Closure: When the timing is right

grace2I remember being curled up one night in my bed in Uganda in 2014, under the protection of my mosquito net, a fan trying its best to keep me cool as it oscillated around my room. I was crying, which wasn’t unusual considering some of the things I had been through during my year as a high school English teacher at an international school in Kampala.

I had but a few months left to go, and I was wrestling with whether or not I should return for a second year. There were so many reasons to leave: I’d been spitting up blood for ten months, the Uganda dust was doing a real number on my sinuses, my administration was shady, I was thousands of miles away from friends and family, hardly any of my friends were coming back, and I’d been fighting a deep depression. But there was one reason to stay: my students.

The battle was fierce, and I was at a loss. So I cried out to God, “You have to tell me! I can’t make this decision on my own!”

readinggroupsThe next day at school it was like God hand-delivered my answer on a silver platter. It was time to go. I simply could not put in another year. This certain situation was handled so poorly that it even gave someone else the final push to not return.

I left Uganda an emotional mess. But there was no time to think about it. I came back to the US, where I was living with my parents because I’d sold nearly everything before leaving for Uganda a year prior. I was unemployed. I was trying to fit back in to a society and friend groups that all seemed so different now. Things were happening quickly, and I had little time to process my year overseas.

All I knew was that I was hurt, and the taste in my mouth for Uganda was a really bitter one.

Eventually, I began to see things more clearly. Through prayer and reflection, I began to see the part I played in some of my hurts from Uganda. And while that helped to ease a bit of my resentment, it didn’t completely erase it.

kidsThat part came in the past few weeks. My dad and I went on a mission trip to Uganda. My prayer was that God would give me the closure I needed. I didn’t know what He’d do, but I knew He could and He WOULD do it.

Over two weeks, I rediscovered Uganda and why I wanted to serve there in the first place. I fell in love with a country that deserves endless love. I was reminded of the Ugandan people, who are so loving and welcoming. I even met up with a former student who used to be an atheist. He’s accepted Christ and is now a light for God. He thanked me for the part I played in his dedication to the Lord, even though it was years before he accepted Christ.

It had been five years since I arrived in Uganda for an emotional and life-changing year. God knew that a return any sooner than this wouldn’t have been beneficial. I needed to grow, forgive other people, and forgive myself.

We tend to want closure immediately and on our terms. But God has His reasons for not giving it to us immediately. Like all things, God’s timing is best. The day I left Kampala in 2014 in complete shambles, He knew I’d be back in four years. He knew that’s when He’d help me heal my wounds.

If there’s an area of your life that you’re waiting for some closure on, don’t give up hope. Keep praying, and trust that God will give you the closure you need at just the right time. 

When I look back at Uganda now, I smile. I see the good. God took a hurtful and tough area of my life and made it special again.

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.
The old has gone, the new is here.”
2 Corinthians 5:17

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A letter to my dad before we go to Africa

Dear Dad,

In two days we will embark on our greatest adventure yet- traveling overseas to Uganda, where I spent a year of my life just five years ago. I know my passion for Africa has somewhat perplexed you over the years, but it has never stopped you from supporting me. That means the world to me.

IMG-9963 (1)I wonder if you remember that we took our very first mission trip together. You, mom, and I went with our church to Gamerco, New Mexico for a week the summer before my 8th grade year. We did Vacation Bible School for the many beautiful children at the Gamerco Church of God. As you know, that trip impacted me so much so that later in life I went on mission trips to Niger, Nicaragua, Zambia, Thailand, and of course, the year I spent in Uganda.

You have traveled many places: a trip to Alaska, and all around Europe and the Caribbean multiple times. But this trip is very different. It will be unlike anything you have ever experienced.

I know you’ve seen some beautiful things around the world. This will be quite a different beauty. There’s a reason they call Uganda the “Pearl of Africa.” Yes, we’ll arrive in Kampala at night, and you’ll wake up to a bustling city and wonder what I’m talking about. But once we get out of the city, you’ll see what I mean. There is so much natural beauty in Uganda.

