Monthly Archives: June 2018

Did I ever tell you about that one time I faced a group of angry protesters?

This would have been back during the fight over the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare, which my organization supported on policy grounds. It was summer, and we were, like the foolishly idealistic policy wonks that we were, trying to educate our members about what was and wasn’t in this significant piece of health care legislation, explain the impact on the 50+ population we represented, and answer any questions or concerns that they had.

This was when the Tea Party really took off.

I was not the primary front man for most of these excursions, something for which I still experience some guilt. But there was one that was set up by a volunteer leader of ours in Volusia County that I was going to lead. He had done a great job of lining up a meeting space and because it was limited in size (and we had heard by this point that these sorts of events were drawing a bit of a crowd), we limited to members who made a reservation, and we had a full house. Some were pro-ACA, some were anti-Obamacare, some just had questions. So I hear. I never got in there.

So as we were setting up for the event, one of the community center’s staff members said, Hey, I think you should know there are some protesters outside with signs yelling stuff.

Let me not oversell this. They were about 20 in number, and they were angry, but they weren’t threatening anybody or calling anyone names or anything like that. But they were standing in the driveway of our building with signs yelling at cars coming in, and I though, man, that seems like a bad first impression for our members and any press who might be covering this thing.

So I checked with the center to see if they had a separate room where I could hold a listening session with them, just like the full-house one with our members. They really didn’t have another meeting room, but they had a little computer lab that would fit about that many people. That’ll have to do, I thought.

I commissioned my volunteer, who is still going strong in his 80s and once ran a medical school, to lead the main session and just have someone take notes of any questions we needed to get back to people on, and I invited the group of protesters inside to do a listening session with me. I explained (as they had already heard) that the main session was full, but I said they’d have my full attention this way, and look, it’s summer in Volusia County, it’s hot. Wouldn’t you rather sit in air conditioning and stand outside while everyone else is inside a room where they can’t even see you?

Thank God for Florida’s humid heat.

So once the group got settled and I set up at the “front” of the room (the farthest from the door), I said, look, we can do this whatever way works best for you, but here’s my suggestion. I was going to talk through with that other group why our organization has the position we do on this thing and then take any questions or concerns they had and do my best to answer them while also taking note so I could let the folks in DC know what people were asking about and what they were worried about. Would something like that work? They clearly hadn’t scenario planned this, but they couldn’t figure out was unfair or sneak about it, so they said, sure, provided I guarantee I’d listen and that I’d report everything they said. I promised I would. Plus, they were between me and the door, so I wasn’t going anywhere.

Our session was longer than the other group’s session; I’d have to go back to my notes at the time. One thing I learned quick, which was the only really sneaky thing I did, was that I needed someone else to take notes on their questions or concerns so I could focus on listening to them and responding while knowing someone else would capture what they wanted to be sure I reported back. They understood that, and I pointed out that they thereby controlled the record for the event that I’d report back. So I deputized one of their unofficial leaders as the reporter, which she liked, they liked, and I liked too…because she was the one who kept interrupting me. Once she had to take notes, it didn’t quiet her down all the way, but it did slow her down enough that I could at least finish a thought. So I guess that was sneaky.

So I explained what we liked about the bill and what we thought it would do and what we didn’t think it would do and what we didn’t like about it. I explained why we thought the pros outweighed the cons. But mostly, I listened. I made sure I understood their concern, made sure they understood that I understood, made sure our reporter understood too, and I gave my best answer as someone who knew the bill pretty well.

I won’t say it was fun, per se. But it was kind of a game, as they would try to get themselves mad about some part or another only to defuse them with calmness, kindness, patience, and a willingness to listen. By the end, the group that had come in convinced I was the mouthpiece of an organization they hated as evil and corrupt had moved to a point where they thought we were…well, wrong, and maybe stupid and naive, and maybe still secretly corrupt a little, but generally nice people.

I’m not saying that would work today. But it could. And when I hear that there is a Fred Rogers movie out, and that people are angrily protesting someone leaving a screening of that movie, this story somehow popped back in my head. I think none of us who were there in the summer of the ACA would ever imagine that those would be anything but a low water mark of civility in American discourse. We were wrong.

