Uganda Beyond Emotion
Written by: John O'Keefe
Since 2009 I have been to Uganda four times, most recently last month. Before that I made four trips to the Dominican Republic in a period of three years. So it has been seven years since my first exposure to the realities of the global poor.
On my first trip, I distinctly remember walking into an orphanage in the Dominican Republic with a friend of mine who had been living there. He was all business and oriented toward the task that had brought us there. He walked right past the cribs that smelled of urine and in which neglected and disabled children hovered in limboesque suspension somewhere between life and death. I, on the other hand, came to a full stop and was nearly overwhelmed.
Similarly, after visiting a refugee camp on my first trip to Uganda I was rendered nearly catatonic. I recovered only after sitting in the dark and listening to U2 very loudly for what must have been several hours.
The shocks of these early exposures were what I needed for my theoretical knowledge about global poverty and the option for the poor to become a more conscious part of my own efforts to live an authentic Christian life.
This last trip, however, I was more like my friend. When I disembarked at Entebbe, rather than entering into shocking difference, I felt happy to be back among friends in a place that I very much enjoy. The begging children, the urban slums, and the mud huts with grass roofs were all still there, but now they had become familiar. They had lost their power to shock.
At the same time, this trip I saw Uganda more clearly, and the people I know there grew in complexity. Rather than functioning as symbols of the debilitating conditions of the poor in the developing world, they emerged as individuals with complex motivations, personal histories, and profound hopes and dreams.
I’m glad the emotional edge is off for me. One of the dangers of the spiritual life is that we can confuse feeling with transformation. Powerful emotional experiences often precede powerful conversions, but for the conversion to take root, we need to move from emotion to commitment and active engagement.
I am grateful for the emotive encounters that shocked me into deeper awareness of global realities. Awareness is good, but awareness is not action. The poor don’t exist to provide me with powerful emotional responses that can tempt me into thinking that by feeling deeply I have somehow made the world better. The poor exist as children of God who, now, having met them, I need to figure out how to serve in some concrete way.
One of the things I learned from the Spiritual Exercises is that is it really not about me. Last month Uganda reminded me of this. I’m glad about that.