Dying to the American Dream

31 07 2009

Growing up in Oakland Chinatown, I had always desired the American dream. You know what it is. It’s the idea of being an American and acquiring all the material wealth and successes that come with moving to the States. I remember learning in California history all the people moving out west during the gold rush to mine for gold in the ‘gum san’ (gold mountains). I remember growing up with the mantra driven home by my parents of ‘you study hard, you become doctor, lawyer or engineer’ (Yes I know I’m perpetuating the stereotype). My parents worked very hard in blue collar jobs and my friends and I reaped the benefits of my mom’s last job before she retired from a certain apparel company. We had the suburban home, the hondas/toyota cars and began to live fairly comfortably. I thought that was what you were supposed to do – make money, buy a home, settle down, raise a family.

I started my journey in college doing that. I would be a business major so that I could start climbing up the corporate ladder. That plan failed miserably after my first accounting class. After several attempts and a couple majors later, I graduated with a psychology degree. What do you do with a psychology degree? Somehow I managed to land a nice paying job working in an engineering department for a local city. Engineering is 10% engineering/90% dealing with people. I got the people part. So I worked and started making good money. In the back of my mind was what was driven to me growing up – make money, buy a home, settle down, raise a family. I wanted that American Dream. Every time I saw my friends have new cars, possessions or even homes, I began coveting. I wanted what they had. I wanted to be them.

Eventually I left that job to move to Texas to go to seminary. I thought I would die to the American Dream. My mom just wanted to know if serving the Lord came with benefits. Somehow I was able to save up and actually buy a home. And then I felt the desires of coveting slowly coming back to me. I still wanted the things – the gadgets, the flat screens, the nice car, etc.  I knew what God had to say about possessions and money. But I had bought into the lie that this was mine, all mine. Sure I gave to the church and supported people in missions and thought I was doing my part, but God has been speaking to me during my travels this summer. I tried my best to get a new car, but my rice rocket will not die. 220,000 miles and still going. I think this is God reminding me that He has taken care of me with a car and I should be grateful.

So I have some big decisions to make over the next few weeks. Pray for me. The first one is this – MY HOUSE IS FOR SALE. So if you know someone looking, pass them along my way.

Second, I need to have some final discussions with some organizations and pray through where I can best serve God in this next chapter.

Finally, it is putting to death this idea of the American Dream. It’s hard for me. And I’m sure it’s hard for you. I like my gadgets and my toys. But I need to simplify. I am sure that I will be out of the country by 2010. Who needs a house and car? The furniture can be sold and the clothes can be replaced. I hate this part though… every time I get to that place of attaining or acquiring, God has been saying three words to me: Am I Enough?

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The Pearl of Africa

26 07 2009

It’s fitting that I’m listening to Africa by Toto as I blog this entry. My thoughts are scattered as I try to give a fair and accurate picture of my time here in Uganda. It was a short visit (just two weeks) but in the brief time I have made new friends, been inspired by the culture of this country, appreciated the simplicity of just being alive (see bodas), and have started to see why so many people are passionate about Africa.

  • Church: I believe the church is the hope of the world in which Christ has commissioned us to proclaim the whole gospel for His fame and renown. I got to see the church in action through its partnership with IJM and also visiting some houses of worship. I worshipped at St. Francis Anglican and Watoto today and was blessed by the messages of both. I was moved by the prayers of its leaders in wanting justice and relief in eastern Uganda where there is a famine, peace amongst wars and the desire to raise up a new generation of leaders through its children. See Watoto and what they’re doing. Pretty amazing.
  • Children: I have seen some of the most beautiful children. They’re cute and adorable wanting to follow a “mzungu” around. They hold your hand, want to be hugged and have the biggest smiles.

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  • Justice: I will try not to use this word flippantly. It’s hard to define and it comes in various forms. The form of justice I saw was through the eyes of IJM and victim relief for widows and orphans. They have a fantastic team here in Uganda and I got to hear some of their stories of how God brought them here to write the wrongs and be a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. Thank you Jamie & Sara, Grace, Nina, Kaye, Alice and Suhanya. Lawyers can have fun!

