“It’s a boy.” That’s what you say when the baby boy arrives, right? So, if I say “It’s a boy” regarding Francis, that’s ok, right? Or maybe it says a little something about me. Maybe I just see this precious little boy with withered legs crawling up to me on two hands and two calloused knees as a thing, thereby denying him, at least in my wretched heart, of the dignity all humans deserve as image bearers of our Most High God.
The vile thought rolls around in my mind. I was tired when I said it. I am getting older so I can slip up every now and then. But, maybe I am a wretch. I guess if Paul can be one, I can too. And then I laugh a little cynical laugh, and a tear squirts out the side of my eye, and I know without a doubt, I am a wretch. I care, but I don’t care enough. And I fear (know) that I never will.
So, day 2 of our beds distribution in Northern Uganda is about to start. We have driven up to our site, and the villagers have greeted us with a warm singing ritual. We walk through a joyful celebration tunnel to sit in our “places of honor”. We scan the throng of little children and elderly caregivers and light smiles of joy (or maybe self-satisfaction?) brighten our countenances. I’ve been here before. This is my third year in a row, and my 10th beds distribution in total. I know the drill. Sometimes, pretty little girls will walk through our stations like a reception line. This is one of those times. They hold out their tender little hands and we grip them as they curtsy. They are so sweet, so polite, and so pretty. Never mind that the little dresses are torn, tattered, and soiled; we want to snatch them up. They symbolize the best in Ugandan culture; a genteel civility that is in stark juxtaposition to the many atrocities this land has endured in the past 50 years. Then Francis shows up to my right. She(?) is the last. What a beaming smile. It’s the first thing I notice. Her smile takes up two-thirds of her slightly irregular face. And how sweet that she is greeting us on bended knees. Then, I realize those knees are calloused, and she is crawling. My eye traces down her spindly lower legs to reveal the dead weight of her flopping feet. She greets Don first, then Tim, then me. She looks to greet Madelene to my right but a table in front of us presents a problem. I nudge Madelene, who is greeting another, and Francis greets Madelene with difficulty. Francis then crawls around the table to greet the rest of our party. Her smile is literally beaming across her face.
Once she completes her greetings, she takes her place with her caregiver (grandmother?) on the red clay directly opposite of me. We make eye contact. I gesture, and she crawls back to me. I lift her up into my lap and she beams brighter. I smile and look out upon the audience. I sense that many of the eyes are upon us. I hope that my acceptance of Francis increases her stock in the village social pecking order. I reasonably suspect it is hard for her to make friends. The village elders welcome us, and then a representative of Comboni Samaritan, a valuable in-country partner, says a few words. Somewhere during the process I learn that Francis’s name is Francis and “she” is a boy. Ok. Got it. He has a little tie on so that will be my reminder. Next, we Sweet Sleep people from America make our greetings and presentations. I need to put Francis down, so he crawls back to his caregiver.
At the end of our presentations, we start to play with the children. I grab the silly string and nail a few kids who giggle and squirm to get away. Playtime continues. I play my favorite, “duck, duck, goose”, then I get a roll of Christian stickers to place on foreheads. (For whatever reason, these stickers are a much-coveted commodity.) I run out of stickers, so I wander back over to the tree and see Francis still sitting with his mom. It’s hard to play when you walk on your knees. I make a nod to him and head to the boys playing soccer. Playtime ends and we gather together to distribute the beds. 225 beds.
As I escorted my allotment of bed recipients to their resting places after receiving their beds, mosquito nets, Bibles, and soda pop, I make a couple of detours to see Francis. He has his bed and is resting with others as we complete the distribution. The program ends and people start to disperse. It’s been a great day. 225 more vulnerable children will have a safer and more comfortable sleeping experience. Readable or not, they will also have their first Bible in their native tongue.
Francis and his caregiver lag behind. I get to see him one more time. Before I leave my last visit with him, I get a couple of pics of him and his caregiver. She lurches forward and slings Francis on her back, which she now maintains at an 80 degree angle from her waist. (Ugandan women are strong and resilient.) She wraps him in a sarong. A second woman approaches our small group. She asks if we can buy Francis a wheelchair. I want to buy one right away, but I also understand the issues that can be created. Sweet Sleep is a beds ministry. Every child we minister to has additional needs. Some needs are met by others, and some go unmet. The need far outstrips the supply. I promise her to ask someone who will know. As expected, my question to Madelene is met with caution. They will consider it. It must be discussed. Where do we draw the line?
Fast-forward to the evening. We have eaten, and a debriefing takes place. We discuss Francis. In my mind he is a little girl. I say she then I catch myself. My bad, “It’s a boy.”
“It’s a boy?” “He’s a boy.” Big difference. Fast-forward a bit more and I wake from fitful sleep thinking, “it’s a boy”, offers a glimpse into my soul. How I see others, especially when they are “not as useful.” Man, I hate myself sometimes. I do care for him. I love him. I was so happy he was willing to sit in my lap. He is so sweet. He is inherently valuable to God and to society, yet I say, “It’s a boy.”
So, I need to wrap up my little pity party. “It’s a boy” is my problem right now. But I know there are other “it’s” out there:
“It’s not my problem.”
“It’s too far away.”
“It’s not going to make a difference.”
“It’s not my calling.”
“It’s not this year.”
“It’s not fitting into my schedule.”
Which “it’s” are yours?
And keep in mind; it’s not about us. I firmly believe that poverty, abandonment, disease, famine, sex trafficking, etc., are not problems that God expects us to solve this side of Glory, but that did not stop our Savior from commanding us to engage the fight, to be obedient, and to minister to the least of these. From Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, to the ends of the earth, Christ has asked us to go into all the nations, making disciples and being the Body of Christ for a broken world. I pray that I will do a better job of it, and I hope you will too. Sweet Sleep returns to Uganda in September. I hope you will consider going. And please forgive me if my tone comes off as condemning. I thank God every day that there is “No condemnation in Christ Jesus.” May God bless you.