As I write this it is Thursday afternoon, about 5 o’clock. I’ve been in Uganda for 9 days. Today is not quite as blistering hot as the days normally feel to someone who just left a state buried in snow. It’s days like this that all I can do is marvel at where God has me right now. How did I find myself in this beautiful place, doing ministry of all things. Since when am I equipped to do that? Today was a testimony to the sneaky way God uses those who are perfect by no means.
Today I prepared and gave my first sermon….to a group of male Ugandan prisoners. We visit the prison every Thursday afternoon. Last Thursday while there, I stood up and gave my testimony of how I came to know Christ, which as an upper middle class white woman, I feel is very unordinary. I left that day proud that I had showed boldness in Christ but feeling as if I probably hadn’t touched many lives.
This morning at Show Mercy, after our weekly full staff meeting, a fellow intern, Jen, and I went up to Tom, a member of the outreach department, and asked what we would be doing at the the prison today. Tom said he was just about to go and plan his sermon. I suggested maybe he could do it on the bible lesson we taught to the kids on Saturday-Jesus healing the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-18). I suggested that this bible story reminds us to always give thanks to the Lord, and when these men leave jail they should remember to thank God like the one leper who returned to Jesus.
Tom replied, “Oh good, you do it.”
I don’t dislike public speaking as much as most people. I’m outgoing and don’t usually mind attention on me. But after I accepted the offer to preach I was overcome with this question, “What in the world am I going to say?”
I’ve heard countless sermons before in my life but never have I given one. And these people have endured things I cannot imagine. They have felt feelings I can’t begin to understand. Oh, and we don’t even speak the same language!
I had two hours to prepare my talk and eat lunch before heading out to the prison. Jen agreed to help me write the sermon as long as I was the one giving it and I am very grateful for her help and support. At one point Tom came over to our porch and reminded me to bring everything back to the salvation that is found in Jesus. Without that advice, who knows, I could have concluded my preaching by talking about ice cream and ant hills- it was my first sermon after all.
I wrote out several notes on Leprosy, Samaritans, and thanking God at all times. I complained more than once about how much easier this would be with Google and rewrote the notes again. As the planning went on it became apparent I needed to address these men not as prisoners, but as people. The sermon became a teaching that I myself could stand to hear more often: Jesus can cleanse us of all that makes us unclean and God can use you and your story, no matter how broken. I finished up writing my notes and went off to lunch where my fellow mzungus encouraged me as we ate pasta salad and the freshest pineapple you can imagine. Then Jen, Tom, Michael (outreach staff), Anthony (Ugandan intern), and I set off.
On the (extremely bumpy) ride to the prison, I read over my notes and asked the Holy Spirit to give me words. Give me the words oh God-my sermon was supposed to be about 30 minutes in length and I had one side of one page filled with notes.
When we arrive at the prison we always start with praise in worship which is very different in Africa. Both times I have been there it surprises me how many of the male inmates join in and praise the Lord. We have been told that whether or not they are Christian, they know the songs from hearing them while growing up in the villages. I, obviously, don’t speak fluent Lugandan so I cannot really sing along so at this time I continue to ask the Lord to give me the words that these men need to hear.
Jen begins the teaching by reading the story from Luke in English, and then one man reads it from a flappy Lugandan bible that lays around the prison and all of a sudden it is my turn.
I didn’t yell like the pastors here in Africa and in some places in America do. I used my hands a bit. I used my notes less than I thought I would. I said more than I had written down. I tried to be bold.
I am thankful to Anthony that translates for me. While he speaks I have a few seconds to form my next thought coherently.
At the end I invite anyone who has a longing in their heart to follow Jesus to raise their hand and be prayed for. And to my astonishment, people did! I prayed with more of my heart in that moment than I think I ever had, and every word of it was translated into their language.
I’ve never been to an American prison but from what I’ve seen in documentaries, this prison is different. There are a few rooms where the inmates all sleep on the floor but the rest is just open air space surrounded by a wall maybe eight feet high. After my sermon FOUR men that accepted Christ walked with Jen, Michael and I over near a tree and we tell them the importance of getting involved in a church once they leave jail in order to learn and be in community. I encourage them to see themselves as a light in this dark place while they are still there.
It was at this point that hearing the stories of my new brothers in Christ nearly brought me to tears. One man says he does not know what is to become of his three children while he is in jail. He does not know if they will be attending school, as the new year starts the following week. He goes on to say that many of the men in this prison are there because they have been wrongly accused and they are waiting for their court date. He says while in jail they often dream of going back to these people that have accused them and seeking revenge but when outreach people from Show Mercy come each week and preach the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, they think of peace and no longer of vengeance. Again, I was taken aback: nine days in Uganda and I am already seeing transformation of lives. How blessed I am just to witness this and be a part of it.
Today more than ever, I look around at beautiful Uganda and I know in my heart that only God could have done this. Only the almighty powerful God could bring a 22 year old musician from Michigan here to bring about his glory. I sit and revel at the fact that I just snacked on a passion fruit and watched Show Mercy’s agriculture team practice jumping on a pogo stick while waiting for a delicious dinner of Matooke. How did this become my life?? Only God could make this happen. Only God could work in the hearts of Ugandan prisoners to get them to a place where the feeble words of an inexperienced evangelist could make a difference in the destiny of their souls.
So today I marvel at what God has done and what God is doing. I look at the brokenness of my life and the things I wish I could change about my heart and I take two steps forward as I once again realize that no matter who you are, God can use you.
Whether it’s for your mind, your talents, your body, or your possessions, most people I know don’t like being used by other people. We often think of being used as being taken advantage of. But today, once again, I learn the valuable lesson that, despite the fact that being used by humans doesn’t always feel so good, being used by God is always an exceptional blessing.