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.
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.
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.
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.
"I was not even imagining that a day would come when we would rest," said former night wanderer & Abaana's Hope Children's Ministry director, Jennifer.
"The way God has worked out His plan, I'm not now seeing any army, not seeing a gun, not hearing any bullets. I'm now peaceful. I can sleep in a soft place, in a good bed... Even the bible says, times come and times go. There's a time for sorrow and time for happiness."
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.
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 through her past--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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks to the children's ministry she can.
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"I was abducted very young," Grace said.
"I don't know how to read, but my children go to the children's ministry at Abaana's Hope where they teach them how to read the bible. Then my kids come back home and teach me. This children's ministry really helps me raise my children because I can't do it alone."
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.
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"We’ve come to much greater things. Relationships and knowing [the Acholi people] in a full, deep way. Joy in the midst of struggle. We have a problem being content in our country. They have a home made of grass and a dirt floor and they are smiling.
They are joyful. They are happy. It's contagious and convicting at the same time. We solve our sadness by buying new things. They solve their sadness with Jesus and community."
During my visit, the husband of one of the workers passed away.
So, I also 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.
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.