When we get to the village where we will be serving, you’re going to want to “fix” things. Remember that you’re in a culture vastly different from your own. Trust the people who serve there every single day. They know best how to serve the people.

fathersday2018Finally, I hope you will be open-minded. The fact that you’re even going on this trip shows your willingness to experience another culture. You know that the world is so much bigger than just Fort Wayne, Indiana, and even the United States.

Thank you for doing this, Dad. God continues to bless our family in wonderful ways. It is so exciting to share His love in Uganda, and you won’t ever forget this adventure. I love you, Dad!

Your daughter,
Natalie

Sometimes, God sends you away from Africa

IMG_4864As I sit here in Indiana looking at photos on Instagram of the smiling children and missionaries who live in the village I’ll visit in Uganda in just a week, my heart hurts.

My heart hurts because I thought that would be me.

When I moved to Uganda in 2013, that was supposed to be it- be my calling. God was calling me to Uganda to be a missionary! I would teach at Heritage International School for a few years, and then God would move me to a village where I’d be a full-time missionary. The issue was, He didn’t.

Some people fear God will send them to Africa. (There’s even a book about it.) But for me, my fear was that He’d send me back home to the United States. And He did.

I don’t regret leaving after only one year. I know, for various reasons, that I couldn’t return for the second year I committed to. Still, I see other women my age serving the Lord in Uganda and other places in Africa and I wonder, “Why couldn’t that have been me?”

Even more so, I see these women living the best life ever (or so it appears) in Uganda, and I wonder why my experience wasn’t the same. Why, for me, wasn’t Uganda some ultra spiritual journey of helping others and following God? Why was my year in Uganda plagued with depression, anxiety, self-doubt, and lots and lots of tears?

1482753_10151871483561573_2088816754_nI look back at my photos from that year in Uganda. You’d never know I was in so much pain. You’d never know the battles I was fighting, both internally and externally. You’d never know that at one point I felt so worthless that I didn’t see a reason to live any longer.

Oddly enough, as much as I don’t regret coming back to the US after one year, I also don’t regret going over in the first place. And this journey I’m about to make back over, I am praying hard that it gives me some closure to the emotional and gripping time I spent there.

I’ve been uneasy for about a month now. My stomach is in knots. My heart is heavy. What if I go there and once again want to live there? What if I realize that I screwed up, and I should have stayed? My anxiety is through the roof.

“I needed to do this to see that it’s NOT what I’m meant to do for a lifetime. Had I not come to Uganda, I’d always wonder, “What if?””

 

I’ve been going back through Facebook private messages from when I was living in Uganda, as I work on my memoir. The statement above is what I must rely on as I make my trip back. “…it’s NOT what I’m meant to do for a lifetime.”

10334337_10202468687703087_3077441966965500961_nSometimes, God sends you to Africa. And sometimes, He sends you away from Africa.

He sent me away.

I trust His plan is what’s best. So as I return to the Pearl of Africa for two weeks, I will embrace everything I love about it- the welcoming people, the beautiful hills and trees, the melodious sounds of the many birds, the incredible food, and even that scorching equator sun.

I am thankful that God sent me to Uganda. I’m also grateful He sent me back home. But a part of my heart will always be in Africa, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store in the coming weeks.

When God said, “Go to Uganda…”

Note: I am very slowly writing a memoir about the year of my life that I spent in Uganda. I decided to share the first chapter to see what people think, especially since today marks the three-year anniversary of when I left for Uganda. I don’t know if the flashbacks are confusing or not, so I’d love any input you have on the first chapter of my memoir. Please be honest! Any and all feedback is welcome, but also keep in mind that this is a very, very rough draft. Thank you!

Chapter 1

Just me and God now. No parents, no siblings, no friends, no mentors. Just me and God and 18 hours on a plane.

“Headset?” the flight attendant asked me as she passed by my seat.

“No thank you, I have my own,” I replied.

I was in comfortable clothes- sweatpants, a blue t-shirt, and a hoodie. I wore no makeup. Would have been pointless to wear makeup considering all the tears I’d shed saying goodbye to mom and dad at the airport. I wouldn’t be seeing them for almost a year. I was moving to Uganda.

