Friday, August 6, 2010

I Was in Prison and You Came...

Josefine groped in the darkness, feeling beneath the cot for her treasure bag. Once retrieved, her fingers easily found the small lock of hair inside, tied in a banana fiber knot. This routine was repeated nightly, first breathing in the fading scent of her only child, then hugging the remembrance to her chest as she began to pray.

“God, my Father, my Rock and strength, I am not worthy to be your child. Nevertheless, you have made me your daughter, because of your Son; because of your grace. So I beg you tonight, hold Fatima in your mighty arms. Whisper your lovingkindness in her ear. Protect her from harm, and if it be your will, let me see her one day soon. I know it is possible, for you are a God of miracles. May I find favor tomorrow in the eyes of the wazungu**. Help them see beyond my yellow prison dress. Let them hear the cries of my heart. I love you, my Lord and my God.” Josefine was comforted by the Holy Spirit’s presence as she revisited the past fifteen hours.

It had been a grueling day in the prison yard, for tomorrow the wazungu would be here. The yard had never looked tidier. The women had scrubbed and mended their yellow dresses, trimmed the bushes surrounding the fence, and swept the entire earthen grounds. They were gathered together and coached on what to say and what not to say. They were granted special privileges for the day –those who had food could cook it in the shiny solar oven that had been wheeled into the commons. Those who made crafts could sell them to the visitors, retaining a small portion of the profit for themselves.

Josefine had never talked to a mzungu*, but she knew of their wealth and their ability to accomplish the impossible. Tomorrow’s visitors had been invited by Pastor Barnabas, who held a Bible study at the prison on Tuesday evenings, so she was certain that they were people of great faith. This had fueled her hope.

Six years had elapsed since the day Josefine entered the gates of Kabula Prison. She was in her eighth month of pregnancy. Ivan, who had been on assignment with the NRA, had returned from Kampala that morning. Angry at finding her pregnant, and even angrier that she refused his sexual advances, he called the police and had her arrested on charges of adultery. Never mind that he had fathered the child. He refused to believe it was true.

Of course the word of a military hero was easily accepted over the word of his impoverished wife. Josephine was badly battered by Ivan before being turned over to the authorities –a fact that was not only overlooked, but expected in such a case. And it wasn’t only the police who looked the other way. Her family and friends turned on her as well, for now that she was in custody guilt was presumed. There had been no hearing or court appearance, and a sentence could not be handed down until the case was tried. Six years later Josephine was still waiting for her case to be heard.

Fatima was born three days after the beating and incarceration -tiny, but strong. No nurse or doctor attended the birth. Josephine smiled as she recalled Diana’s kindness that night. She had kept Josephine calm and cut Fatima’s cord.

Diana was a fellow prisoner and a true friend, although she and Josephine spent little time together. Diana never left the side of her crippled son. Some of the women envied her being allowed to keep Henry, now seven years old. He was unable to walk or speak and demanded Diana’s constant attention. She grew thinner each year, feeding Henry more of the single portion of gruel she received each day than what she ate herself. And now AIDS threatened her very life and made her an outcast, even among fellow prisoners.
Josephine had promised Diana she would look after Henry when Diana was no longer able, but nobody knew what would become of the boy then, and nobody dared to ask or even imagine.

Josephine had only been allowed to keep Fatima for eighteen months. She had seen other children set outside the gate on the fateful day of their eighteen month birthday, and she had cried and prayed, thinking of how soon that day would come for her.

Pastor Barnabas had begun his prison ministry when Fatima was fifteen months old and Josephine began attending his weekly Bible studies. They were such a blessing, and through them she had learned the good news about Jesus -a just, but merciful God who had paid the ultimate price to ransom her from her sin.

Fatima was seventeen months old when Pastor Barnabas approached Josephine with an offer. He knew a kind woman, a believer in Jesus, who would see to Fatima’s care: feeding her, clothing her, and providing her with shelter. When she was old enough she could attend school. Josephine remembered asking how she would ever be able to repay such kindness. “No need,” she was told, “this is all in the name of Jesus Christ. Count it another gift from His hand.” Josephine’s heart had leapt within her.

Now Fatima was going to school. She was learning to write and draw, and Pastor Barnabas often carried notes back and forth between mother and daughter. Although Josephine couldn’t help but wish for more, it was no small blessing. She had enrolled in classes herself, and was now preparing for her high school exams. At least she hadn’t wasted her time in Kabula Prison, and maybe it would help when –if- she ever went before the judge. It would surely help her get a job if she ever got out. Maybe she and Fatima could build a new life together one day.

Josephine heard roosters crowing and knew it was time to rise. Slivers of daylight had just begun to spread across the eastern sky. She breathed a prayer of thanksgiving and praise for the morning and began her daily routine.

It was nearly ten o’clock when Pastor Barnabas arrived with the wazungu. They weren’t dressed as smart as Josephine expected, but their smiles were warm. Josephine and some of the others who spoke good English gave welcome speeches and presented their needs, all according to the script they had been given. Their list of needs was long, and included many things that Josephine knew the prisoners would never see, even if the wazungu could miraculously provide them.