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My friend in Uganda

Patrick

Meet my friend Patrick. Before I tell you the crazy story of how The Book of Mormon, the Catholic Church, Bob Goff and Facebook converged to allow us to meet, and before I tell you how he presented some fundamental challenges to who I claim to be, you ought to meet him.

Patrick lives in Nansana, a village in Wakiso, a region outside Kampala, in Uganda. He works at Nansana Community Primary School, which cares for and educates and encourages kids whose parents can’t take care of them or whose parents have died.

The recurring theme in talking about these kids is “their parents lost hope.” Hope they could get them an education. Hope they could provide basic necessities. Hope they could offer them a life. Nansana Community Primary School is the last hope for a bunch of kids in a poor area of a poor country that has been through a lot. Here’s a glimpse of what they offer:

These are from their morning parade.

This is not.

Patrick knows how important Nansana Community Primary School is because he sees what shape the kids are in when their parents drop them off. He hears their hopelessness. And he helps get the kids food, clothes, medical attention and education.

They seem to like him.

But there’s another reason Patrick knows the value of Nansana Community Primary School. Patrick was one of six kids with no father and a mother who did the best she could. Nansana was her last hope for Patrick so she brought him there. When he graduated the primary and then the secondary school, he stayed around to help. As he told me:

Yes jeff thats my vision i every day request God to give me courage and help all kids that need help because i my self i was just helped,but if i wasnt helped i wouldnt have been what iam jeff

His hero, if I can say it, is Mr. Segawa Ephraim.

Mr. Segawa, as Patrick calls him, is the founder of the school and Patrick’s mentor. He is a father figure and inspiration for the kids and the Americans who have supported his work recognize his character and service. Here’s the school website, if you want to see more. The needs are ever before Mr. Segawa and Patrick. They need $310 for a water filter so the kids can drink safe water, because right now they drink water collected from the rain and pulled straight from this cistern:

Patrick pulling water from the cistern to be boiled for use.

They need money for food and medicine and school supplies, including to pay for the fees the government charges for their tests. The hundreds they care for are a drop in the bucket of need. They’d really appreciate any support we can offer. Here’s the page to donate  If you are more comfortable donating to a US Charity, Mr. Segawa has a relationship with Heart For People. You can donate to them via PayPal and the money will get to the school. Every little bit helps.

How I met Patrick

So, it’s kind of a crazy story, how I met Patrick.

I was in New York with my family for an epic Broadway trip, and the view out our hotel window was a church, St. Malachy’s, that’s known as the Actor’s Chapel. On the streetlight in front of the Church is a banner for the Broadway play The Book of Mormon, which plays across the street from the church. My family and I liked the clean songs we heard from The Book of Mormon, enough to research the show before we went to New York. It turns out a lot of the songs are not so clean. It’s a very profane sendup of the Mormon religion. And it’s set in Uganda.

We joked that it is convenient that there’s a church across from the theater, so you could go to Confession straight from seeing the show. We didn’t, but we did go to mass at St. Malachy’s several times, including Sunday, June 3. It’s the feast of Corpus Christi, but normally June 3 is known as the day the church celebrates St. Charles Lawanga and companions. They are 19th century martyrs, the only ones I know that the Catholic Church honors from Uganda.

We were flying home on Monday the 4th and I was reading. I had two books, one, Everybody, Always, by Bob Goff, I was reading a chapter a week and another one I was trying to finish. But on the flight, something told me to finish Everybody, Always, which is a wonderful collection of funny and inspiring stories from Bob Goff’s life in California. Until you get to the last five chapters or so, when it takes a turn to focus in depth on one gripping, challenging, deeply moving story. In Uganda.

So, I never thought about Uganda before, then all this.

So I posted something on Facebook:

🇺🇬

Here’s my Uganda story from the weekend. Our hotel room overlooks St. Malachy’s, which has a big Book of Mormon street sign in front of it because the theater is across from the church. I find this funny. But then:

1) Book of Mormon is set in Uganda.

2) The Saints of the day for the Sunday we were there were Charles Lawanga and companions, who were 19th century Ugandan martyrs.

3) On the plane ride home Monday, I decided not to read the book I really need to finish and read this other book instead. It’s an awesome book, Everybody, Always, and you should read it. Almost all of it is a series of short, beautiful, inspirational and funny stories. But the last 3-4 chapters are different: an actual narrative about a really moving story. And guess where it’s set?

