit “Send / Receive.” A long message was coming in slowly. We were eager. What could it be?

Then as we opened the message our hearts were completely broken. During the season of economic down turn we had tried to communicate our need for more financial support. We learned about COLA and tried to explain it. Our supporters now interpreted the communication.

We received one of the cruelest letters we have ever received in years of ministry. Our supporters had taken some Christian courses in Financial Management. They had consulted mission’s leaders in Churches of Christ. They had concluded that we were mismanaging. A phrase I’ll never forget from their letter was “We can support two missionaries for what we are giving you. If you can’t live on it, send it back.

On Christmas Day, 1993 we quickly packed and left Uganda. We drove down quiet roads to the Kenyan border. We crossed a border that is usually full of commotion in desolation. We then drove into Kitale to see older Church of Christ missionaries. We were broken. The older missionaries nurtured our spirits. A few weeks later we returned to Uganda and tried again.

In late June 1994 our support collapsed. Christmas Eve 1993 was the turning point.

In June 2005 we moved to Rwanda. Our container was released to us in November 2005. In December 2005 and January 2006 I sorted through my old files and correspondence from Uganda days. A mentor had counseled me to keep the written records. He and I hoped someday the truth of our early Uganda years would be told. Truth is healing. I decided to read through the old correspondence. I was older, and maybe a little wiser. I must have made some key mistakes that resulted in such cruelty from both the Uganda Church of Christ and from our former supporters. I read critically and found few mistakes that merited the cruelty. It was shameful for anyone to treat a young missionary with a toddler the way we had been treated.

Yet, something more moved in my heart. Without the suffering seasons in Uganda we would not have come to Rwanda prepared. It was time to move on. I shredded the documents, took them to the bottom of my new home’s yard, and burned them. I would no longer seek to be vindicated.

A few months later Christ's Church of Rwanda (CCR) was granted registration when others' dreams of church planting stood in line. I suspect a few old friends who saw me suffer in Uganda and also suffered at the hands of my Uganda accuser helped the document go through. I was thankful for the opportunity.

On my first Rwanda furlough as we returned to the USA I received a phone call from an old friend at our old supporting church that had been so cruel. We had lunch at McDonalds and I spoke at their church. My anger was gone and I felt mercy. Though I could not deny how their treatment of my family in Uganda was very poor they had given us a chance. They gave us a start. Without their start we would not have got where we are today. Also, I realized that they too had suffered. I did not need to see them suffer any more. I prayed God’s mercy upon them. They apologized.

Now each Christmas I walk with a wound. I know what it can be like to be alone on Christmas. I have learned we should never define friendship based upon denominational, ethnic, racial, or national heritage. I have learned what it is like to be falsely accused and judged based upon ethnicity. True community is based in Christ.

Thus I invite all in my community to celebrate beyond measure. Our lives are an absolute mess. In Jesus we find joy and hope.

I am thankful for my first African Christmas. Whatever measure of blessing and joy I can share with others through this season would never have happened if not for our disastrous Christmas of 1993.

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