From Duke to Uganda

“How long do I have to think about it?”

“I need to know by tomorrow.”

I was in seminary at Duke Divinity School. I had inquired about a field education placement in rural Uganda. Most of the Divinity School’s placements were to rural churches throughout North Carolina and were funded by one of those big endowments. I had already been assigned to a placement on Lake Norman where I could lead worship from a dock in flip-flops with boats anchoring for worship. But a fellow student who had committed to one of the Duke’s intentional placements decided to back out. I heard about it and immediately called about the placement.

I was a place in my life where I wanted adventure. I didn’t have a girlfriend to miss. I had grown up in small town in Georgia and felt I already understood the life of two lane roads, pastures and the local lake. I called up the director of the program.

“Well, why are you interested?” Connie asked.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Africa.”

“Well, Africa is not just one place. This is Uganda in Africa.”

“Yes, that’s what I mean. I have heard Uganda is an amazing country.”

“You’ll be in a Catholic setting working with a priest. How does that set with you as a Methodist?”

“Well, I used to go to the Baptist youth groups on Wednesday nights when I was a kid. I’m pretty ecumenical.”

She thought it over, “Well, we need someone to go and you’re the only candidate we have.”

I wasn’t exactly inspired by those last comments, but I accepted them to be sign of God’s handiwork. Everyone else around the Divinity School seemed to be happy with their summer placements and if that meant no one to compete with me for this placement, then maybe it was providential. With my mediocre grades, maybe the good Lord knew that this was how I could find my way to Africa. Many of my fellow students were steeped in Hebrew and Greek, had read St. Augustine’s Confessions before they had ever stepped onto the Duke quad with the towering chapel shadowing the school. Not me. I had lots of red ink on my seminary papers. Maybe that’s the difference between competition and calling, evolution and providence. People like me require God to work a little extra, but I was happy to work in return.

After telling me I had to let her know my decision by tomorrow, I called my parents. Even though I was 24 years old at the time, I felt an obligation to get their permission. I called them on their land line which meant both could be on the phone together. (It feels strange to feel the need to explain this detail). After minutes of niceties, I finally said, “I’d like to go to Uganda this summer.”

“Isn’t that in Africa?”

“Africa in not just one place,” I said. “This is Uganda and it’s in Africa.”

“No. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Well, I do and I need to let them know by tomorrow.”

That night, my father visited the State Departments website to learn about Uganda. My dad was a prison warden and was never overly emotive about things.

The next morning I spoke with him, “Well, buddy, I just got some concerns. The State Department says they’ve had lots of warfare in the northern section over the years.”

“I saw that too, but it’s safe,” I said.

“How do you know?”

“The priests in Uganda. His brother is a professor at Duke. And I spoke with him. He said it’s fine and safe. They exaggerate things on those sites. And if you’re going to tell me about malaria, it’s true. It’s there. But we have medicine to take.”

“Well, Will, I’m not crazy about you going. But it sounds like you’ve made up your mind.”

“I have. I know this is what I’m supposed to do.”

“Well, you’ve made my life hard. I’m going to have to keep your mother calm all summer long.”

“I’ll write you” I said.

“Well, I have already researched it. We’re going to get you a satellite phone to check in. It’s going to cost a fortune, but it’s worth our sanity.”

“Sounds like a deal.”

And so I hung up the phone and ran to tell Connie my decision. Yes, it was my decision. There was wood on the fire in my soul. I was going to Africa. I stood on the steps for a moment of the Duke quad with the stone stacked buildings all around, the slick leaves of the magnolia tree reflecting the sun and the deliberate steps of students heading to class. I was going to Africa, wild and free. And I had could not imagine what would await. I could not yet imagine the beautiful and the terrible, the laughter and the pain, the learning of colonial tendencies and the privilege that would make going to Africa possible for me to visit and return.

“Well, Connie, sign me up.”

“I had already worked on your paperwork. It’s obvious that God is in this.”

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