In the bush of Northern Uganda, clean drinking water comes in bottles not sinks, the nearest hospital is a 45-minute drive and evidence of the 20-year war against Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army remains everywhere.
3 years ago, the Acholi people had no concept of joy, forgiveness was too risky and the word, grace, didn't even exist in their language.
No smiles. No playgrounds. No hope.
Since then, a lot has changed.
If you visit Abaana's Hope in the bush of Northern Uganda...
You'll smell breakfast being served at sunrise, as men and women who were once child soldiers and sex slaves gather together to learn about true freedom, found only in Jesus Christ.
You'll hear villagers of all ages worshiping, laughing, dancing with the help of their favorite musical instrument: the electric piano.
You'll see 150 children crammed in a single room eager to learn scripture, as their leaders share stories of missionaries like Hudson Taylor, who left his home in England conquered sickness, doubts and fear to bring the gospel to those who had never heard it in China.
At Abaana's Hope, these children are not only taught what it means to follow Jesus, but also their responsibility to share that good news with others as well. Although their parents had a much different upbringing...
During the war, the LRA abducted 30,000 children from their homes and gave them a choice:
become a child soldier/sex slave or be killed immediately.
100,000 people were murdered.
5-million villagers forced to flee their homes.
To put that number in perspective, 4.8 million people live in the state of Alabama, so even if every Alabama resident was forced into homelessness it would still be 200,000 people short.
Today, weeds suffocate the remains of a bombed church. Bullet holes decorate trees. Shell cases sit beneath the soil.
Even with evidence of war at nearly every corner, joy has crept into the hearts of villagers, one follower of Christ at a time.
Meet Scovia. At 26-years old she still wears a daily reminder of her former life as a child soldier and sex slave lodged in the top of her left arm; but she stands tall because she's proud. Not proud of her past.
Her voice still quivers as she speaks about the innocent people the Lord's Resistance Army forced her to behead at just 8 years old. The same age American children were starting kindergarten, Scovia was taken from her parents and taught to shoot a gun--by practicing on people.
At one point, she grew sick with cholera and the LRA left her to die by a dried-up well.
Today, Scovia has a new identity: Follower of Jesus Christ. As she shares her story, she boasts about the love of her great savior and provider.
One of the most influential people in the Christian faith also had a past he wasn't proud of in persecuting Christians. Paul, who's name was formally Saul, humbly admitted, “by the grace of God I am what I am," a sentiment Scovia shares as well.
When asked about God's purpose behind her painful past, Scovia said she's learned forgiveness - how to willingly receive it and how to mercifully give it.
Scovia reminded me, God knows all that has happened and all that will happen and He doesn’t make mistakes.
Meet Grace. The LRA kidnapped her at just 12-years old. During her 8 years as a child solider, she was promoted all the way up to Commander.
Grace still has vivid memories of Joseph Kony's episodes where his eyes turned red, as he told his army the "holy spirit" was speaking to him. He would command the LRA to burn down entire villages and kill off whole towns, but then minutes later his eyes would change back to normal and he suddenly couldn't remember his own orders.
The fear of Joseph Kony kept child soldiers like Grace from attempting to escape. Kony often told soldiers he could read their minds. Occasionally, he would gather the entire army together to show them an example of what happens when you "think" about escaping: a long, slow humiliating death.
Despite these threats, Grace courageously lead her unit on an escape during an ambush near Atoo Hill, a 15 minute drive from the Abaana’s Hope campus.
9 soldiers were set free because of Grace's leadership. At the time, there had never been a group that large to escape at once. The escape outraged Kony, so he sent soldiers into the city of Gulu to search for Grace and her unit, but the rebels never found them.
Like most of the Abaana’s Hope workers, Grace's life is a miracle.
While Grace overcame Kony’s control, she still faces setbacks from her time as a soldier. Her husband, a fellow commander, was shot during the war leaving her a widow with children.
She never had a childhood, a home or a chance at an education.
Today, Grace is one of 30 women who crafts jewelry for "Life Beads Africa," where the necklaces and bracelets are sold online. Grace uses her salary as an artisan to feed her family, save up for her own otlum and send her five children to school. Grace follows Christ, but she wants to know more about what the bible says.
Thanks to the children's ministry she can.
While Abaana's Hope has been incredibly fruitful, it's not without sacrifices.
Three missionary families moved roughly 7,700 miles away from their homes in America to serve in Uganda.
In their new country, buying edible meat is a 7-hour drive, electricity is unreliable and the majority of villagers don’t speak their native language. Somehow these families still believe the sacrifices are worth it.
"We haven’t left behind anything God hasn’t given us back tenfold," Kristopher Mobbs said.
Although there's new followers of Christ all around the community, there's still great need.
During my visit, the husband of one of the workers passed away. I attended my first Ugandan funeral.
600 people mourned the loss of a man who did not know the Lord.
He left behind 3 wives and 10 children.
What a harsh reality check. "Even our good deeds look like filthy rags to Jesus… like the wind our sins sweep us away."
I learned the mission of Abaana's Hope isn't simply to bring physical and emotional relief to a war-torn people, but to share with them the greatest love story -- about a perfect man, our sovereign God, who willingly chose to endure humiliation, pain and death, so we could join Him in eternal life, hope and joy.
We relish in this great savior's "perfect love (that) casts out all fear" reminding us to continue "making disciples of all nations," even in the hard places.
"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute."