Gospel Love in Uganda

TARA BARTHEL|CONTRIBUTOR

Last November, my twelve year-old daughter and I traveled to Kibisi, Uganda, to teach on Biblical peacemaking and how to strengthen families by minimizing the abuse of girls and women. One year prior, when I was first asked to speak at this conference, my instinct was to decline. I was concerned that my training and experience as a Christian mediator in the United States would not help me to encourage and assist my dear sisters in Christ in Africa who faced misogyny and oppression at literally every level of society.

Ultimately, after much prayer and counsel, we came to the conclusion that we should go and do our best to listen, learn, and serve. Our decision was based on a number of factors—including our daughter’s strong interest in missions and social justice issues—but I must admit that I was still quite nervous when the time came for us to get on our first of eight flights (totaling 22+ hours of air time).

Safety Concerns

Was I foolish to bring a twelve-year old into a predominantly Muslim community with extreme poverty and basic life needs? One of the pastors who counseled me as I prepared to serve was particularly concerned about our safety re: a meeting that the men of the village had requested with me just prior to the conference. This pastor has had extensive experience working with abused women and male abusers who were trying to change. He asked what assurances I had received re: my daughter’s safety and I honestly had to say, “None.” He urged me to listen to my instincts, be cautious, and flee any situation that seemed to get out of hand.

Thankfully, we did not need to act on his wise counsel, although we did take it quite to heart.

The truth is, by the time the conference was held at the end of our week in Uganda, we had already spent extensive time with many girls and women of the village—and quite a few men. We had seen the tragic fruit of abusive polygamy and young, forced marriages. But we had also met many women and men who were working tirelessly to change the culture of their village—especially concerning girls and women.

Reality for Ugandan Women

Most of the women and children we met had large families (6 or 8 children) living in one or two-room huts. It took most of their time each day simply to try to find sufficient water and food for the day—even the most basic of schools or skills training was far beyond the reach of most girls. Even still, mothers and grandmothers labored day and night to scratch out sufficient funds for basic needs and education for the children. On top of their domestic duties, these women worked multiple jobs (if they could find them) and the young girls and teenage girls did the same.

My daughter tried to accompany a group of girls walking to the village well for water for the day—but we were told that it would not be safe for her. Apparently, older boys and men lie in wait by the path that the girls must take twice a day, with the goal of defiling them. Our translator (a male teacher in one of the local schools) offered to accompany the girls in order to keep them safe, so they headed off down the path. My daughter is extremely strong—she is a competitive boulderer and rock climber in our home state of Montana, and I’ve never seen her attempt any act of physical strength on our friends’ ranch and not be able to complete it. But she could not carry the water jugs for even one trip back from the well.

“I am not strong enough to be a Ugandan woman!” She said.

I could completely relate.

Gospel Love

When I see the layers of oppression and complex suffering that these dear girls and women face each day, I cannot imagine having their fortitude and courage. But I was particularly amazed at the wisdom and love that the Christian women leaders in the village showed.

These women were shrewd and brave concerning sexual and physical abuse by husbands and fathers. They were realistic regarding hygiene, education, and skill goals for children living in abject poverty. They knew that lasting sociological change could only happen on a foundation of spiritual change, and they faithfully shared the Christian Gospel in their predominantly Muslim village. I even had an opportunity to publicly read John chapter 4 to the entire village when I taught about the woman at the well and shared about my own childhood experiences of being defiled in a home broken by addiction, abuse, and divorce. As I told them my testimony of Jesus saving me from my sin and adopting me as his child, I was honored to hold out that same gift of eternal salvation by grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone, to each one of them.

At the end of the conference, the leader of the village stood up to thank the women leaders, my daughter, and me. He was a Muslim man, but he had sat through the entire conference as a sign of respect and support—listening to Christian women read the Christian Bible and pray Christian prayers. His closing comments about the Ugandan women explained with perfect clarity why he did such a thing. He said:

“Usually, when people do such good works for our village, they want our vote. But these women do all that they do for love.”

Isn’t that a beautiful testimony? Talk about living out John 13:35 and showing themselves to be Jesus’ disciples by their love! Don’t you want to be like these Ugandan women? I do. I went to Uganda to try to serve, but I ended up being served! And instructed.

Next week, I will tell you more specifics about the shocking biblical peacemaking example that Sophia and I used during our teaching time; the common conflicts that Ugandans face that look just like ours—and a few that most definitely do not (!). I will also describe God’s gracious provision in multiplying menstrual pads for the girls of the village, and we will introduce you to six girls whose lives have already been changed by generous friends funding their $30/month school fees.

Until then, I pray that we will all be like these Ugandan sisters in Christ, who, even while facing extreme suffering day after day, “commit themselves to their Faithful Creator while continuing to do good” (1 Peter 4:19).

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