In preparation for updates shown across our locations on Compassion Sunday, Pastor Gary took a team of Hillsong pastors and leaders to Uganda in April.
As well as documenting the reality on the ground, it was also an opportunity for the team to witness first-hand the impact of our partnership with Compassion.
Through our team’s travel journal with insights from Ralph Boer, who looks after some of our Social Justice Initiatives, our location pastors, Nick Mercer (Edinburgh) and James Murphy (Birmingham), as well as Ashley John-Baptiste, BBC News Reporter and speaker, we take a look behind the scenes of this life-changing trip.
Day one – Monday
After an early start from London we’ll arrive in Entebbe International Airport by evening where the plan is to eat, settle in and prepare our hearts for the next five days.
It’s actually phenomenal to think of the relationship – now nearly 20 years old – that we have with Compassion, as Hillsong Church. A child sponsorship programme working alongside the local Church, our decision to lean in and one-at-a-time commit to monthly sponsorship, has now seen the trajectory of nearly 100,000 lives completely changed. In turn the grip of poverty has loosened and we’ve even pioneered our own ‘Since the Water Came’ initiatives helping families in Compassion programmes also access safe water.
There’s an air of excitement in the team. With so few of us having been to Africa previously we’re definitely open and expectant for the week ahead.
Day two – Tuesday
Today amidst heavy rain we flew to Mbarara in western Uganda to a fairly new project. Compassion projects are renowned for a jubilant welcome full of singing, dancing and obvious joy – and not even the rain could dampen those spirits.
Nick Mercer said: “I heard the people thanking God for the ‘blessing’. The rain was their blessing! One of the women even said thanks to us for bringing the blessing with us. That was probably the start of my mind making huge shifts throughout the week. I was surprised by such joy.”
As the day unfolded and the welcome continued we met local pastors, project staff, and had the amazing opportunity to spend time with some sponsored children and their mums, followed by a tour of classrooms and the local church. A stand-out moment was hearing an account from a young Muslim mum whose daughter had been given heart surgery through the support of Compassion in partnership with the church. The words of Isaiah 58:9 came to mind: “if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed – then your light will rise in the darkness.”
It was so much to take in and to process.
“I had been before to Nigeria and Zimbabwe but hadn’t been into such rural and remote villages before. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I was blown away by the joy of the people and the thankfulness towards Hillsong for our contributions,” added Birmingham’s location pastor, James Murphy.
Amidst obvious need – hope. It’s a land of contrasts in every way.
Day three – Wednesday
Today we visited Bujaga, a long-standing project where we had the opportunity, in small groups, to visit more of the children and their families in their homes. Having seen images in church of the types of houses families in poverty may live in, we felt like we knew what we would see – but it’s a very different experience when boots hit the ground. The heat of the sun beating down onto tin roofs, the smell of fire and food cooking in the dust outside, and the cramped conditions of much of the houses will forever be ingrained in our minds.
Mushabe Makaline, the mother of a child being sponsored, spoke to us freely about a recent tragedy where her house was destroyed.
She said: “I questioned God and asked Him why so many bad things keep happening to me. I didn’t know if I would make it, in my sorrow having lost my house.”
But when Compassion stepped in and helped rebuild the family’s home her hope was restored. “I knew that God had plans for this child,” she added. Some recent graduates of Compassion were also interviewed. One sentence stopped Ashley John-Baptiste, in his tracks.
“It was a simple question of ‘what tangible difference did being part of Compassion make to your life?’ I was expecting something about her dreams for the future or her health but instead she said, ‘I’m now able to take God at His word… I can now tithe.’ As someone who grew up in foster care myself, even though I’m flourishing now, I think I’ve always considered myself disadvantaged, in UK terms. This was like, ‘wow, Ash, you are so resourced… you have such an advantage. What are you doing with it?”
“It was also great to be able to reconnect with Sadrack today,” added Ralph Boer. “Having sponsored him since he was a young child I was so looking forward to seeing him again. So much has happened in his young life.
We talked about the passing of his dad, who had been a pastor. I felt truly honoured that he would speak to me about him, even showing me a picture of him that he carried in his wallet. It was incredibly touching. But again full of stark contrasts. He explained that he occasionally takes cattle across the border to The Congo to make some extra money. As we left he commented that I always meet him at other places, never near his hometown, and that he hopes one day to show me around his own house. It really is a relationship we have, not just a financial transaction of some sort.”
