Sunday, October 5, 2008


With all the great political speeches going on right now, I was sent down memory lane thinking about the last time I got to give a speech. It was about a year ago and the occasion was the Beta club induction at my high school. Not the greatest venue, but I remember being quite nervous with a few hundred parents and students in front of me. For the casual blog reader, this might be a bit lengthy, but I only post it because I thought it was a decent piece of work. If you actually read the whole thing please leave a comment.

October 17th, 2007

Thank you all for being here tonight, it is quite an honor to be up here speaking to you; parents, friends and most importantly our new Beta Club inductees. Congratulations! You guys are here tonight because you have displayed leadership, strong academics, service and most importantly character. So please, take pride in your achievement.

Even though I have had my share of interesting experiences in my life, the main reason I was asked to speak here tonight is because of my involvement in Uganda over the last year and a half. My experience with Uganda has been nothing short of pure joy. One of the things that makes it so enjoyable is the fact that I get to work with children. Which brings me to an interesting story.

Now before I begin my story, I must tell you that much like most of you parents, but unlike most of you students, I do not have a myspace account. Some of you might even be asking the question, “What is myspace”. Myspace is a website where you can create a personal profile, upload pictures, chat with your friends and so on. It became popular after I was out of college, and because of this I tend to make fun of all of my friends who have created accounts and gotten sucked into the world of myspace. But that’s beside the point. One of my friends gave me a t-shirt with the phrase, “YOU LOOK BETTER ON MYSPACE”, poking fun at the many people who use myspace as an internet dating ring; BTW, not something I would recommend. Just by chance I was wearing this shirt when I was in Uganda and I came across a boy who was wearing a shirt that read, “DON’T HATE THE PLAYER HATE THE GAME”. I found this hilarious and I asked the boy if he knew what the shirt meant. He of course had no idea, and none of his friends did either. I asked him if he liked my shirt, and we decided to swap shirts right on the spot. In hind site, it was probably the fairest barter I have ever been a part of. Both parties walked away with a shirt of equal value, and both of us were given a cool story to tell. Later in my trip I wore that shirt to the airport and when I walked up to the counter, the airline worker, in a heavy Ugandan accent said to me, “What ever this game is, I shall hate it.” I said, “What?” And she responded, “Whatever this game is” and she pointed at my shirt, “I shall hate it SO much.” And I said, “Yes, hate the game”.

But on a more serious note, my work in Uganda has been the best time of my life. It’s crazy for me to look back at myself just 2 years ago, I didn’t have a passport, I hadn’t left the country in over a decade, and I had never been on a trip that wasn’t purely recreational. Two summers later, I now find that my work in Uganda has become one of the most important aspects of my life. I find myself asking the question, what the heck happened to me?

The truth is that when I first went to Uganda last summer I had no idea what I was doing or even why I was going. I went over there with 4 other people from my church with the intent of helping the children in the war torn city of Gulu. You see for the last 20 years war has been taking place in Northern Uganda. What makes this war particularly devastating is that the participants are largely children. With the ability to quickly train and brainwash children, soldiers between the ages of 8-14 are the preferred fighting force for the Lord’s Resistance Army of Northern Uganda. This is a problem not specific to Uganda, in fact it is estimated that there are currently over 300,000 child soldiers around the world, most of whom are on the continent of Africa. It was our goal to find a way to help and support these children.

One day while I was at a park in Gulu, I met a man named Denis who was playing soccer with some of the children. He was drawn to me by his fascination with the strange flying object I was throwing back and forth with some of the kids. The object I was throwing was a Frisbee, and Denis had never seen one of these before. The two of us just immediately clicked; we have similar in personalities, sense of humors and so on. He too is a teacher. But after being around Denis for the next week or so I quickly learned that he has a background that I can hardly relate to. Late one night I was talking to Denis about some of the men I had seen who’s lips and ears had been cut off by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Denis then showed me several bullet wounds he had in his legs. It turns out that Denis was a former child soldier himself.
Early in the morning of January 17th, 1994, the rebels came to his village and Denis was abducted at the age of 11. Men with guns walked into his hut and forced his mother to hand over him and his older brother, leaving his younger siblings behind. Over the next two years Denis was faced with an atrocious experience. What he remembers most is walking entire days from sunrise to sunset often without any food or water. When children tried to escape he would see them viciously killed. One of these victims was his own brother. Other people’s lips and ears were cut off, the girls were sexually violated, villages were burnt to the ground and he even witnessed people being cooked in pots. What disturbs me even more is to think that Denis has never been able to give me the full details of his abduction, as most of it is too graphic and horrific to account.

Fortunately after 2 years in the bush, Denis was able to escape from the Rebels and eventually return to his family. But even after returning home, he lost hope in life. It wasn’t until after a few years that he was able to turn his life around and see optimism in the world again. And it wasn’t until my visit last summer that he was ever able to even speak about his abduction…and believe me it wasn’t easy, on his part or mine. Today Denis has committed his life to helping the children of his community. As a teacher he is considered part of the highest social standing in Gulu. In turn, not only does he raise 2 young children of his own, but 4 of his younger siblings as well. As if this doesn’t keep him busy enough, I met Denis in the park where he was playing with children from the village and a few months later he organized a soccer team for them. This soccer team turned into 2, then 3 teams, and has recently spawned a women’s netball team, which is a game similar to soccer. The boys would play soccer without shoes and without shirts because they had absolutely no equipment outside of a single soccer ball. This summer I packed up numerous uniforms, cleats and other equipment and proudly delivered them to his team.
When people ask me the question, “Why are you so involved in Uganda?” it gives me great pause. I’d like to say something about my interest in social justice, or service to my church, or that it is a matter of conscience, but these would not be accurate. The truth is that it’s Denis, plain and simple, and the relationship we formed. He might possibly be my best friend. So to think that I have this great Utopian goal of fixing the country of Uganda as a whole is ridiculous. I have fallen in love with a few specific people and I can’t seem to get away from that community. I have no choice but to find a way to help them and their commitment to their own people.

Tonight our inductees are here to be welcomed into a club of great privilege and honor. Some would say that you are the leaders of tomorrow, but I would say that you are already leaders today because you are the leaders of Garner Magnet High School. You are the ones who have the ability to make a difference in people’s lives, both during and after high school. I’m not talking about changing the world per say. Large causes are great, don’t get me wrong, but there is no shortage of reward in changing the lives of people here and now. Your community is right in front of you, and you are so capable of meeting its needs. The leaders of our world are not only taking care of themselves and their families, but also are committing themselves to serving others. For me, I have found a community in Africa, but yours may be somewhere else.

There is no shortage of work to be done in our world, that’s foreshore. The important thing to realize is that you don’t have to hold a position of power, or be anyone special to start chipping away at these needs of others. There are people living on the streets of downtown Raleigh, because they have no home. People filling up the soup kitchens because they can’t afford to eat. And senior citizens who slide into depression because they have no one to talk to. All these problems are sitting right in front of us and the question remains, why haven’t they been solved? My cynical answer to that question is that we just don’t care. Or at least it’s easier for us just not to care. Because the truth is, if a good friend of yours was living out on the street, you would find a bed for him to sleep on. If you had a family member who couldn’t afford to eat, you would feed him. And if your mother were placed in a nursing home you would find a way to take care of her. We deal with the issues that touch our hearts and affect the people we care about. Looking at the students and parents tonight, I know that you are the people who care about all of these issues; we just need to find a way to build community with these people, whoever and wherever they are. From that you will grow to love and care for them. Whether it’s visiting a nursing home, or mentoring a child, people find ways to take care of the ones they care about. When charity and community service are brought up in conversation, it’s great to ask the question, “What can I do?”, but what you should really very deeply consider is the question, “Who do I love?” It is almost second nature to run to the aid of the people we love. Imagine a world where the privileged few, not only served the many needy, but also loved and cared for them.
If I can tell you any one thing tonight, it’s this. It’s not about Africa. And it’s certainly not about attempting to change the world. It’s about a smaller scale - finding people to love, and then loving them. Plain and simple.
I want to leave you tonight with a short story from a book I’ve recently read, and the story reads:

“A journalist was invited by friends to travel to Africa. He accepted the invitation, but as the departure date drew nearer, he became more and more apprehensive about the trip. When the day arrived, he went to the airport with every intention of canceling his plane ticket. Though his friends did their best to reason with him, the journalist seemed resolute in his decision. Then a shadow fell across their discussion, and standing tall above them was a holy man with an ancient, pointed beard and long black robes. The holy man addressed the journalist, saying, “I have a word for you from God.” The journalist, noticeably shaken by the man’s presence, nevertheless asked him to continue. The holy man said, “You will go Africa—and you will come back with a terrible disease.” Hearing this confirmed the journalist’s worst fears. The holy man went on to say, “The disease IS Africa. It will be in your blood for the rest of your life. And you will not be able to stay away.” With trepidation, the journalist boarded the plane and went to Africa. And went and went, and went—again, and again, and again.”

I obviously suffer from the same disease as the man in the story. It is my hope that a similar disease will inflict you as well. And if you find yourself diagnosed with such a disease, and you think about placing some of the blame on me, I just ask you to remember a simple phrase I learned about in Uganda, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Thank you!

1 comment:

Bill Cummings said...

Great post. Great speech.

It's amazing how reading something like this gives such a clearer perspective on the heart you have for Africa... for Denis.

May we all be infected with a disease of some sort.