God’s gonna have to do more than that to get me to move to Uganda. But it’s still kinda creepy.

I posted that late on June 5. On June 6, I got a Facebook friend request from someone in Uganda. Patrick. His birthday was the day I read the rest of Bob’s book. He turned 22. He’d just joined Facebook six weeks earlier to try to find people who could help the kids at his school. We had some mutual friends, so Facebook suggested me as a friend.

I know what you’re thinking

So, here’s the deal. I made a strategic decision to be pretty open in my Facebook audience. When I get a friend request, I check three things:

  1. Is it a front for a porn site or someone trying to get a date?
  2. Is it someone solely pushing their business?
  3. Is it someone who just focuses on politics?

If those are all no, I’ll accept.

Patrick passed that test. But usually if a new friend starts trying to engage me on Messenger, the deal is off. Were it not for the confluence of Uganda events, he would have lost me at “hello.” But hard on the heels of so many arrows pointing to Uganda, having a real live person reach out to me seemed…different. So I took a chance and got to know Patrick.

But he was probably a scammer, right?

I know that’s what you’re probably thinking, because that’s what I was thinking, and it’s what everyone I’ve told part of this story to has thought. So I did some due diligence. Here’s what I found:

  • I found the website for the school independently and reached out to Segawa Ephraim via the website’s email prior to Patrick mentioning him.
  • Mr. Segawa responded via the email I found on the website verifying Patrick’s story and his relationship to the school.
  • Mr. Segawa happened to be on a visit to New Jersey about the time I was in New York; he was visiting some organizations that had sponsored his work in the past.
  • I followed up with the people and organizations from the US who have supported Nansana in the past. I had a long conversation with one person, Vincent, who works with the UN, and who visited the orphanage and school Mr. Segawa runs. Vincent was so moved by what he saw that he worked to raise more than $15,000 to purchase agricultural land for Mr. Segawa and his team to grow food for the kids.
  • I had another conversation with a young man named Aaron from upstate New York who volunteered at the school ten years ago and has been back several times since. He traveled from his current home in DC to visit Mr. Segawa when he was in the US, and he attested to the remarkable work Mr. Segawa has done.
  • I connected with another person who happens to live near me, who has also visited the orphanage and schools and can vouch for the project.

So to sum up, Patrick really does work at the school, and the school is really what he presented it to be.

So why do I, and maybe you, still feel uneasy about knowing they need our help? I can’t answer that question for you, but here’s my answer.

In the US, there’s a comfortable structure for helping people who need help. You give money to an organization, and the organization vets people’s needs and provides you evidence that your gift mattered.

But in a place like Uganda, where poverty and need are high, government corruption is rampant, and social institutions are less stable, things aren’t always as easy.

So what do you do?

A few years ago I developed a personal mission statement, and I started using it as a reference point for how I spend my time and money. It’s three simple priorities: Love God, Love the People God Gives Me, Use what God Gives Me for Him. Each day I write out these headings on a piece of paper and list out what in my day will fall in these buckets. It shapes many of my decisions. And that second bucket, “the people God gives me,” is a blessedly full one with concentric circles of the people you would normally think of – family, work, friends, community. There are also some regular in-breakers – people I bump into on the street, for instance, or the other people on Facebook who send me friend requests – that God also gives me, but stay in an outer circle of my attention. But over the last couple of days, as I write out those three headings, it’s been harder and harder to say those are my mission goals, if I choose to ignore someone who, through a rapid confluence of reference points, God seems to have intentionally given me.

Still, Patrick couldn’t be much more different from me. Difference is scary; it’s written into our nature. But a few years ago I recognized that our culture overprograms us toward fear, and I started an organization called Love Not Fear, which tries to raise awareness of the way media shapes us to be fearful, guide people on how to shape their media and their time to better be able to choose love instead of fear, especially when encountering someone who is different. So how can I champion Love Not Fear while choosing fear when faced with someone who needs love?

That’s why I’m chipping in to get the school some of what they need, and why I’m asking you to do the same. What do you think?

Here’s that link to help again. And here’s the link to Heart For People. If you prefer Western Union or Moneygram, here’s the information you’ll need:

Name:SSENYONDO PATRICK
Id no:CM9603210AMHRE
City KAMPALA
Zip code:+256
Country:UGANDA