1098384_10151513703446573_1845504420_nWould I have Instagram in Uganda? I wasn’t sure. So I figured I’d take one final selfie before flying over the Atlantic. I held out my phone and snapped the picture. I had no makeup on, but there was definitely a glow to my smile. My blue eyes looked bright and my hair, recently colored “blah-brown,” hung in straight strands down to the tops of my shoulders. My face was rounder than I wanted. In the weeks leading up to my move, everyone I knew took me out to eat. I had probably gained a good 10 pounds before I left the US. I figured it didn’t matter. After all, I was going to Africa. What’s there to eat in Africa?

Before I knew it we were high in the sky and my home country disappeared beneath the clouds. I tried to watch a movie but drifted off to sleep just a few minutes in.

I woke up expecting to have only slept for an hour or so, but discovered we were nearly in Europe. I was getting closer and closer to Africa- closer and closer to living the life God had prepared for me.

————————————–

March 2013

I started bawling. Sobbing. Crying my eyes out. Two different, totally unrelated people from different states had sent me emails with the same basic message – “God wants you to serve overseas.” I had known this for years, but never had it in me to leave friends and family and completely follow God. But God was making it crystal clear in every way possible. He didn’t want me to take a two-week long mission trip to Niger. Already did that. He didn’t want me to go to Nicaragua with my church for a week. Already did that. He didn’t even just want me to go to Zambia for 10 days that coming June, which I ended up doing. He wanted more of me.

My office door was open, so I closed it and then had a conversation with my maker.

Dear God, I get it now. I get what you want me to do, but I don’t know where to start. I don’t know how to begin this journey. Who do I contact? Will they accept me? I have credit card debt, student loans to pay off, and a fulltime job! Can I even afford to do this? What is going on God? I may not understand it all, but I will say this- I will go. I’m ready, God. Wherever you want me to go, whatever you want me to do, I’ll go and I’ll do it. Just show me how to get started…

The next day one of my Christian mentors told me about a website that might help point me in the right direction. I decided to check it out.

“Secondary English Teacher – Uganda.”

I read it a second time.

“Secondary English Teacher – Uganda.”

I have a Master’s degree in Education. Five and a half years’ experience teaching high school English. And my heart is in Africa. But there was no way it would be that easy. Would it?

————————————–

After a few episodes of television shows I didn’t care for, some journaling and then a few movies, our plane finally arrived in Amsterdam where I had a one-hour layover. No time for shopping or even a Starbucks, I went from one plane to another and before I knew it we were on our way to Kigali, Rwanda, our final stop before Uganda.

I was already tired and figuring out the time difference. Should I be awake right now? Should I sleep for a few hours? Maybe I should stay up so I’ll sleep well when I get to Uganda. But what time will it be then? I didn’t have much time to think. All of a sudden I was in another deep sleep.

————————————–

April 2013

I woke up at 4:30 a.m. with a jolt and saw the flashing purple light on my phone. It could have been SPAM, could have been a new credit card bill arriving in my email inbox, but something told me it was something else, something important.

It was an email from the principal at Heritage International School in Kampala, Uganda. I had interviewed with them a few weeks before.

“Hello Natalie! We would like to offer you the position of high school English teacher at Heritage. It is a two-year commitment and you would be able to return to the US in the summer between school years. We look forward to hearing from you and you becoming a part of our Heritage team!”

I was dumbfounded. It had been less than a month since I saw the listing online and applied. All of a sudden, I was offered a job. I got the job. I was moving to Uganda for at least two years, maybe longer.

I couldn’t breathe. I began to hyperventilate and tears streamed down my face. My family. My friends. My precious nieces who hold the key to my heart. Two Christmases without them. Two birthdays away from home. Two years of life away from the people I love most…

Two years living abroad. Two years of the gorgeous African scenery that had won my heart over the first time I saw it in 2009. Two years of serving God. Two years of making a difference. Two years of being exactly where God wanted me to be.

It was a no-brainer. I would go. I would move to Uganda and teach high school English. It would be my “in” to the mission field. After two years teaching, I would probably become a full-time missionary somewhere else.  God was working everything out in ways only He could.

I was happy to serve. I was excited to serve. I thought I knew exactly what God was about to do in my life.

————————————–

“Ladies and gentlemen, those exiting the plane are asked to throw any plastic bags in the trash before entering Rwanda as they are not allowed in the country,” I heard over the loudspeaker in the plane.