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  • The Kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven: Jamie introduced me to Roxanne this weekend and I have to share her story. I was moved by what she has done and is doing by living out James 1:27 and caring for Waswah. Roxanne works with Samaritan’s Purse caring for widows and orphans and I asked her how she met Waswah who is six. She saw him on the side of the road in a village where she was working about two years ago. He was on the brink of death, severely malnourished, and his feet were covered with sores. Both his parents died of AIDS and seven of his nine aunts/uncles have succumbed to this awful disease. His grandmother had been looking after him but did not have the means or money to feed him. So Roxanne took it upon herself and asked to be the legal guardian. The grandmother has been very supportive of this and other relatives have helped out getting the proper documentation to make things go smoothly for Roxanne. Today, Waswah is healthy and adorable. He is soft spoken but is very intelligent. He has a very acute awareness of right and wrong and would rather be reading or doing more productive things than watching a video. Thank you Roxanne for making the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven for Waswah.
  • Beauty: I will just let the pictures below speak for themselves.
  • The Simple Life: I’m kind of reluctant to go back to the States because I don’t want to lose this feeling of appreciating the simple things I take for granted. I’ve been very surprised about my capacity to adapt (I’m a clean freak).
  • Bodas are a means to get from point A to B albeit a scary way. Is there something wrong when the driver wears a helmet and the passenger doesn’t?

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  • I’m not scared to use the tap water to brush my teeth although I prefer bottled.
  • The mosquito net over my bed is a reminder to appreciate my health and to take my malarone. I feel like bubble boy but with mesh when I’m sleeping.
  • AC is for wimps and those who can actually afford it. I don’t have AC in my room and have actually enjoyed the fan. Ask me again when I return to hades, I mean Texas in August.
  • Walking and exploring Kampala has been fun. Carry backpack in the front.
  • I have enough dirt on my clothes and body to fill a jar.
  • People: By far the warmest people I have met. Sure they call me Mzungu, but they are caring and truly take the time to talk to you.

I’ll close with a quote from one of the brilliant theologians of the 21st century who is passionate about Africa. I think you will want to buy a plane ticket after reading this.

“I genuinely see myself as a traveling salesman. I think that’s what I do. I sell songs door-to-door on tour. I sell ideas like debt relief, and like all salesmen, I’m a bit of an opportunist and I see Africa as great opportunity. And I don’t just mean this in terms of doing business with Africa for America or Europe, which I do. I mean it’s an opportunity for us in the West to show our values, because a lot people are not sure we have any — to show what we are made of, to see a continent in crisis and demonstrate what we can do.” – Bono

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The best way to spend three hours in Uganda

25 07 2009

I joined some of the IJM staff this morning to go learn about a ministry started a few years ago by some guys at Cornerstone (some adults passionate to serve the least and last). Godwin (one of the leaders) took us to the slums just above the hills of the taxi park. To refresh your memory, the taxi park was where I was almost pick-pocketed so I was sure I wore my backpack in the front. Again, just a surreal experience walking in such congestion. But we walked past safely and after some turns and up a hill we encountered one of the slums (Godwin called it the ghetto) where they help minister to street children. And believe me it was the ghetto. You can smell the sewage in the drains on either side of the street, many children are barefooted and wearing tattered clothing, and families are just trying to make it selling vegetables, household goods, food or whatever they can find. That’s the thing I love about Ugandans here. They’re very entrepreneurial They have resolve, little money, but they make it happen.

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(These are the tin cans the children recycle to turn into oil lanterns)

These street children are orphans. Some have gone to school, others have not and all been surviving on the streets for years by themselves, some as young as eight years old. They pass their time collecting tins to recycle into oil lanterns, find food in the garbage piles, sleep when they can (sometimes huddled together in the park until the cops kick them out), and to escape the painful life of surviving on the streets, they get high daily on aviation oil. They pour the oil into rags and inhale it much like you would through spray paint cans or glue. But the oil has a greater effect of getting you high. They get the oil by befriending some of the local mechanics or pay for it. It’s a vicious cycle. They have enough shillings to buy the oil but not food.

