Category Archives: poor

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

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Maybe what’s wrong with us is we watch the wrong scoreboard.

You probably wouldn’t think that the answer to the challenge of Pope Francis’ encyclical would be found in Bhutan. (In part because, you, like me, couldn’t find Bhutan without Google.)

One of the reflections I’ve had on reading Laudato Si’ is that maybe our problem as a society is that we focus on the wrong stuff. We watch the wrong scoreboard.  We value things that aren’t all that valuable, in the bigger picture.

From Francis’ perspective (and I would argue, from Jesus’, too) this is undoubtedly true.  We invest an inordinate amount of attention on those who have wealth — individuals and countries — and overlook those who have little.  This, even though so many — of all faiths and no faith at all — have found that some of the happiest and most fulfilled are not those with plenty, but those the world would call poor.

This is not to say that being poor is in itself good.  Critics rightly note that the motif of the “blessed poor” tends to be propagated by people who don’t seem so much driven by a desire to become poor themselves but by the desire to feel less bad about not helping the poor out of their poverty.

But maybe we drive toward wealth, excessive, non-satisfying and destructive levels of wealth, because we are valuing it disproportionately.

What if, instead of measuring personal wealth or gross national product we instead valued gross national happiness?  At least that’s the question raised by the ruler of Bhutan, who unveiled a “Gross National Happiness” index and set about to measure his country by metrics that pertain to it.

(I didn’t know this until I heard a TED talk by Chip Conley about it. Just so you don’t think I’m more erudite than I am.)

It’s worth thinking about. (Here’s a link to a paper about the GNH from the Bhutanese.  You can Google a world ranking, too.)

Here are the domains they measure:

Psychological Wellbeing – Life satisfaction and Emotional balance (positive and negative emotions) and Spirituality

Health – Self-reported health status, Healthy days, Long-term disability,  Mental health

Education – Literacy, Educational qualification, Knowledge, Values

Culture – Language, Artisan skills, Socio-cultural participation, Driglam Namzha (sort of a Bhutanese manners)

Time Use – Working hours and Sleeping hours

Good Governance – Political participation, Political freedom, Service delivery, Government performance

Community Vitality – Social support, Community relationships, Family, Victim of crime

Ecological Diversity and Resilience- Pollution, Environmental responsibility, Wildlife, Urban issues

Living Standards- Household income, Assets, Housing quality

As a scorecard, it is at least more balanced.  If we spent more time valuing this set of measures rather than focusing on those with crass wealth, would we be in a better place?

How broke is it? If the world is conquering absolute poverty, is Laudato Si too harsh?

I haven’t seen a thoughtful conservative response to Laudato Si’. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been any; in fact, I’d welcome the chance to read any you’ve seen.

Here’s one worth trying on, though.  Pope Francis focuses heavily, and rightly, on the plight of the poor; this isn’t new — it’s in keeping with the history of Catholic social thought.  But his premise is that the poor are dehumanized, devalued, and being left behind.

But look, a conservative could argue, at the Millennium Development Goals.  In 2000, the United Nations launched a set of 8 measurable goals to reduce poverty in all its forms by 2015 – things like halving the number of people living in extreme poverty, halving the number of people lacking access to clean water and sanitation, reducing chronic hunger and child malnutrition, and others.  Perhaps surprisingly, many of the most sweeping and ambitious goals were not only met, but met early.

As we head toward the finish line, several world leaders are declaring that the eradication of extreme poverty is in sight. And what has driven this move toward the positive? Primarily, many would argue, this is a story about trade-fueled economic growth, not a revamped world system. While the opening of China and continued development of India are the primary reasons these numbers plummeted, progress appeared almost across the globe, and, if growth continues as a reasonably strong clip, the end really does seem to be in sight, with the primary sticking point being sub-Saharan Africa.

So, a capitalist defender might argue, if free trade has done more to lift the poorest of the poor out of extreme poverty, an area in which centrally planned economy not only had no success but may have been an active part of the problem, isn’t it worth the tradeoff of higher inequality? In other words, is it better for all of us to be better off, unevenly, than for all of us to be more equally worse off?

The knee-jerk reaction is to say you can have it both ways – that growth does not have to be partnered with greed. I’m not sure there’s a strong body of evidence that this alternative exists, though.

Let me suggest that the question of whether we can expect a more just system than this, or whether free market capitalism is our best hope for prosperity for all, is at least at one level of question of theology, and specifically theological anthropology — how we understand humankind from the perspective of God’s story.

I know there are those that see free market capitalism as divinely inspired, but it’s hard for me to find the seeds of the prosperity gospel in the actual gospels in which a poor, decidedly un-market-oriented Jesus focused on the impoverished and outcast.  That said, there is a long and strong tradition that roots the “best-caseness” of capitalism in a radical understanding of human sin. We are irrevocably broken, this theology holds, so much so that any attempt to build a system that draws on a positive creation of a common good is doomed to become another Tower of Babel, another testimony to the depths of human depravity. The best we can hope for, by this thinking, is to steer our worst instincts toward some indirect common good.  In that understanding, a free market system takes greed and makes it modestly less irredeemable by steering it toward economic growth that helps others. This is the sort of argument that Reinhold Niebuhr promoted.  It isn’t very warm and fuzzy, but there is something to be said for its track record in comparison to utopian visions.

