God breaks my heart regularly.
Such a harsh, and possibly shocking, thing to say, because most of us spend a great deal of time trying to protect our hearts from hurt. But I think I gave up that right to protect my heart when I gave it to Jesus completely. In college I told God He had the right to use my life to serve Him and mold me to become more like His Son’s image. I gave up that right to keep a fence around my heart when I followed Him to Uganda. And I gave up that right when I surrender to Him daily.
In the nearly two years that I’ve been living here, I have seen quite a few sights that have left me shocked, confused, sympathetic. But they were usually situations involving people I had little to no relationship with.
The first time my heart really broke here it happened on a small bench, in a field, beside a few men building a pit latrine.
For a while, okay my whole life, but for most of 2016, I had been asking God to tell me what He wanted me to do. What was my next step. God, what do You want me to do with my LIFE?! What is Your will for ME?
The BIG question, right?
I mean, He moved me to Uganda, gave me a job, and put this stirring in my heart to serve others. And now I couldn’t figure out what to do with what He had done for me. In the early Fall I was beginning to spend so much time worrying about what was to come for me. My future in my career, my future with my (then) boyfriend Michael, my future in Uganda.
One day, on that small bench. I sat like I did on many afternoons, staring out on a little field that had been matooke trees just a few months earlier, helping my young neighbor with his homework.
Now Ashem, my neighbor, is around nine years old, but he is very wise. I’ve seen him simultaneously watch over his two younger brothers, wash dishes in a basin, run his mother’s vegetable shop, and do his homework. But his childlikeness remains evident when he builds swings and small forts and plays school with his friends. He has apparent leadership qualities, but I fear for the man he will become as he is raised in an abusive, non-Christian home.
That particular afternoon in September, in the midst of answering religious education questions and turning fractions into decimals, Ashem told me stories about all the people meandering around us.
“That one stole his friend’s phone.”
“That one will beat us if he hears us call him Sudanese.”
“That one’s husband was killed.”
“That one doesn’t eat food, only dirt.”
“That one killed that one’s baby in the hospital.”
The men continue building the walls to the pit latrine (squatting toilet) while Ashem tells me that until it’s finished, people have no where to go to the bathroom other than this very field I’m currently sitting in. I look around me and I suddenly notice people carrying small bags of you know what, and dropping them randomly around the field.
About 30 minutes later, we finished up the homework, and I went home and sobbed.
Crack crack crack went my heart.
I thought about how I spend so much of my time worrying about my small problems while pain ravages throughout those who live right down my street. I thought about how I was currently teaching some of the richest kids in the country, kids who are so westernized, many have never been to a village or a slum or even talked to a person in dire need, and how I’m not allowed to talk to them about God at all. And I thought about how my little friend of nine was privy to all this pain. He watched it happen and told the stories like he was reading from his school book. And my heart breaks for these people, not because I read about them in an article or watch them on the news, but because these are people I see everyday: People I greet as I walk home from work, kids I share my ukulele with and teach addition songs, women I buy vegetables from.
Since that day in September, God continually opens my eyes, reveals hurts to my empathetic heart and renders me confused in how I can do anything to help.
Last week, on that same small bench, I was again helping Ashem, this time with his multiplication timetables. Just then, a bunch of other little boys come by dragging another young friend of mine, Mark. Mark is kicking and punching and Ashem tells me they just caught Mark smoking cigarettes. It seems he does this all the time, and he is most likely addicted. I walk over to the group of boys holding Mark, who is still trying to get away. He is holding his breath with big puffed up cheeks, so I won’t smell the smoke on him. I try to speak with Mark about how bad smoking is for his health while the boys Ashem and Suubi translate to him, but the whole time he is desperate to get away. We go back to multiplication and Ashem tells me sometimes Mark steals money to buy alcohol.
By my estimation Mark is about 8 years old.
And crack goes my heart again.
It’s situations like this, I don’t know what to do with. Seriously, God? I’m just going about my normal life, and then you throw something like that right in front of me. I want to help, but when I feel like I can only understand this culture through the pinhole lens the last 2 years have provided me, I don’t know how I can. Maybe I could talk to Mark’s mom but most likely she would just end up beating him and then leaving the situation alone.
Sometimes I wish I could help all the hurting kids around me. The kids who are in unhealthy situations, either from abuse or hygiene when their toilet is literally the road we live on. But being a foreign person here, where many people expect you to be their savior, is a complicated thing. In many ways Uganda is not what people in the West think it is. It’s not a place of thousands of kids out on the street because they don’t have families at all; that’s not the hardship. The difficulty is that they do. They have mothers who most often care very deeply for their children, and genuinely want what’s best for them. But they themselves are caught up in the status quo, the poverty, the abuse, and they’re doing the best they can, it’s just rarely enough.
Every time God breaks my heart, I ask Him what He wants me to do with it. Why did He bring me here when I don’t know if the little I do makes any difference. Why did He give me this teaching job so similar to what I would be doing at home? Why is Uganda part of my story? What does He have for me here that He couldn’t call someone else, someone stronger to do?
And the hardest part for me right now is I don’t know when or if I’ll ever find out the answers to my questions.
But for now, I only know that I’m here for the small moments: to practice multiplication with a young boy, to share my water bootle in the hot afternoon, or to show an 8-year-old boy that I will still give him hugs when I find out he has been smoking.
Today I came home from work and found the vegetable shop to be gone. Completely vanished. No sign of Ashem, his brothers Aki and Azza, or their mother. And certainly not that bench. I’m left without a clue, hoping maybe a neighbor will know something.
Will I see them again? I don’t know. Are they safe? I don’t know.
How do I keep together all these crumbling pieces of my heart? I don’t know. I’m at a loss for words and I can’t get these little kids out of my head.
Having a broken heart is a terrible feeling. It’s pain and agony and confusion. But somewhere during the healing process it feels like roots start to creep out of those cracks. You start becoming thankful for the moments you had with people you’ve lost. And you remember God can use anything for His good. I’m just now learning to be grateful for these moments when I’m so stuck in my own head, so concerned with my own life, and God grabs me and shakes me and says WAKE UP! LOOK AROUND YOU. I think having a broken heart forces you to make choices that being whole doesn’t require of you. What are you going to do with what He has shown you? With this pain and burden you feel? Because it’s often the broken heart that is the catalyst, the propeller, for whatever that elusive ‘will’ is that He has for you.
Maybe I’m closer to knowing why God brought me to Uganda, maybe I’m not, but I want to thank you for walking with me as I attempt to bury this broken heart of mine into His soil and see what He grows it into.
Thank you to those of you who have made it to the end of this rant-like post, and if you’re still with me, please join me in praying for Ashem and his family wherever they are, Mark and his addictive behavior, and all the people who live in my neighborhood that need a whole lot more Jesus every day.
Left to Right: Ashem, Azza and Aki doing laundry. Azza rocking my sunnies. Ashem doing addition on his leg.