“We have heard your requests, and we will prayerfully consider them,” said Gabe, one of the men in the group, as he stood to address the women. “We see that the needs here are great, and it would make us very happy to give you all the things that would make life easier and more comfortable while you are here. “ The women applauded, and Gabe continued. “We can’t give you all the things you have asked for, but we give you what we have: our love that comes from Jesus Christ; our friendship; our support of Pastor Barnabas’ ministry; and our continued prayers for each of you.” He spoke a while longer, and Josephine could hardly contain herself when he asked if the group could mingle with the prisoners, speaking to them and praying with them individually. It was the opportunity Josephine was waiting for.

Through tears Josephine told a Mzungu named Molly her entire story. Molly cried, too, especially when she learned of Fatima. The two prayed together and Molly wrote down Psalm 139 on the first page of the New Testament she gave her. Josephine wrote down her name and Pastor Barnabas’ address so Molly could contact her.

Later, the entire group held hands while they took turns singing songs of worship –first the wazungu, then the prisoners. Josephine let her tears flow freely and Molly squeezed her hand as the women sang, “Jesus never fails. Jesus never fails. The men of this world will let you down, but Jesus never fails.”

The morning ended much too soon for Josephine, but it had been a day of beautiful blessings and newfound brothers and sisters. She had never imagined she would feel that way about the wazungu.

Little did Josephine know that at the very moment she was thinking those thoughts, Molly’s mind was making as many twists and turns as the van in which she was now a passenger. Molly had been humbled by her prison visit and deeply touched by Josephine’s story. She knew that she couldn’t do anything miraculous such as freeing Josephine and reuniting her with Fatima, but she did know the God of miracles. She could pray to Him on their behalf and see what He would do, and she was pretty sure that in the meantime she could arrange some happy surprises.

*mzungu: a person of European descent, or a white skinned person

**wazungu: plural for mzungu

Although this story is written as fiction, I believe that it accurately portrays many realities of life for Ugandan women and children, especially concerning those who find themselves in prison. While in Uganda we had the opportunity to visit such a prison, to speak with some of the prisoners, and to learn about life and education as it is experienced there. We also visited a school that ministers to many children of prisoners. I am very grateful to the Ugandan authorities for allowing us those opportunities, and I wouldn’t want to jeopardize the ongoing ministry there in any way. For that reason, I thought it was best to write this fictional account without identifying the prison or any of the actual prisoners we met. We were not allowed to take cameras into the prison, so I only have the one photo taken from a distance.

The following passage of Scripture is one that seemed to ring in my ears throughout our entire trip, and especially on the day of our prison visit.

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
Matthew 25:31-40 (NIV)

We truly minister to “the least of these” in Uganda, for widows and orphans, (in fact, women and children in general) have little power or position as a general rule. Even within families spousal and child beatings are routine and widely tolerated. One of the major themes our men taught at their pastors' conference was "Loving Your Wife as Christ Loves the Church." It is a timely and much needed message.

One night as I sat on the balcony of my hotel room I heard horrible cries and screams of a child –screams that continued for several minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. I could hardly stand to think of what the child was enduring.

God has given many Ugandan believers a heart for orphans, prisoners, and widows, and we had the privilege of meeting and working with several of them.

Pastor Saphan arranged our prison visit, and we were able to leave him a supply of many personal items for the women prisoners and their children.

Agnes accepts many prisoner’s children into her private Christian school and provides for their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs while their parents are away.

Pastor Ruth of Smile Africa is frequently contacted by the police and asked to take custody of children who have been badly abused. One such child was rescued from his burning hut by a neighbor. His father had set the fire, because it was taking too long for the child to die from starvation.

Another child was rescued after being badly burned by one parent, and sliced with a machete by another. As you might expect, this child is so traumatized, he rarely speaks.

After Heart of God International provided housing for a young girl at Smile Africa who had begged and pleaded for help after repeated beatings, her four year old brother was found alongside a remote road by a Smile Africa employee who “happened” to be passing by (Coincidence? I think not!). The child was naked and dehydrated. He had been left there two days earlier by his aunt, who said that she could no longer feed him, since his sister would no longer be stealing food for the family.

An infant was found in the rubbish of the slums –tossed there by the mother/child who had given birth to her. She is now living with Pastor Ruth and her husband.

Ugandan witch doctors recommend burying body parts of children (preferably the head) under new businesses to bring good fortune and success. This most recent version of child sacrifice goes largely unnoticed, for the targets are often “throwaway children,” the kind that Smile Africa gathers from the slums to feed, clothe, and educate. One boy was rescued from the streets with a large wound on his head from a failed attempt to behead him.

We are partnering with the Saphan’s prison ministry, with Smile Africa, and with several Ugandan Christian schools. One of the most critical needs that I sensed on our recent trip, however, is the need for secure housing to care for and protect “the least of these” that God keeps sending to Smile Africa.

Although I am the host of Fiction Friday today, this isn’t my typical Fiction Friday offering, and only the first part of it can be classified as fiction at all, but it is what is most on my heart right now, and in keeping with what I have been doing on my blog since I returned from Uganda in July. I hope you don't mind.

I also hope that you will follow all of the links below and read the fine offerings of the other participators this week. You are welcome to participate, too, by posting your original fiction piece on your blog and using MckLinky, below.