The diesel-fueled Land Rover pulled into the Terego archdeaconry training center around midday. I was excited about beginning the first training session of health workers in this area. My Ugandan colleague, Margaret Ejoga, a registered midwife who came from this region, would be teaching village women selected by their parishes to be community health workers (CHWs). CHWs are people who teach others in their community the lessons of health that they learned during the four days of training.
The training center consisted of mud and thatch houses, arranged in a square around a gazebo that served as our classroom. Each parish in the archdeaconry had built a home where the lay ministers from their parish could live while they studied there. We would stay in these lovely homes for our CHW training session. The archdeaconry had arranged for someone to cook for us. We brought food with us for the five days— twenty kilos of sugar, tea, a sack of enya flour (made from fermented cassava root, the local staple food), beans, tomatoes, onions and groundnuts. From her uncle, Margaret procured a sheep to be slaughtered for the closing meal. The women arrived throughout the afternoon. Most had to walk ten to twenty miles carrying bedding on their heads and babies on their backs.
The principal of the training center greeted us warmly and then informed us that there was a problem. There always seemed to be some sort of a problem for each of our sessions. This time the borehole that supplied safe water for the center had broken. They had been unable to repair it before we came. We expected about twenty women for the training, plus visitors on the final day, and the nearest source of safe water was five kilometers down the road.
We collected all the available jerry cans (plastic containers used to transport liquid commodities) and water containers and put them in the back of the pick-up truck. Since I was the only driver, several children went with me to direct me to the borehole. We pumped water and filled the containers and returned to the training center. This was repeated two or three times a day for five days. I had learned only enough Lugbara, the local language, to greet and make my needs known. Margaret taught the lessons in the vernacular. Each night we went over the lessons together and then as she taught, I went on water runs.
It was hot and tiring work to pump and carry water. I was grateful that I didn't have to put it on my head and walk the five kilometers, as many women did. I have to admit that I wondered why God had asked me to get a master's degree in nursing and come to Uganda in order to drive a Land Rover to collect water for five days.
The answer came on the last day. Ugandans have learned from the British to be very formal. The training sessions had to have a closing ceremony to which local dignitaries from the government, churches and clinics were invited. Food was always a part of the celebration, and an invitation to a free meal was never turned down. During the ceremony the women recounted for the visitors all that they had learned. It was a joy to hear them tell about the importance of latrines, washing hands prior to eating and safe drinking water and to hear them describe how to make oral rehydration solution. They sang and performed dramas about the lessons.
Then the thanksgiving began. The women thanked Margaret for her teaching, the parishes and archdeaconry for providing the means for them to come, the cooks for cooking and the visitors for coming. Then one woman got up and began to speak. Someone translated for me. “We want to thank Grace for coming. She is just like Jesus. She left the comfort of her home in America to be with us. She served us every day by collecting the water we needed for cooking, drinking and bathing. We did not have to worry about getting water the entire time we were here.”
I felt humbled. I thought I had not been effective because I could barely speak Lugbara; I hadn't been able to teach about health or Jesus, and had done nothing but fetch water the entire week. But the Holy Spirit used my service to speak of Jesus to the women who had sacrificially come to the training session.
Jesus Lived Among Us
What can we learn about Christian mission from Jesus the Missionary? First, he left his home in heaven to become Immanuel, God with us. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is a reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1:1–3). Jesus left the splendor of heaven to join this sinful world. Sometimes God calls us to leave the comfort of our homes to join others who do not have running water, electricity and indoor plumbing. Whenever someone says to me, “You gave up so much to go to Uganda,” I say it was a privilege. In fact, it is miniscule in comparison to what Jesus did for me.
Jesus Served the Poor
Not only did Jesus leave the comforts of heaven, but he also came to one of the poorest places on earth. His parents were simple, unassuming, working-class people. They lived under a foreign-dominated government. They had to walk wherever they went. Jesus knew what hard work was. He experienced all of life as a human. He was sometimes tired and hungry, and he felt the pain of beating and crucifixion. He experienced the emotions of joy at wedding feasts, sorrow at the death of friends and anger at those who exploited the poor in the name of religion. Having never done anything wrong, he was unjustly accused and sentenced to death. When we go on a mission trip or leave our homes and families to live among people of lesser means; when we experience physical tiredness, when we hunger for a familiar food or suffer the discomfort a bout of dysentery; when we share in the celebrations of our host cultures or mourn the death of malnourished children; when we are misunderstood culturally and live under foreign governments; we are doing nothing more than what Christ has done for us.