Day four – Thursday
We visited Mukora, one of our projects, where a few years back we installed a borehole directly as a result of donations from our church to the ‘Since The Water Came’ initiative. Today will be hard to forget. Our team were given the opportunity to experience for themselves what it’s like to visit the borehole, fill 20L yellow jerry cans then carry them the kilometre distance back. I think you could see how tough we found it. Someone even joked that if we couldn’t manage, one of the women would help us!
The experience also helped us understand the true impact safe water can have. Aside from waterborne illnesses being minimised, one local mum told us that if the borehole had come a year earlier her daughter likely wouldn’t have been raped while carrying water, for miles, on her own.
Something we take for granted can be life changing, and life-saving for others.
As the day drew to a close we spoke with a former sponsor child now training to be a human rights lawyer. From poverty, on so many fronts, to becoming the one to rescue and advocate for others like himself; and all of it is possible because one person accepted the call to action to partner with Compassion, and in turn has impacted the world one person at a time.
Day five – Friday
Today we travelled near the Kenyan border to Korobudi visiting a new project, which poignantly, is lacking a clean water source. The welcoming ceremony was electric and the joy palpable. We were told they felt honoured to host us but the privilege and joy was ours too! Singing, dancing, vibrant colours, the beat of an African drum will be the soundtrack to our memories from this trip.
The difference a water supply – or lack of it – makes to a community became real today.
“I was ushered to come look at something and a few minutes later we arrived at this muddy hole full of dirty water that some cattle were drinking from, “ Ashley explained. “I looked as if to say, ‘cool… it’s a swamp…’ just as a cow waded in and excreted in the water. A woman then filled her jerry can. And then children came to wash their plates for lunch. Yesterday I was carrying water, and frankly struggling to do so, but in a heartbeat I would do that a hundred times every single day if it meant these kids won’t have to drink from a swamp full of sewage.”
Today also provided an opportunity for many of the team to expand their Compassion families by sponsoring additional children; for others it was the first time sponsoring a Ugandan child.
James said: “Today really marked me. I met Ruth, and her mum Hope, and was hugely impacted as they shared their story. Ruth’s dad abandoned the family leaving Hope to work doing chores so she can build a house for the children. To fully comprehend what life can be like in Uganda for so many people, was a huge wake up call.”
Day six – Saturday
It’s the final morning and everyone is trying to gather their thoughts.
Nick said: “The thing that stood out for me, was that in my heart and mind I was settled to the fact the world is unfair and that people exist in extreme poverty. I felt sure I was doing things to narrow that gap, but that sat alongside my personal context of leaving for the trip frustrated because I can’t buy a house yet. I had to have a word with myself. It was sobering. Like, ‘what have I got to feel bad about?’
“As a dad I also really felt for the people who simply can’t do what I’m sure they must feel like they should be doing, because poverty has robbed them of that opportunity. And yet… still joy.”
James was also resolute to the difference he – and our church – can personally make, moving forward. “I was particularly shocked at how far a small amount of Western World currency can go in radically impacting a family’s situation. We dropped off two months of food supplies to one family for about $4 USD. This really hit home how much £25 a month of sponsorship can accomplish for a child. More than ever I believe we have a mandate and responsibility to redress the imbalance in Uganda (and other developing countries).”
As we left for Entebbe and the flight home, Wendy Beech Ward, Creative Relations Director for Compassion International reflected on a conversation about media criticism of white westerners intervening in ‘African problems’, with Lenny Mugisha, the National Leader for Compassion Uganda, and Pastor Gary.
“Lenny just looked at him and said, ‘the truth… is that we just can’t do this on our own. We can take the lead on the ground, we have local expertise, but without people across the world partnering with Compassion the outcomes for these children would be very different. Make no mistake we need your support.”
Ashley also gave expression to this.
“The broader political implications are there in your mind; the politics and climate of the country, international development… but when you see and meet your sponsor children all of that pales into insignificance. A child doesn’t discriminate – they accept love. Who am I to contaminate this beautiful moment, this opportunity? I have absolute confidence that giving through Compassion means you are giving well. If you are absolutely motivated by love it’s not about the skin colour of the person you want to love, or the skin you’re in, it’s about making a difference… eradicating poverty, together.”
On Sunday, 30 June 2019, we focused on our partnership with Compassion across our UK locations.
For more information on Compassion, speak to one of our host teams in the foyer in your location, or visit hillsong.co.uk/compassion to sponsor a child or donate to ‘Since The Water Came”.