I met these children and immediately saw the bottles of oil and rags stuffed in their pockets. Godwin and the other guys try to confiscate as many as they can and have been educating them on the dangers of inhaling as well as AIDS awareness. I saw the emptiness in their eyes as they were fully dilated from the high. But then I saw hope. Behind the high, the conditions they were living in and the ragged clothes, I saw hope. I saw children wanting to be held and loved. They latched on and held my hand or came under my arm wanting to be hugged. They did the same to Grace, Suhani, Kaye and Jamie who were with me. They were excited to see visitors (Mzungus – fair skin ones) and greeted us. But we made it past the differences and heard ‘Mzungus’ as we walked up the hill to the soccer field where we were to have some fellowship and futbol. Godwin and his friends have been building a relationship with these street children for the last two years and you can tell these children trust them calling them ‘uncle’. After some encouraging words, some songs and a message it was off to futbol.

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(Grace and her new friends as we walk up to the soccer field)

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(Pastor Kaye and some beautiful children)

Now I was excited to play futbol since it’s what they do here. And I figured there was no way they could play since they were still high. Oh I was so wrong… Godwin told me that futbol is the common denominator to reach these children and it also serves a purpose by getting their bodies to burn off the high. I decided to play defense and one of the plays came my way with a ten year old dribbling the ball at me. So I attacked trying to get the ball and next thing I know I’m flat on my back with a nice dirt burn on my elbow and the ball past me with the ten year old looking at me thinking “silly Mzungu”. But that was when I saw how these street children care for one another. They all ran up to me helping me up, dusting the dirt off and looking at my wound asking if I was okay. They hugged me and the ten year old was so apologetic and hugged me as well. I told him no need to apologize and that I was fine. A quick high five and I was back in the game. Interestingly, the same thing happened to Jamie and while they helped him up, he quickly got the ball and continued playing hoping to score a goal. It didn’t happen.

We didn’t have money to give to these children, but I gave some to Godwin so that they can buy them lunch after futbol. Godwin and his friends give them vouchers every Saturday so they can have a hot meal. I managed to snap some shots of the morning. It was a beautiful picture. Jamie, Kaye and I playing soccer, Grace was playing duck duck goose and Suhani was getting a guitar lesson from one of the former street kids. This was truly the best way to spend three hours in Uganda.

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(Suhani talking to one of the children)

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(Grace playing duck duck goose with the children)

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(Jamie in the far corner trying to be a savvy soccer player)

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International Justice Mission

23 07 2009

In the midst of all my sightseeing and fun, I have really come to Uganda with the purpose to visit an NGO called International Justice Mission (IJM). IJM is a human rights organization founded in 1997 by Gary Haugen to combat the injustice going on throughout the world such as slavery, sexual exploitation, and other forms of oppression. The Uganda office was established back in 2002 to work with widows and orphans who are being oppressed by having their property illegally seized from them. This is a major occurrence in Uganda with widows and orphans. Under Ugandan Laws of Succession, there are clear and definite guidelines on how a person’s belongings are to be shared after a person dies. However, often these laws are not respected. It may be because people think cultural customary practices should be applied instead. Or that people are greedy and seek to take advantage of those who are vulnerable. This happens to be the situation with many widows and orphans in Uganda. When a husband dies, often you will hear of extended family taking away possessions or evicting the widow of her own home. With no home, no land, and no husband, the widow has no way to care for her family. This unfair practice of illegally taking widow and orphan’s inheritance rights is called property grabbing. This begins a downward spiral of poverty for the widow and orphan who have to fend for themselves on the streets. It may sound simple to alleviate the problem, but you have to work with government, police, and a culture that is not trusting of officials. Also widows have been afraid to contact the police for fear of retribution and physical violence.