We had arrived in Rwanda, which meant only another hour or so flight to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. There was no way I’d be sleeping anymore on the plane. I was too excited and too nervous to even consider sleeping any longer.

20200_10151521453276573_870209925_nThe plane landed and my stomach did a flip-flop. We had arrived. I was in Uganda, my home for the next two years, at least. While I was ready to see the country and explore its beauty, it was almost 10 p.m. and not even anyone from school would be there to welcome me, just a driver. His name was David, and he wasn’t too pleased that my luggage had been lost and it took a couple of hours to locate it. It was after midnight when I finally made my way out of the airport and saw him standing there with a sign that read, “Heritage International School.”

“I am so sorry,” I said. “They lost one of my bags, and I didn’t have a way to get ahold of you to let you know I would be late coming out!”

“Es no problem,” David told me with his thick Ugandan accent as he loaded up my luggage onto a cart with wheels. “Es late, but we will be fine.”

I followed him into the parking lot where a school van was parked. We loaded up my luggage, and then I went to get in the front seat.

“Wrong side, madam!” David told me, and I realized I was getting in the driver’s seat.

“Oh that’s right!” I said, feeling embarrassed. It would be one of many cultural differences I would have to get used to- not only driving on the other side of the road, but driving on the other side of the car.

Uganda at night looked like everywhere else I had been in Africa. Our one-hour drive from Entebbe to Kampala was just like all the other late-night rides I’d had in Zambia and Niger. The difference this time was that I was there for good, not just a week or so.

David drove fast on the open road, but I could tell he was in control. My main prayer was that he stayed awake, but all of a sudden we were passing a giant sign that read, “Heritage International School” in blue letters with a drawing of a lion, the school mascot. About a mile away we turned off the paved road and onto a bumpy dirt road. We were getting close, and I could hardly stand the excitement of seeing what would be my home for at least the next few years.

We pulled up to a big gate and David honked. Over the top of the gate I could see a beautiful house peeking through some palm trees. As the guard opened the gate to let us in, it revealed a gorgeous two-story home, MY home.

“Hello!” I heard someone say as she came out the front door. It was after 1 a.m. but my two new housemates were waiting for my arrival and to greet me with hugs.

“I’m Debby,” one of them said with a strong accent, although I couldn’t place where it was from. Debby was tall and skinny with medium-length light brown hair, and the girl next to her had longer, redish-blonde hair and pale, white skin.IMG_20130801_093930

“Elize,” the other girl said. “Welcome to Uganda, Natalie!”

“Thank you!” I said as we lifted my bags out of the van.

The girls helped me move my bags into my bedroom and gave me a quick tour of the house. There was a huge open staircase that went up to Debby and Elize’s separate suites. They showed me to my room after we looked at the giant living room, dining room, and massive kitchen.

“We’re very tired,” Debby said. “Do you mind if we all go to bed and talk in the morning?”

“Of course not!” I said. “Thank you for welcoming me. Goodnight!”

IMG_3721Once the girls left my suite, complete with closets and a bathroom of my own, I sat on my bed and smiled. I couldn’t believe that this was where I was going to live. I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping in a hut, but I never in a million years imagined that I would be in a big, beautiful house with a bedroom and bathroom to myself.

I was so tired that I didn’t unpack a thing. I was told ahead of time that linens would be there waiting for me, but they were not. So I grabbed my hoodie to use as a pillow, pulled down my mosquito net, curled up on my bed and drifted off to sleep.

————————————–

October 2012

One month. That was all I had left on my lease at Arbor Lakes, and it was time to decide if I would stay or if I would go. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to stay in Fort Wayne, Indiana, so the thought of signing another year-long lease horrified me.

“We leave in a month, you know,” my mom said one evening over dinner. “Stay in the house until you decide what you want to do. We’ll be in Florida, and you’ll have the house to yourself. Pay the utilities and that’s all you have to worry about.”

It was definitely tempting, and after a lot of prayer and talking with friends, I decided it was the best plan for me. Living rent-free would definitely help me pay off credit card bills and save money for a new place.

As everything fell into place and I began to move my furniture into storage, something strange began to stir in my soul.

