A Rainy Baptism
Robert is a 20 year old "orphan." His father died in 1998 and in Uganda, when one parent dies, a child is considered orphaned. The reason for that is it's often the father who dies first (usually of AIDS) and then the mother soon follows in death. The family becomes destitute without a father/husband to provide for it, and if the mother is sick, their condition is even more desperate.
Robert's father died at a young age of a stroke, leaving behind 2 wives and numerous children. The 2nd wife took off with all the family's wealth and belongings. The father had been a good provider for both families, but now Robert's mother and 6 siblings were left in dire straights, with nothing. Robert was forced to drop out of high school, but was eventually blessed with a sponsor in Kasese, western Uganda.
When I first met Robert, in mid 1999, I was teaching a class in his village, training health workers. Being a very bright boy, and ever so eager to learn, he was struggling with his decision to go to Kasese to finish his high school, wanting also to finish my class. I advised him to go to Kasese, as any future education would depend upon him having his graduation certificate. He had a hard time finding transport money to get there (about $3) but finally was able to go.
About a year ago, Robert showed up at my door, with his big smile, asking, "Do you remember me?" He had finished his schooling and was eager to reconnect and see what I might be teaching now. He was eager to get my advice on his future, as his sponsor had agreed to pay half of his university tuition. He couldn't decide whether to attend Makerere University in Kampala, or to go to the flight school in Soroti, eastern Uganda, and become a pilot. As we sorted it all out, it was obvious, his heart was more in becoming a pilot! So we began to look at options for work, because he had to find a way to pay half of his own tuition. As we looked at those options, I learned that Robert could not do hard, manual labor because of a weak heart. I knew he would not be able to become a pilot with a weak heart, but said nothing.
When the final high school exam scores were published in January, Robert was dismayed to find that his results were not published. On the 2nd day, when they still had not been published, he called the school. The school was very large, so he and several of his friends had figured they'd never get caught if they "helped" each other with some parts of the exam. But they had been caught and the punishment was severe. His final 2 years of high school were now erased. All his efforts were for naught because he'd been caught cheating. So if he wanted to graduate, he would have to repeat the 2 years. His sponsor was understandably angry and backed out of their arrangement. So his hopes of college were dashed and he now had no money to repeat the 2 years of high school.
He came to my house that day, totally devastated, dazed. He did not know what to do. Even now, he does not remember how he got home that day. Many children facing such dire punishments have committed suicide. Robert assured me this was not in his thinking, he just had to figure out what he was going to do now. We talked for a long time and I found him willing to accept responsibility for his actions, and knowing his only course was to repeat his 2 years of schooling. A heavy price to pay for trying to take the easy way out. But as an older friend of his had told him, "You weren't the first, and you won't be the last," which helped him gain some perspective. His problem again, was how to pay for schooling, compounded by the fact that he needed to attend expensive boarding school.
Over the next 6 months, we tried to get him into schools locally, but there just was not funding available to keep him in them. At one point, he rented a room (cheaper than boarding school), bought his school uniform and most of his school supplies, but again failed for lack of school fees. Only 14% of Uganda's students graduate from secondary school for just these reasons. He continued to come to my house, to talk, to seek advice, to rest his weary soul.
In getting to know Robert better, I learned his mother was an alcoholic. She made home brew to sell, to make some sort of living, and unfortunately, had learned to imbibe her own goods. Many times Robert would come to my house and fall asleep on my couch because his sleep had been disrupted by his mother's drunken rages. At times she would chase the neighbors with her machete, and he, as the oldest child, would be trying to control her at 3:00 AM. He was also frequently sick with malaria, flu and stress-related problems. Sometimes his heart would be hurting him. We heard village gossip that Robert himself was also drinking heavily and involved in immoral behavior, which normally would be grounds for booting him out of Pastor David's New Life Kids Club, a faith orphan assistance project. But as we prayed about it and watched Robert's struggles with hopelessness, we felt that he was a special case. We did not want to see such a bright, motivated boy lost to the hopeless poverty of village life, doomed to a life of drunkenness and probably premature death by AIDS.
In August when the team from New Life Center Foursquare Church came from Everett, WA, Robert closely followed them and their ministry to the various villages. On the last day they were here, he came to me after the day's meetings, with a long face, telling me he was again sick and not responding to anti-malarial drugs. He said to me, "My life is just so hopeless, I have so many problems, I know now the only thing I can do is to get saved." Pastor David and I took him into the church office and prayed with him, leading him to accept Jesus as his personal savior. Robert went home with a huge smile on his face that day. At last he had peace in his heart.
The next time I saw Robert, he told me that his illness had disappeared after we prayed that day. A woman in Kasese had contacted him and wanted him to work for her, in exchange for paying his school fees. He was feeling physically stronger, and was no longer suffering so many illnesses. A part time job opened for him at the local village primary school. Then to make money for his move back to Kasese, he made some charcoal. This tells how much stronger the boy had become, because making charcoal is one of the most physically grueling jobs a person can do. He made the charcoal, but when the buyer took it to Kampala to sell, he did not return with Robert's money. He cheated many people in the village the same way. He just took their money and left the area.
Robert was wanting to get water baptized before moving to Kasese, now that he had accepted Christ. The usual thing in the villages is being baptized in the swamps, where a great deal of water collects during the rainy seasons. However, there was not yet enough water to be baptized by immersion, as he was longing to do. This week at Kampala Foursquare Church, we had our monthly baptism service. Even in the city, baptisms aren't very easy. Our church is still in the building stage, consisting of a corrugated metal roof on poles, over a cement slab. Our baptistery is an oval brick and plaster structure, without access to running water. So to hold a baptism service means several day's worth of preparation, hauling 20-liter jerry cans, 75 of them to be exact, to get enough water to immerse people. But it works!
So this past Sunday, Robert, with his Pastor Ezira Matua, from Kabanyi village, took the long taxi ride into Kampala, and then tried to find our church. They were an hour late, due to the fact they initially went to the wrong church! At the end of the service, when the 10 candidates came to be baptized, the heavens opened up and a torrential rain hammered our metal roof. A harsh wind was blowing the rain sideways, in and through our tarpaulin "walls," getting everyone cold and wet. The congregation began moving around, huddling into the middle of the building, trying to stay somewhat dry and warm. The temperature can drop 20 degrees in a matter of minutes in these storms. I was having a difficult time hearing the testimonies of the candidates, even with microphones. So I was feeling a bit annoyed at all the discomforts and inconveniences of the moment. But then I remembered that in Uganda, rain is always viewed as a blessing from God. So people are happy when it rains at a wedding, on a birthday… or at a baptism service! It shows that God has put His special blessing on those people.
When I looked at it all with that perspective, I saw how blessed Robert really is. Yes, his life has been hard. It will most likely continue to be hard. But he is being formed into a strong man of God by his very trials. If a rainstorm is truly an indication of the blessing of God, then I saw how much rain came down so hard and fast, and measured how blessed he is. Not being able to hear his testimony was no longer important to me, nor was my physical discomfort. I felt the joy that so often comes to my heart when I am able to view something through the eyes of a different culture.