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One of the IJM’s lawyers (Nina) teaching church leaders on Will writing

I’ve been following along with IJM’s legal team and church and community relations coordinator as they work in the Mukono district of Uganda to educate the community, the church and widows of their legal rights. I spent one day listening and watching case intakes as widows came to share their stories about how they were being mistreated. One woman shared her story of what happened shortly after her husband died. They had owned some property where they were renting it out to tenants. The land was divided between them and another owner. When that owner found out that the husband was deceased, he began to evict the tenants. Subsequently he tore down the building where they lived (he doesn’t legally own the building) and started to build a new structure. She is hoping to seek restitution for the loss of her building. If her case is taken, IJM will send their investigative team and lawyers to pursue the crime and work with police officials to arrest the perpetrators (destruction of property and theft is punishable up to five and ten years in prison respectively). IJM’s main emphasis is victim relief and another case they are working on in the office may involve the relief of 27 victims of property grabbing. I’ve been impressed with the Uganda office on how they work with people. The care they bring and the level of professionalism as an office staff is encouraging to see. IJM works with the victim from start to finish and they have an after care department that works with clients to make sure they get re-established into normal everyday life. This is especially important for those that are former slaves and unwilling prostitutes. The best part of IJM is that all the work is done pro-bono!

I don’t know what my role maybe with IJM. I have more discussions and meetings in the coming days with them. But I’m just trying to live and serve the best possible way I know how utilizing the gifts and talents God has given me. I also know that IJM as an organization is doing their role in fulfilling some of the duties of a Christ-follower. To loose the chains of injustice, to set the oppress free, to care for widows and orphans, to defend the cause of the needy and to do what is right (Psalm 82:3-4; Isaiah 1:17, 58:6-10; Micah 6:8; James 1:27). I also know that this is the role of the church. I love the church (the church that I grew up in and the church I served as a pastor are making great strides in understanding what it means to care for people locally and globally) and though it is not perfect, it is the legacy Christ has left us with to build His Kingdom. There’s much more to do and to get a better understanding of how the gospel can be fulfilled, check this book out.






White Water Rafting on the Nile

23 07 2009

After crashing hard from the safari at Queen Elizabeth, I woke up early the next morning to catch a boda to hop on a bus to go white water rafting in Jinja. After being fitted with a life jacket and safety helmet, we were off to the Nile River. I could not have imagined Moses floating down this river but then again it was in Egypt, not Uganda.

There were seven of us in the raft including our guide Paolo. Paolo is on the Uganda kayak team and when I asked him how long he has been a guide on the Nile, he said “I watched the video this morning and this is my first time”. I jokingly laughed and thought ‘what the heck’. I have never rafted on Class 5 rapids before and with rapid names like “Silverback, the Widow Maker, Ribcage, the Dead Dutchman and 50/50”, I was definitely in for the ride of my life. Paolo was amazing as a guide and instructor. He did everything to joke with us, make us feel comfortable and help us understand the boat and how to hold our paddles so we wouldn’t hit our fellow rafters. He also made sure that when (not if) we fell in to not freak out and let the river take you. That wasn’t really comforting but there were also ten kayakers as safety back-up to come up next to you when you did fall. I tumbled hard on our only spill of the day. It was incredible. The scene was like in slow motion. The wave came from the right and I felt and saw the three rafters on the right side of the boat go over my head as I got sucked underneath the raft. I hung onto the paddle (Paolo told us to try to hang on to the paddles if possible) and couldn’t tell if I was up or down. I was under-water for about five seconds and then all of a sudden the river spit me back up and I floated right next to the safety kayak. I love my life jacket!

