A year in Uganda + a year in America = a whole new Natalie

10334337_10202468687703087_3077441966965500961_nI wanted to come home. I wanted to be with my family. I wanted Starbucks. I wanted to experience my favorite season, fall. I wanted to hang out with my friends. I wanted the luxuries that come with living in a first-world country.

I also wanted to stay. I wanted to teach at Heritage. I wanted to go to the jigger clinic and the baby home. I wanted to return to Mombasa, Kenya and take in all its beauty again. I wanted to drink Stoney for another year. I wanted to be with my students for another year. I wanted to hug Florence and Gideon again.

But my health got in the way. And then God did. And despite the things I wanted in Uganda, I knew it was time to come home.

The goodbyes were heartbreaking. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much as I did on the ride from Kampala to the Entebbe airport. My heart was broken. I wasn’t even gone yet, and my soul ached for the people who had become my world.

It’s nearly impossible to spend time abroad for a year, return, and then not reflect on what you’ve done since you returned. Today marks one year since I returned to the US, and I find myself reflecting on everything that’s happened- the good, the bad, and the ugly.

10614337_10152228624626573_5915920655416583542_nI promised myself a year ago that my life would be different than it was before I left for Africa. I certainly kept that promise to myself, and I changed in ways I never imagined I could. Many times I’ve told people that God tore me apart in Uganda because He needed to put me back together, to fix me. Much of the “fixing” part has taken place since my return home, and I’m still a work in progress.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Uganda. Not one day. Whether it’s the country itself, my friends there, my students, or Florence and Gideon, something always crosses my mind about my time in Kampala. I couldn’t forget if I tried. Because of this, it’s difficult not to wonder, “What if…” What if I had stayed? What if I want to go back? What if I never get to return to Uganda even for a visit?

But the “What if’s” have to be suppressed. I don’t know what would have happened if I stayed. Maybe I’d still be spitting up blood and eventually end up really sick. I don’t know what would happen if I went back. It wouldn’t be the same, but at least it would fix the hunger in my heart for Africa. I don’t know what would happen if I never get to go back and at least visit. The thought makes me sick to my stomach.

11401077_10152812057366573_1683850763778689837_nOverall, when I returned from Uganda, I wanted my life to be one with value. I wanted to do things that matter, I wanted to grow closer to the Lord, and I wanted to find a career that made me happy. Done. Done. And done.

Although I miss Uganda like crazy, I can’t help but look back on the past 365 days of my life and smile. In one year I’ve made all sorts of amazing memories with friends and family. I’m nowhere near perfect, but I feel as close to the Lord as I ever have been. Within the last month I started a job that is absolutely perfect for me, and I wouldn’t want to leave it for anything.

God is good, whether I’m living in Uganda or Indiana. And God has always been good. I might be a whole new Natalie, but God has always been the same.

The Mission Trip “Bonus”

When I returned from two weeks in Niger with Jesus Film Ministries in 2009, my parents picked me up at the Indianapolis airport. My car was at their house, and I remember driving home in the middle of the night. I cried. I cried a lot. The people I had seen, the lives God changed… it was too much to comprehend as I drove through a deserted downtown Fort Wayne back to my apartment.

We also got back late two years later when I went to Nicaragua with my church and Food for the Hungry. I got in my car at the church, started to drive home with some Chris Tomlin in my CD player and once again, I cried. I couldn’t get the faces of those kids out of my head. I couldn’t forget the sound of my sponsor child saying, “Adios!” when we parted ways in his village.

Mission trips are about people, not places. They are about God, not us. I say that because you will also notice that mission trips typically involve a couple days of sightseeing. I don’t want my supporters to think their money went to a “vacation.” Tomorrow I leave for Zambia, and yes, we will spend a few days sightseeing. We’ll go to Victoria Falls, and on a day safari. We’re also lucky enough to have long layovers in London on the way to Zambia, and on the way back. Any money spent there will come out of my pocket, not from support raised.

To me, sightseeing is an important part of mission trips. For one, it’s a way to see God’s natural beauty in a way we never have before. Two, it’s a way to see and experience the culture of the place we’re visiting.

