Congregation is transformed as they improve the lives of Ugandan orphans
By Myra Holmes
New Life Fellowship is one of two USMB congregations that have adopted orphans in two Ugandan communities. Uganda, a country slightly smaller than Oregon, is home to and estimated 2.7 million orphans due to AIDS, malaria and violence.
“The Lord just led us to Uganda,” says Vince Carrig, pastor of New Life Fellowship (NLF), a USMB congregation in Grant, Neb. Now New Life is making a difference in the lives of orphans in a remote part of Uganda, and it’s changing them as well.
It began with a small thing: James Harms, who attends Grant (Neb.) Evangelical Free Church (GEFC), read a book on the plight of orphans in Africa. “We need to do something for orphans in Africa,” he thought.
That spark of conviction led to a 2008 meeting with leaders from NLF and GEFC and representatives from Children’s Hope Chest, a ministry that connects Christian communities in the U.S. and Canada with orphans throughout the world, especially Russia.
The church leaders were pleased with Children’s Hope Chest’s community-to-community sponsorship model and liked that Children’s Hope Chest expects personal visits and hands-on involvement. It wasn’t Africa, but it sounded good.
Then Children’s Hope Chest suggested something new: Would these two churches be at all interested in starting a pilot program with orphans in a remote village of Uganda?
What the Nebraskans learned only later was that a group of pastors in this village spent three days and nights fasting and praying for just such an intervention.
“Part of the answer to their prayer is that we’re there,” Harms says.
Together, the two Nebraska congregations have launched a Children’s Hope Chest “carepoint” in Kayango, Uganda—not a residential orphanage but a gathering point and resource center for orphans in the community.
Kayango is a village of about 9,000 people that’s more than a four-hour drive off the beaten path. About 7,000 of the village residents are children; AIDS and malaria has nearly whipped out the adult population. Those from New Life who’ve visited the village search in vain for words to describe the poverty they’ve seen.
“They have nothing on their nothing,” Carrig says.
The carepoint seeks to help the neediest of the orphans with both practical and spiritual essentials. Individual sponsorships of $34 per month provide orphans with basics like meals, school supplies and clothing. Once a week, “disciplers” from the nearby village, hired by Children’s Hope Chest, come to the carepoint to provide spiritual teaching.
In March 2009, the two churches held an official “launch” service, asking for sponsors for 100 orphans to be served at the Kayango carepoint. Children’s Hope Chest warned them that, typically, sponsoring that many children would require a church of 1,000 or more. The two Grant churches together are fewer than 250; 30 orphans would be more in line with Children’s Hope Chest’s recommendations.
“It would take the Lord to do 100,” Harms says. “So we opted for 100.” By the end of the launch day, all 100 orphans were sponsored.
It wasn’t just about sending sponsorship money. “Children’s Hope Chest expected that we would go,” Carrig says. He points out that while supporting overseas work with money and prayer is good and necessary, the churches wanted a hands-on role.
“When we come back from a visit, there’s no describing what we’ve seen,” says Carrig. “If people will get experiences like that, that is exciting.”
About half a dozen teams, comprised of folks from New Life, Grant E-Free and the community have gone to Kayango to visit since initiating the carepoint in 2009. They have met the orphans and local leaders, taught children’s programs, overseen the digging of a well and a pit latrine, built a kitchen and trained local pastors.
And built relationships. Harms, who has been to the village five times, says building relationships in this people-oriented culture is “more than important; it’s absolutely crucial.” It’s a culture that values relationships over tasks, and time invested conveys love.
Harms says a highlight of all his visits was a shopping trip with several high-school-aged girls in order to get the supplies necessary to enroll them in private school. Because he spent significant time with these girls, he was able to impart some fatherly advice and tell them they were precious. “These girls have never had a dad tell them that,” he says.
Troy Kemling, a teacher who attends New Life, was part of a July 2010 team that went to meet with government and local leaders and learn what the community needs. After talking with teachers and visiting schools, they determined their next efforts must focus on education.
Although education is supposed to be “free and equal,” the reality is discouraging. The team saw more than 90 students for one teacher, classrooms with only a handful of shared textbooks, teachers who are as hungry as the students, schools in desperate disrepair and students unable to attend public school because they can’t afford the required badges and exam fees.
The two churches envision a private boarding school where students can learn not only basic academics but also Christian discipleship and vocational skills. “We can’t fix it all,” Kemling says, “but our hope is that some of these kids will grow up with an education and a hope for the future, and then they will become leaders.”
It will take patience. That’s not easy for task-oriented Americans to swallow, but the Grant churches recognize that it’s important not to swoop in with help that’s not wanted. Although they receive some guidance from Children’s Hope Chest on offering culturally appropriate help, they are finding it’s sometimes easier said than done.
One of the early teams helped built a large room at the carepoint that they intended to be used as a kitchen. While the building is proving useful, it’s not being used that way. That frustration has helped the Grant churches understand that they have much to learn and that they must partner with and empower the Ugandans.
Harms points out that, although these children live in abject poverty, they are also happy. He says that while Americans tend to immediately think of “things” to fix problems, imposing materialism on these people won’t make their lives better.
“We don’t want them to become Americans,” Carrig says. “We desperately want their partnership.”
Even as they long for ways to make a difference more quickly, the Grant churches see that their presence in Kayango does matter. The whole community uses and appreciates the well. The sponsored kids who are receiving food and some clothing are visibly changed—so much so that Harms says he can pick them out of a crowd.
Kemling talks about giving these orphans the love that they may not receive from any other adults in their lives and introducing them to a Heavenly Father who desires to adopt them into this family.
“There are going to be eternal rewards,” Kemling says.
Their work in Uganda is certainly transforming lives in Nebraska. Those who’ve spent time in Kayango talk about learning contentment from those who have nothing. About lessons in hospitality and generosity from a shared orange. About joyous worship not typically found in most American churches. And about a sense of urgency to share the gospel, because that’s what will really make a difference.
Perhaps none have been more obviously changed than the Carrig family. For them, loving orphans in Uganda has meant adding a family member.
Carrig remembers Children’s Hope Chest leaders explaining in initial meetings that they do not assist in adoptions, lest Children’s Hope Chest gain a reputation for taking children out of the community. Carrig remembers thinking, “That’s fine, of course, because I have no plans to adopt anybody.”
But then he and his wife, Beth, met Monica, the child their family sponsors. Carrig says he immediately felt God nudging him: “You are her father.”
Carrig says, “That was a lot to take.”
But time and prayer confirmed for the family that they should explore the possibility of adopting. Obstacle after impossible obstacle fell: Did she return the love? Did she want to come to the U.S.? Would her aunt, with whom she lived, release her? Would the paperwork work out?
The Carrigs brought Monica home in December 2011. “She’s ours now, and we love her very much, and she loves us back,” Carrig says of his new daughter.
He describes how she’s growing in her faith, how she loved seeing snow for the first time, how she’s learning quickly at school.
“I think the Lord has a great plan for her,” he says.
Likewise, he hopes God has a great plan for Kayango: “I sure hope we’re just getting started,” he says.
“The need is immense,” Kemling admits. “It’s a God-sized project. It’s beyond what we can do on our own by far. It’s really humbling to think that the Lord wants us to partner with him in ministering to these people.”