There were some peaceful moments on the river (it took 6.5 hours to do the one day trip) and I took the time to reflect on some important lessons in the water. You have to trust your guide and the people rafting with you. They want you to live just as much as they do. The guide is not to be a killjoy but to ensure you have a fun and safe time. So when he says ‘down’, you all jump into the center of the boat and when he says ‘lean right’, you all lean to the right of the boat. You cannot be a lone ranger on the raft. You cannot do your own thing. And you have to paddle in unison, otherwise it sucks going in circles. But the thing I saw as a correlation between the guide and our relationship with God is that what he says is final. I never questioned the guide’s competence or ability to get us down the Nile. He never promised we wouldn’t fall in the water. But he gave us instructions on how to navigate it when we did fall. Similarly, I shouldn’t question God as my guide when He knows what is best for me. I can easily forget sometimes that God has my best interest for His glory and His fame. He doesn’t do it my way but steers me in the right direction. He doesn’t guarantee success or that I won’t get wet, but gives me instruction to survive it.

So next time you get the chance to raft on Class 5 Rapids – do it. If you’re in Uganda, go to Nile River Explorers. They were fun and professional and fed us beer and barbeque at the end of the trip. Not a bad way to end the day.

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The Circle of Life

21 07 2009

When you’re in Africa, you can’t but help to be that ten or eleven year old kid singing all the songs from the Lion King. I just got back from a four day safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park (I’ll post pictures later) and it was so worth the money. That’s another thing I can check off my bucket list. I was so excited to go on my first game drive. It was early in the morning but I eagerly woke up to start the drive into the park. Thanks John for letting me borrow the binoculars because they sure came in handy. I saw all the animals I wanted to see (hippos, elephants, hyenas, baboons, monkeys, water buffalos, crocs, birds, etc.) except for one… Simba. I came on this safari hoping to see the king of the jungle and these cats were elusive (there are about 100 or so in the park) but we finally spotted two from about half a kilometer away midway through the morning. They weren’t doing a whole lot, just sitting there. But it was truly breathtaking. It’s not like going to the zoo. There is something magical being in the plains of Africa with no cages or protection between you and a hungry 400 lb cat.

So pop in the Lion King and sing with me… ‘Oh I just can’t wait to be king’





Shhhh… don’t wake the dead

16 07 2009

I had another exciting day navigating around Kampala. I took the 14 passenger taxi (Matatu) into the taxi park hoping to get a transfer to Kasubi tombs. The taxi park is a chaotic yet efficient mess. Just think of Time Square on New Year’s with taxis and buses converging and you have the taxi park. It’s a sight to behold. I walked around asking different drivers if they go to Kasubi and they pointed me down one street to another. Half way through the walk, I felt a tug in my backpack and looked back to see that it was half way open ready for the contents to be stolen. I was walking through a crowd of people and immediately moved my pack to the front. Close call 🙂 I gave up on the taxi and hailed a boda who took me to the Kasubi tombs for $4000 shillings ($2 USD).

After a small entry fee, a guide shared with me the history of Buganda (700 year old kingdom nation located in present day Uganda) and the formation of Uganda. He was very knowledgeable and friendly. The name Buganda means ‘many clans’. The Kasubi tombs were built in the 1800’s where four kabakas (kings) are currently buried there. The kingdom of Buganda spans some 700 years and King Mutessa was the 35th king to reign and the first to be buried there. He was the first king to be influenced by foreign cultures. He allowed Christian and Muslim practices to influence his royal staff but never to under-mind him. Christians wanted to convert him but he wasn’t ready to give up his 84 wives. When he died at age 52, he had sired over 125 children. The man was busy and didn’t need Cialis.

The main hut houses the tombs of the four kings and is called Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga. Interestingly, my guide told me it translated ‘Only the king eats the chicken’. I started laughing.

Today, the ancestors of the last king buried there maintain the site. Some women live in the side homes while others come in from various towns to stay for extended periods. Each has specific duties. The kingdom still exists but since Uganda is a democratic republic, the current king has power but no authority for government changes.

Overall, I had a great visit at the tombs. I didn’t wake the dead. Still in one piece after the many boda rides and still have my possessions after a pick pocket attempt. It was a good day.

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