“There’s a reason for this,” I told my mom the day they left for Florida for the winter. “There’s a reason I’m moving into your house and that I won’t be tied down to a lease.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I don’t even know,” I said. “I just know that God has something planned. God did this.”

It wasn’t until five months later that it all made sense.

The post I’ll always make on June 3rd

IMG_4864Every June 3 I will make this blog post:

“XX years since I returned from living in Uganda.”

It’s impossible NOT to write about the year of my life that has had such an impact on who I am today.

This post today is 2 years since I got back from Uganda. The excitement has faded some, but is still there. The pain has faded some, but is still there. The scars are still pretty fresh, but I also know why I have them. God doesn’t want me to forget.

Only 1/35 of my life was spent in Uganda, yet I think about it every single day.

Seriously. Every. Single. Day.

How could I forget? It was best AND worst year of my life thus far.

So many of the memories were experiences that blew my mind. Washing feet at the jigger clinic. Visiting the babies at the baby home. The amazing chocolate cake at Cafe Javas. Stoney! Trips to Kenya. Late nights with my roommates dancing in our living room. Getting to teach the greatest teens from around the world. Going on safari. The list goes on an on.

IMG_20140307_172741Somehow, depression made its way in. Doubt made its way in. Insecurity took over my life, and I felt like I had no one, not even God, to save me. Few people know this about my time in Uganda, but it was the first time I ever seriously considered ending my own life, and that’s mainly because I truly believed that no one cared about me. I look back now and see how untrue that was, but you couldn’t have told me that at the time.

Needless to say, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” What ended up helping towards the end of my stay was learning that I wasn’t alone. Others were hurt. Others were struggling. But our school was less than supportive when we needed it most.

I’m working on having grace for the people who hurt me and others. It’s not easy, but who am I to judge them for not having grace on those of us who struggled? I should model what I preach. I need to forgive. Easier said than done.

Wow. Two years later and I’m still processing. Two years later and it still hurts. Two years later and I still miss Uganda every single day.

I wish had something more profound to say. Maybe it’s this: I wouldn’t change a thing.

Two years ago I stepped foot on American soil after a year in Uganda, and I was a totally different person. And I continue to change. God isn’t going to let my suffering be in vain.

10334337_10202468687703087_3077441966965500961_nMy prayer is that when I post my “3 years since I returned from living in Uganda,” I’ll have found the grace to forgive, not only those who hurt me, but also forgive myself for mistakes I made while I was there. I hope to have processed more, grown more, and accepted the fact that if I’m going to want people to show me grace, I’m going to have to show it to others as well.

I am a work in progress. I should probably walk around with an “Under Construction” sign around my neck. It’s a sign I would have to wear the rest of my life because I am so, so far from perfection or anything near it.

Most milestones in my life are now built around my year in Uganda because that’s when everything changed for me. And like I said, I wouldn’t change a thing.

My Spiritual Journey

1482753_10151871483561573_2088816754_nPart of the application process for my new job as marketing director for a local nonprofit was to write about my spiritual journey in fewer than 500 words. Here is what I wrote:

Although I was raised in the church, I’ve had my ups and downs with God. The greatest part of my testimony is that God was with me during the downs.

The greatest transformation in my spiritual life came when I lived in Uganda for a year, serving as a high school English teacher and missionary with World Gospel Mission. I tell people it was the best and worst year of my life. God used Uganda to destroy me and rebuild me. It wasn’t the extreme poverty, the orphans with HIV, my students who were contemplating suicide, or even the mystery illness I suffered from during and after my year in Uganda that destroyed me. It was an internal struggle that is almost impossible to describe.

579707_10151778872521573_24131533_nThe internal struggle, however, is not what this is about. It’s about the transformation that God did on my heart during that time. It’s about how I drastically changed as a person after a year in Africa. I came home to a world that was just how I left it, but I viewed it differently. I was incredibly filled with compassion in a way I never could have imagined.

I began to volunteer in my own community, here in Fort Wayne, Ind. While I still have a heart for international missions, the Lord has revealed to me that He wants to use me here more than anything. I volunteer at the Rescue Mission, as well as other specific events in the community. Perhaps the most moving volunteer experience this past year was at the Allen County Jail where we sang carols and passed out cookies to the inmates for Christmas. I even saw a gentleman I knew from my time serving breakfast at the Rescue Mission. It broke my heart to see him locked up in a cell, but it was worth it to see his eyes light up when I recognized him.