Jesus Spent Years in Preparation
For thirty years before beginning his official ministry, Jesus lived and worked among the people he came to serve. He trained under his earthly father to become a carpenter. In my case, I taught in a school of nursing for twelve years before the Lord opened doors to Uganda. At one point, I thought that my calling was preparing nurses for the mission field rather than going myself. During these years, I gained valuable experience in nursing education, curriculum development, Bible study and ministry. When I finally got to Uganda, I was surprised that all these experiences were used to teach community health workers, write curricula for them and minister through the church. My relationship with God and my ability to trust him with my life was strengthened during the years prior to leaving home. My call to missions was refined, and my values for ministry were shaped while I was learning my role as a nurse educator. I was blessed with two nurse mentors, one an administrator and one a former missionary, who modeled ministry and guided me in the early years of my career. What may have seemed like a wilderness on the road to becoming a missionary nurse was really the foundation for future ministry as a missionary.
Jesus Served a Limited Term
I spent six years in Uganda. That may seem like a long time, but for missionaries who have dedicated their lives to serving God in another culture, it is a short time. The first three years were in the north of the country, working with a diocesan health project; the final three years were in the capital, Kampala, developing the Primary Health Care (PHC) Department of the Ugandan Protestant Medical Bureau (UPMB). This agency represented Protestant health work to the Uganda Ministry of Health. For both assignments, my goal was to work myself out of a job.
Jesus' public ministry lasted approximately three years. He also worked himself out of a job by teaching and equipping disciples to carry on the work after his death and resurrection. He poured himself into a few people whom he felt could continue the work. The disciples were a motley crew, not necessarily people we would have selected as dynamic, potential leaders with charisma and influence.
Jesus Worked Himself Out of a Job
In Uganda, I was blessed with two excellent nurse colleagues who continued the work after I left. All of us had strengths and potentials, but we also had flaws and weaknesses. I focused on developing my colleagues' leadership and management skills, rather than conducting the project myself. Through them, many more people have been reached than I could have ever reached alone.
We need to make the best use of the time God has given us. Sometimes, for missionary nurses, that is translated into frantic activity—seeing as many patients in a day as we can, preaching the gospel message in the evenings and Sundays, getting funding for our projects, and micromanaging the laboratory, pharmacy, car pool and health education program. I find it interesting that Jesus never seems to be hassled. He didn't find it necessary to heal every sick person in the region, or to teach and preach in every synagogue, or to worry about where he would spend the night and get his next meal.
Jesus Restored Shalom
Jesus cared not only for the physical needs of the sick he encountered; he provided for their total healing. He restored their health, their shalom. He reconciled them to God, to themselves and to others, as well as caring for their physical ailments. He spent time alone with the Father to be spiritually refreshed. He accomplished his ministry through relationships, not frantic activity. He attended to matters at hand, while using these interruptions to teach his disciples about faith, servant leadership and the kingdom of God. This is a good model for our ministry.
Jesus Withdrew So His Followers Could Flourish
Saying good-bye to Margaret after three years left me struggling. Could I trust that she would figure out how to continue the health program? I wasn't sure that I had laid an adequate foundation for the PHC department. Would it continue to function smoothly when I left the country? I took comfort in the fact that Jesus ascended to heaven before the disciples began the church. He knew that if the church was to grow and flourish, it would require the work of the Holy Spirit to direct it, and for the Holy Spirit to come, he needed to return to the Father. The Lord gave me peace about leaving the work to my colleagues when it was time to leave. For my colleagues to grow into their leadership positions, I needed to get out of the way.
Missionaries must think about how and when to turn over ministry to local brothers and sisters in Christ. Leaving too soon doesn't provide the base necessary for continuing the ministry. However, staying too long can lead to dependency. Sometimes missionaries must leave when the government tells them that they are no longer welcome. As missionaries, we must be cognizant that our time is limited. We may never see the results of our efforts.
Jesus Trusted the Father
Before his death and resurrection, Jesus prayed for his followers, entrusting them and their ministry to the Father (Jn 17). While we serve as missionaries, the Lord will grow our faith to expect that the seeds that we plant will be watered and nurtured through the provision of the Holy Spirit. The work is the Lord's, not ours. He will bring about its completion. We depart, praying along with Paul, the first missionary, “Constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:4–6).