Here are some pictures from some of the sightseeing I’ve done on mission trips:

We ate at some pretty awesome restaurants in Niger. One was a French place where I had the best veal marsala I've ever tasted!
We ate at some pretty awesome restaurants in Niger. One was a French place where I had the best veal marsala I’ve ever tasted!
One day in Niger we took boat rides to look for hippos. We saw some peak their heads out from under the water. It was amazing! The boats, however, were a little scary!
One day in Niger we took boat rides to look for hippos. We saw some peak their heads out from under the water. It was amazing! The boats, however, were a little scary!
This is our group preparing to go looking for giraffes in the Niger desert. That's not a van for a zoo or anything, that's the vehicle we used all week. We literally saw giraffes in their natural habitat.
This is our group preparing to go looking for giraffes in the Niger desert. That’s not a van for a zoo or anything, that’s the vehicle we used all week. We literally saw giraffes in their natural habitat.
So beautiful. We were so close, and they were free.
So beautiful. We were so close, and they were free.
We had an eight-hour layover in Paris on the way back from Niger. It was just long enough to run into town and see the Eiffel Tower.
We had an eight-hour layover in Paris on the way back from Niger. It was just long enough to run into town and see the Eiffel Tower.
In Nicaragua we spent our final day visiting the market and hanging out at the beach. Was such a beautiful place!
In Nicaragua we spent our final day visiting the market and hanging out at the beach. Was such a beautiful place!

God knows our hearts. He knows that we’re going on this mission trip to impact the lives of kids at Lifesong for Orphans. But don’t be surprised when I return and post pictures of Victoria Falls, a safari, and London. Know that when I get in my car to drive home after my trip, I’ll burst into tears because of the children, not because of a waterfall and some animals.

A Whole New World…

Tuesday, June 16, 2009, 11 p.m.

After breakfast here at the guesthouse we met the “Nationals” (I don’t know why we call them that. They are basically “townies”) at “the office.” We talked about the different ways to share Christ and then we were off to share the gospel in the dorms on campus.

Anyways, I was paired with Kaeli and a student. The dorms were old. The hallways were narrow and filled with shoes since you can’t wear them in a Muslim’s room.

The first girl we met with was a very quiet Muslim girl who is studying medicine. She even allowed us to pray with her for her exams. It was cute though- she asked why we closed our eyes when we prayed. They don’t do that I guess.

The other girls we visited were much different. Their rooms were the same though- small, blue walls, small cot-like beds and the windows were covered in newspaper to keep out the steaming heat of the sun.

These two girls were very outgoing. We had a good talk with them.

Both places we just kind of got into discussions about God and what we believe. (Of course they only spoke French, but Kaeli translated).

We had lunch back at “the office.” Everyone shared their experiences and we ate something weird for lunch. It was kind of like hamburger and salsa on top of noodles.

At around 5 p.m. we packed ourselves into the van and came back to the office. I should explain “the office.” About 30 minutes away from the guesthouse and only about a mile from the university is the Niger Campus Crusade for Christ. The few buildings with it are protected by a wall and locked doors.

We got into our Jesus Film groups, packed up the equipment and left for our locations. My group rode to a place about 45 minutes away on the outskirts of town. It was like a little village and really reminded me of a Bible-time city.

We met up with the pastor of a church in the “neighborhood”. He showed us where to set up and where to lock our things. Then we divided into two groups and walked around the village inviting people to the film.

From the moment we got there until we left four hours later, this one little boy in blue sweatpants was right by my side the entire time. He was so cute! Sad thing was, we couldn’t communicate through Abby or Bruce. All the people spoke Hausa (a tribal language) and not French. The video was even in Hausa.

We talked to lots of people throughout the village. Everyone was really friendly except this one group we came across. They were nomads so they were living in a little mud hut. They looked crazy. The one guy who talked to us had a huge voodoo-looking guy on his necklace. Very creepy. After we left them, Bruce said they spoke a special tribal language and that they worship their own god.

As we walked through the village, kids joined us and followed us. It was so cute!

We started the Jesus Film at dusk (around 8 p.m.) and I was amazed at how all the kids got quiet to watch. It was really loud- it echoed throughout the entire village. And people were sitting on both sides of the screen. We estimated around 100 people were there. About 70 kids and 30 adults.

When the film was over, about 30 kids and adults stayed to listen to the pastor. He told us later that he had never seen that many people stay to hear more about Jesus.

It took us awhile to pack up, but a bunch of little kids helped, so that was nice.

Boy were we exhausted when we got home. I’m so tired, and it’s only our first time doing this! We will be doing this EIGHT more times! I mean, it’s incredible what God is doing, but it’s also exhausting.