This may be wrong, but I associate this worldview with its elevated sense of humanity’s fallenness, with Calvinist Protestantism. I would think, especially with this pope, that there is a stubbornly hopeful counterargument to be made based on a theology that posits that God’s love affects us not only in redemption but in remembered creation. Sin is real, pernicious, and ever-present, yes.  But God’s power transcends the power of evil not only in the cross but in the very act of Creation, which sin mars but does not destroy.  If original sin does not thoroughly wipe out original good, there is hope for a loving society that looks more like the Christian community in Acts 4:32 (“The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.”) and less nasty, brutish and short. Contemporary evidence to the contrary.

Where Francis isn’t breaking new ground…which is most of it

The popular narrative about a pope reflects their context and is drawn to contrasts; what the popes say is actually pretty consistent. While people are going gaga about all the “new” stuff Pope Francis is saying, both supporters and opponents are missing the point that most of his predecessors have said many of the same things. Even and especially the ones that they think he’s a contrasting figure to.

Quick caveat emptor. I’m not really a Catholic scholar. If you haven’t read the “About” page, I studied Catholic social thought in graduate school more than 20 years ago, then left to go live life, and found in Pope Francis a reason to plug back into that part of me. But I was just a grad student – unpublished, not a career academic. – and I have a big blind spot in Pope Benedict XVI, whose entire reign came while I was doing other things.

That said, it’s been invigorating to see a pope so capture the attention of the public, and especially the popular media, for saying and doing a lot of things that his predecessors did. I take most of that to be his personal charisma, which rivals that of Saint John Paul II and Saint John XXIII. I take some of it to be his seeming mission to defy stereotypes of a pope as elitist, which Saint John XXIII did as well. And, I have to say, he benefits from following a pope in Benedict who was widely and unfairly perceived as uninspiring. On core dogmatic theology, Benedict may be the most thoughtful pope since…well, since before 1891, when I started paying attention. But for a variety of reasons, he was not embraced by the public like either his predecessor or successor was.

The self-deprecating humor and willingness to shake up the status quo? I’ve argued before that he follows in the footsteps of Saint John XXIII, just more than 50 years ago. After his trip to South America this past week, he will likely be called a revolutionary Marxist, for saying the same things that Blessed Pope Paul VI said in the late ’60s and early ’70s. His manic schedule of globetrotting? His connecting with the masses? Saint John Paul II did that too.

But the core thing that irks conservative Americans – the thing that prompted hosts on the Catholic talk radio station I tuned in to after his encyclical’s release to say “I guess if you call yourself a conservative Catholic, you have to ask the hard question of which is it – conservative or Catholic” – is his focus on the preferential option for the poor, the need for solidarity among all of us for those who have it the hardest economically, and his critique of the limits of capitalism and the secondary nature of the right to private property? They all said that. Preferential option for the poor is a term coined by John Paul II. Solidarity with the weakest among us? Also John Paul II. The universal destination of property? Leo XIII, in the first papal encyclical, drawing on the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas. While pope’s have rightly spoken consistently against totalitarianism and communism, they have done so consistently while pointing to the limits of unfettered capitalism. Their accents varied. Their message did not.

A church that is local, personal, externally focused, communal (and poor), part 2

Wow, would the world be a better place if this was the attitude of every Christian: “We need to help others to realize that the only way is to learn how to encounter others with the right attitude, which is to accept and esteem them as companions along the way, without interior resistance. Better yet, it means learning to find Jesus in the faces of others, in their voices, in their pleas. And learning to suffer in the embrace of the crucified Jesus whenever we are unjustly attacked or meet with ingratitude, never tiring of our decision to live in fraternity.” (91)

I am tempted to let Francis drop the mic and walk off the stage with that one at least on this theme, but he has other treasures on the need for the Church to be local, personal, communal, focused outward. I won’t quote it (you can always get a link to the doc from my “About” tab), but in paragraph 95 he does a great job of pointing to the internal, careerist, organization-building tendency in the Church (and, sociologists would argue, in every human institution). In 97 he says about this temptation: “We need to avoid it by making the Church constantly go out from herself, keeping her mission focused on Jesus Christ, and her commitment to the poor.”

There is, you have to admit, a leaning toward clubbishness in the Church, a tendency to focus on keeping the holy safe from the outside world. Francis won’t have it. “The salvation which God has wrought, and the Church joyfully proclaims, is for everyone…Jesus did not tell the apostles to form an exclusive and elite group. He said: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.'” (113)

There is a lot in the middle section of the exhortation on the kerygma – the basic kernel of the Gospel (see the earlier post on the essential message). I’m ashamed to say that in all my years as a Christian, I haven’t spent a lot of time practicing how to talk about that message, but many who have seem to articulate it as a solely individual one about your personal relationship with Jesus. But Francis says that isn’t complete. “The kerygma has a clear social content: at the very heart of the Gospel is life in community and engagement with others.” (177) “To believe in a Father who loves all men and women with an infinite love means realizing that ‘he thereby confers upon them an infinite dignity…to believe that Jesus shed his blood for us removes any doubt about the boundless love which ennobled each human being.” (178) He concludes in 180: “Both Christian preaching and life, then, are meant to have an impact on society.” And thus he is off to talk about poverty and peace.

Later, in his talk about unity and dialogue, he has a great section 231-233 on the need for the world of ideas to be ever-grounded in reality (which, if my doctoral professors had adhered to, I might have taken a different path, by the way).

It’s easy to see community simply as the field of mission, and not it’s end, but that is incomplete. “Mission is at once a passion for Jesus and a passion for his people…we want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm in others, we are committed to building a new world.” (269)

This is the Church Francis wants.