The Nissan Pathfinder rumbles along the narrow, winding dirt road. Actually, more like a dirt path. It’s a rough ride–I’m sitting in the far back of the vehicle, bouncing up and down with every bump. Suddenly the path opens up into a clearing with a few homes nestled among trees and farmland. A blue truck with patches of rust is parked out front, propped up on the driver’s side by a makeshift jack where the tire is missing. Several men are changing the tire, their shirts stained with grease and their foreheads beaded with sweat from the heat of the African sun.
We climb out of the Pathfinder and make our way up to one of the modest homes, a green house with a tin roof. A couple chickens scuffle in front of us, clucking and pecking at the ground. A goat is tied to a small tree and is resting in its shade. It stares at us for a moment, then turns and looks the other way.
This is Rebekah’’s home. She’s been here for decades, ever since she left South Sudan and came with a group of refugees to the village of Namusaala (near Kayunga) in the southern part of Uganda. Her husband died nine years ago and is buried near the church a half mile away.
She is the mother of the Rev. Captain Titus Baraka, Coordinator of Missions and Evangelism for the Church of Uganda and one of our key mission partners. We had some free time on this morning and asked if Titus would take us to his childhood home to see his mother.
Rebekah is sitting out front in a plastic chair under the shade. She looks majestic in her colorful African dress and bandanna. When she sees us, her eyes light up and she smiles. Soon other relatives–several women and their children–swarm and greet us with such warm hospitality.
They usher us out of the intense sun over to a shaded area beneath a few large trees. They set up their plastic chairs in a circle and insist we sit in them. The women, including Rebekah, sit outside the circle on little wooden stools or the hard ground.
We try to give up our seats, urging them into the circle. But they insist that we, as their guests, have the best seats. Finally, we convince Rebekah to come sit with us next to her son. Reluctantly, she does.
She squinnies her eyes and smiles, and then tells us she is so happy we are here. She has been praying for us, she says, ever since she learned that we would be making the trip to Uganda. She speaks in a Sudanese dialect, so Titus translates for her.
She tells us that she is sick, that her days are numbered, and soon she will go to be with her Lord in heaven. “When you hear that this happens,” she says, “don’t mourn for me, but rejoice because you will know that I am with my Savior.” She nods and folds her hands on her lap.
After a long pause, Rebekah opens her mouth to speak again. Only this time a sermon rises up and pours from her lips. “I thank God that we are all one in the Lord, regardless of our skin color or what part of the world we live in.“ She preaches with such gentleness and wisdom. And also authority. She tells us that there is nothing that can divide or separate us, not race nor ethnicity, but we have been integrated into one family in Christ. Her eyes narrow and her gaze sweeps across the group, “You see, together we are the family of God. We are all God’s children.” She nods and folds her hands in her lap again. That is all. What needs to be spoken has been said. Amen and amen. Let it be.
This whole moment catches me by surprise. Tears are forming in my eyes and I am cut to the heart. Rebekah is so disarming, and yet being in her presence, listening to her speak, brings an acute awareness that the living God is in this place.
Beneath the shade trees in the heat of the village of Namusaala, Uganda, I heard the Lord speak. I heard the Lord speak with a kind of clarity and authority that I can’t fully explain. Through this dear elderly woman who has known so much suffering and hardship, who lacks resources and formal education, and yet who is so rich in wisdom and strength and a fierce preacher of gospel truth.
Ever since I returned from Uganda a little over a week ago, as my own heart has been wrenched (like so many) by the sight and sounds of children being separated from their families at the U.S./Mexican border, all I can see is Rebekah’s face. Her deep-set eyes. The wrinkles that trail down her cheeks like deep ravines. And all I can hear is her voice. Rebekah’s sermon. Words that cut through all the prattle of politicians deflecting responsibility and casting blame and continue to pierce my heart: Nothing can divide or separate us….Together we are the family of God. We are all God’s children.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, IA.