“What was the highlight of the trip to Uganda?” asked my friend Ellen.
I’ve been back from Uganda and the Youth Ablaze Conference for two weeks. I did not take the time to process the conference and all that happened. It’s been rolling around in the back of my mind, and I know if I’m not intentional about thinking through this experience, it will soon become a faded memory.
But Ellen’s question focused me. She asked for the highlight. Not what did I think of the trip or how did it go? Not how do I feel after speaking at the conference or did it go as expected? Those were all the questions I was asking myself. She wanted to know the highlight.
Here’s the highlight of the trip.
On Saturday, the day after the one week conference ended, I was conducting a leadership workshop for the Hands of Love leaders. Kathy was in the conference room for the first half of the workshop. At the break, she stepped away to meet with the two boys we’ve sponsored for ten years. Their names are Mitzular (18) and Matthew (15).
This meeting was the highlight of the trip for Kathy and also for me. Here’s what happened.
In addition to meeting our two boys, there was Juma, a third boy. He was not part of the Hands of Love school and orphanage. He came to the conference from a ministry called Compassion International.
Juma is a 21-year-old Ugandan.
He has been supported for the last ten years by a friend of mine, Shawn. Shawn is a fintech exec here in Atlanta. He is also one of my bigger contributors in support of the Youth Ablaze conference. Every year for the last six years, he and his wife have given their money and prayer support.
Shawn met with me for lunch just before the trip and asked if there was any way Juma, his son, could attend this conference. We worked through Hands of Love and Compassion, and Juma attended for the week.
Kathy spent quite a bit of time with these three boys. By the time the leadership workshop concluded, it was already getting late, and it was time for us to leave. I was talking to Pastor Elijah about the results of the conference and also saying my goodbyes as this was the last time I would see him on this trip.
Kathy came into the meeting and said, “You have to meet with the boys. They want to spend time with you. You have to do it now. Come on!”
I walk out of the pastor’s office, and there they were–Mitzular, Matthew, and Shawn’s son, Juma. What a sight!
From the moment our eyes met, all I saw was love.
All I felt was love. They were bright-eyed with huge, welcoming smiles on their faces. As I approached, they came and embraced me. They each gave me the biggest and tightest hug I’ve had in a long time. It was the kind of hug where the other person gives all of themselves to you. The kind of hug which tells you, “I’m yours.”
We had the awkwardness of small talk.
I asked them about their grades in school and their lives. They answered politely, but I could tell this wasn’t of interest to them. We were standing just outside the church, and there were lots of people, noise, and other distractions. I found an office and pulled them inside so we could speak more intimately.
That’s when they opened up. They each had something to say to me. But the problem was, we were so rushed. Because of this, they were talking over each other and interrupting each other.
I asked what I could do for them. What did they need?
Matthew asked me for a bicycle. But Mitzular, the eighteen-year-old, wanted a closer relationship with me. Mitzular wanted his father. Mitzular wanted me, more of me.
He said, “I want to talk to you. I want to learn from you. You have no idea how much your support has impacted my life. I know this now that I am older. But I need help and guidance.”
We talked about how we might write to each other more often. But we also quickly realized there is no way to do it. There are no systems in place to stay in regular communication with the children we are sponsoring. It was a frustrating conversation for both of us.
Then Mitzular pulled me aside and said, “Thank you. I love you. Thank you for loving me all these years.”
There was a look in his eyes I will never forget.
It was a look of gratitude. Authentic, love-motivated gratitude. Honest, from-the-heart gratitude. I don’t recall anyone ever looking at me that way. It humbled me. It melted me. It was so authentic.
As I was leaving the room after hugging each of them goodbye, Juma followed me out and grabbed my arm.
He said, “I don’t know why this man Shawn in America loves me. But you need to tell him something for me.” I was looking right into his eyes, waiting for the message he wanted me to give to Shawn.
Juma was crying.
“Please tell him that he changed my life. I am in such a better place than the other people in my village. All because of Shawn’s love and support for me.”
His tears and the sincerity in his voice is an experience I will never forget. Ever.
When I told this story to Ellen and her friend Faye who was with us, Faye said, “It was the highlight of your trip because it was the one experience which showed you the heart of God. This is how we are loved by God and how we are to love.”
I knew she was right.
This was the highlight of the trip, and now I know why. It was as close on earth as I have ever been to the Kingdom of Heaven.
These words from the Bible on orphans kept flashing through my mind’s eye as I left the conversation with Ellen and Faye and headed to my car: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
And this is the heart of Hands of Love, Uganda. This verse is their by-line. This is what it is all about.
And the conference was great, too!