1457651_10151711498836573_1649942654_nThere’s a lot I have to learn. God will never stop teaching me about this world and His place in it, and He’ll never stop working in me. Whether or not I am in a career that directly involves helping people, I’ll always do that on my own in some way. It’s what Jesus did, and it’s what we’re called to do.

Lamentations 3:22 is one of my favorite versus. “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail.” Uganda, and all I experienced there, could have consumed me. I literally felt destroyed. It was the compassion of Christ that put me back together, and now I am a whole new person.

 

A growing and changing heart

Since I was a little girl, Africa always pulled at my heartstrings. It was like God made me with this insatiable hunger for loving the people of Africa. Trips to Niger and Zambia didn’t completely satisfy it. Even living in Uganda for a year didn’t satisfy it. I believe it will always be there. I’ll never “get over” my love for Africa.

But sometimes God does strange things to our hearts. Sometimes He can even make them bigger. It’s not that my heart for Africa has lessened, but it’s grown bigger to allow for new passions. Via my time in Uganda and my current position at a nonprofit here in Fort Wayne, God has opened my heart to Asia.

I have met a few missionaries who serve the Lord in Asia. I always admired their work, but time and time again I would say, “But that’s definitely not a place for me. I just don’t have the heart for it. My heart is in Africa.”

Cassie was one of my students from Singapore. Getting to know her and her family really opened my heart to a new culture.
Cassie was one of my students from Singapore. Getting to know her and her family really opened my heart to a new culture.

Oddly enough, my heart really grew for Asia during my time in Uganda. While I taught at an international school there, some of my students were from places like South Korea, Singapore, and the Philippines. I grew to love these students and their families. My heart began to grow for a whole new world of people.

I never imagined that I would feel led to go on a mission trip to anywhere in Asia, but God opened a door for me to do so. My church partners with Destiny Rescue to rescue girls from child trafficking and is taking a trip to Thailand in September.

Let me be clear: I have NEVER had a desire to even visit anywhere in Asia. As I tell people about my upcoming mission trip to Thailand, everyone seems to say, “I have always wanted to go to Thailand!” Well, I haven’t. For me, this is not about some life-long dream to go to Thailand, but about something different.

I went back and forth with whether or not I felt God wanted me to go. At first I looked into the trip out of curiosity, but decided that it was just too expensive. So many people have supported my other trips over the years that I couldn’t possibly ask for more support. I’m also still paying off medical bills from last year.

Then one Sunday afternoon, someone from the church called to talk about it. She explained that it was a good, young group going. She also said many of the people have never traveled internationally, and that given my experience abroad, I could be a big help to them. I said I would think about it, pray about it more, and let her know.

World Refugee Day also helped open my heart to the people of Southeast Asia.
World Refugee Day also helped open my heart to the people of Southeast Asia.

That same week at work I attended the “World Refugee Day” celebration in town. Fort Wayne has the largest number of Burmese refugees in the country. We celebrated with them, tried their food, listened to their stories, watched their dances, and embraced their culture and others of Southeast Asia. This was when my heart grew even bigger for an entire new group of people.

Because my heart was growing, I decided to look into volunteering with our refugees from Burma. I am meeting with someone from the Reclamation Project next week to see where I can volunteer with them.

It didn’t take long for me to look back and realize that God was opening doors I was trying to shut, including the doors to my heart. I decided to be open to what God was doing, and agreed to go on the trip with my church.

One person said to me recently, “I thought Africa was your thing?” But the truth is, I’ve also taken a mission trip to Nicaragua, where my sponsor child lives. I also volunteer here in town twice a week at the homeless shelter. Africa isn’t my “thing.” Nicaragua isn’t my “thing.” The homeless in America aren’t my “thing.”

PEOPLE are my “thing,” because Jesus is my “thing.” There’s just no other way to explain it.

My heart is growing and changing. I’m eager to see what God does with that, and I believe this trip to Thailand is a part of God’s plan for my heart.

Learn more about my upcoming mission trip to Thailand here.