As a connectional church, the United Methodist Church is one without borders, an interlocking system of worldwide churches bound together with a common mission – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
During a recent trip to Uganda, five individuals from the South Georgia Annual Conference helped strengthen that connection between their conference and the East Africa Annual (regional) Conference.
Revs. Christy Bandy, Earl James, Doreen Smalls, Denise Walton and Ms. Era Ma Patrick – a member of South Columbus United Methodist Church – visited the country January 6-19.
The main purpose of their 14-day trip was to conduct an evangelism and outreach seminar and to visit Humble United Methodist School. While in Uganda, the group was also able to participate in the dedication of two water wells, one of which was sponsored by Macon’s Forest Hills United Methodist Church, preach at Uganda’s Nabulagala United Methodist Church and Layibi United Methodist Church, and visit a Ugandan prison.
“It was the experience of a lifetime,” said Rev. Doreen Smalls, an associate director at the Office of Connectional Ministries who serves as Conference Secretary of Global Missions. The trip was Rev. Smalls’ and Rev. James’ first to Uganda, the second for Rev. Walton, and the third time Rev. Bandy had visited the country.
“When you step on the soil, the compassion you feel for the people is overwhelming,” said Marshallville United Methodist Church pastor Rev. Bandy, who had previously visited in 2004 and 2007. “But even in the plight of poverty and in dismal conditions, they have a warmth of spirit and sincerity of commitment (in following Christ).”
Begun in 2004 to serve children from war-ravaged areas and those from homes affected by HIV/AIDS, Humble United Methodist School enrollment has grown from 116 students to almost 300. The school is supported by the United Methodist Church, but is increasing its self sufficiency by raising agriculture and livestock.
Though classes weren’t in session when they visited, the group was able to see the progress that’s been made and see the impact that the school is making in the students’ lives.
“I was really excited about the progress there,” Rev. Smalls said. “Things seem to be going very well. Enrollment is up; classes are conducive to learning. They really emphasize learning and creativity for the children.”
Rev. Walton’s first visit to Uganda was in 2007 when she attended the school’s opening and dedication. This trip, she said, really helped solidify in her mind the need for Humble School to continue and to grow and to flourish.
“At Humble School, children are treated as children,” said Rev. Walton, pastor of South Columbus UMC. “In other parts of that country – when you step outside of Humble School – there’s no protection for children. There are no resources, there’s no protection, there are no laws in place to even ensure for their health and wellbeing. (Being at) Humble School is as if you are in a whole separate world from the rest of Uganda.”
In 2008, as part of a choir tour, children from Humble Place visited M.L. Harris United Methodist Church in Columbus. Church members were moved to sponsor three children, and last year gave about $5,000 to help support the school.
“It was particularly meaningful for us to see the school and see how we’re helping,” said M.L. Harris UMC pastor Rev. James.
The second purpose of the trip was to conduct an evangelism training session for clergy and church leadership. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day for three days, more than 200 pastors and laity crowded into a small church.
Many traveled miles to attend the training, and most slept on the church’s dirt floor or outside on the grass.
“They were so hungry for the word,” Rev. Smalls said. “They were so appreciative, so open and so receptive to the training that was being offered.”
For Rev. Walton, the most impactful moment of the trip came during a visit to the local prison. Housing 63 men, four women and one child, the jail had no bedding, sanitation, or plumbing. Children under the age of seven are imprisoned with their mothers.
“It was one of the most devastating experiences that I have ever had,” she said. “It was devastating to hear the stories of why they were there.”
They learned that the jail was a debtor’s prison, housing people who had been accused of stealing. One man was imprisoned for what amounted to about $4. A woman and her baby were locked up after a neighbor accused the woman of stealing her corn crop, valued at about $75.
Rev. Walton and Rev. Bandy, the only two group members who visited the jail, were so moved by the woman’s plight that they pooled their money together and paid her fine so that she and her child could be free.
Despite the bleak circumstances, there is hope. During their visit to the prison, three prisoners accepted Christ.
“There is such a need for the gospel to be shared in those places,” Rev. Walton said. “Three people crawled to me and accepted Christ that day. That showed me the need for ministry in these places and showed me that the gospel is real and relevant today. There is still a significant need for us to support ministries that truly share the gospel with the least, the last and the lost. That was confirmed for me.”
Rev. Bandy hopes to establish a long-term relationship and partnership with the people of Uganda.
“Lives have been impacted, and that is an eternal investment,” she said. “We are a connectional church and we are tied together, not only in our United Methodist system, but by the blood of Christ. There are people sincerely being touched by Jesus Christ and by the United Methodist Church. Thank God for the connection.
“It has been such a joy for me to see ‘this child’ (the United Methodist Church in the East Africa Annual Conference) of God's growing and getting stronger. I can't wait to see what God will do through the partnership of the South Georgia Annual Conference and United Methodist Church in the EAAC.”
While Rev. Smalls saw the massive poverty and extreme need, she also experienced hospitality, warmth, and love. While they might not have much in the way of material possessions, the people of Uganda have faith, she said.
“Their faith is strong. It’s not based on what they have, but on who God is.”
Quoting John Wesley, Smalls said, “It is part of our Christian responsibility to reach out to those who are the least, the lost and the hurting. John Wesley said it best, that the world is our parish. Our parish is not limited to what goes on in the United States, but as Christians, we must spread the gospel wherever we go and to whomever God calls us to. I think that it’s a blessing that the United Methodist Church is over there and they’re not limited by borders.”
The South Georgia Conference’s Open Hands Partnership continues to work to strengthen the bonds between the South Georgia Annual Conference and the East Africa Annual Conference.
To learn more about Humble United Methodist School, visit humbleunitedmethodistschool.org. Humble School giving information - Advance Special numbers: Humble School Program/Scholarship Fund #1754; Humble School Capital Fund: #1764.
By Kara Witherow, Advocate editor