Merry Christmas! What does that mean exactly?
For us--for my family--Christmas is a time of celebrating Christ's birth on earth. But why? What does that truly mean? In America, Christmas involves so many strong traditions--family and friends gather around mounds of steaming food, laughing, visiting, exchanging brightly wrapped gifts in the light of the sparkling Christmas tree. For weeks (or even months) leading up to Christmas, the stores are full of tinsel and lights, windows full of shiny toys and electronic gadgets that must be had by all. Santa clause appears everywhere and Christmas music plays non stop on all the radio stations.
Is there anything inherently wrong with these traditions? Perhaps no. But I must admit that over the years I've struggled more and more with the commercialization and secularization of Christmas in the west. I've lived more than half of my life outside the U.S., often in places where people struggle to find enough food to eat, and/or where Christmas is a strange holiday celebrated by wealthy people of a different religion... or no religion at all. Again, I'm not criticizing the typical Christmas traditions of the west, but I am openly struggling with the idea that we often get hopelessly sidetracked from the true reason for celebrating Christmas.
Above is a photo I took in a South Sudanese refugee camp in Northern Uganda in January of this year. (I did two posts about that trip. If you missed them, you can read them here Adjumani 1 and here Adjumani 2.) These are the feet of a young child, who walked countless miles through the bush, fleeing war and violence in South Sudan. In the foreground, a simple toy car, made from discarded cardboard, pieces of rice sack, old flip flops, and a piece of wire. I watched as the children carefully crafted their toy vehicles with pride from the garbage they found near their refugee hut. Perhaps what struck me most was the laughter and singing I heard nearby, as other children happily pulled their toy cars through the hot dust.
Many of these children fled the war with nothing but their lives. Almost all have lost family and friends. They've seen and experienced unspeakable violence and atrocities. Yet, through a translator (I was spending the day with a group who does trauma counseling with refugees) the children and women explained to us that many of them have found true joy here. How is that possible in light of the pain and suffering they've experienced? They have nothing that we in the west often equate with joy--no money, no material possessions, no titles or accolades, no prestige. But the ones we talked to had found Christ--or more accurately, Christ had found them. In their dire circumstances, they had found what many of us fail to find in our frenzied lives of excess--they found forgiveness and the true joy and peace of Christ!
Our family will be celebrating Christmas in Uganda again this year. It's true--this time of year can be tough on families who are scattered around the world. We will definitely miss our families back in the U.S. when we celebrate Christmas tomorrow, but we'll be able to Skype with them on Christmas day. We'll enjoy a Christmas brunch with our children, and an evening meal with some friends here. The kids will open some simple gifts that their grandparents sent across the world with love. We'll read the Christmas story, have Christmas songs playing over the stereo, and play games together as a family. In other words, although we are on the other side of the world from our family in the U.S., we will not be suffering--we have a lot to be thankful for during our celebrations of Christmas.
Meanwhile, as my family, and yours, celebrate a relaxing Christmas, with plenty of food and friends, millions of people around the world will be struggling for the most basic necessities of life--food, water, shelter. Many are caught in a cycle of war and violence from which there seems no escape.
Below, a picture I took earlier this week. This is a UN camp for IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) just outside Juba, South Sudan. This Christmas millions of South Sudanese will be thankful that they were able to flee, to camps like this one. The list of things they have to be thankful for will be short but significant--life. Water. Food. Shelter. Meanwhile, millions of other South Sudanese will be spending Christmas in refugee camps in foreign countries like Uganda.
Did you know that South Sudan is one of only four countries in the world (the others being Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia) that have produced more than one million refugees? The situation in South Sudan is desperate, and since this past July, it's only gotten worse--indeed it's become one of the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time. Recent UN reports indicate that ethnic cleansing is already underway in various parts of South Sudan, and all the preliminary "ingredients" for a lead-up to genocide have already taken place. Meanwhile, dry season is bearing down on South Sudan, and recent reports indicate that by May, more than one third of the entire country population will be facing severe food shortages without drastic outside intervention.
On a lighter note (but I'll come back to the refugee crisis in a minute) earlier this week, my beautiful wife, Joy had the opportunity to ride along with me for a day of flying in Uganda. Although she has flown with me many times previously, when we used to live in Indonesia, this was the first time she flew along with me in East Africa.
It's certainly not everyday (or ever) that I get to do my early morning preflight with a beautiful woman helping. :-)
We started by flying some folks from LWF to Moyo, far northern Uganda. Almost every day MAF is flying people up to northern Uganda--people who are working in the overflowing refugee camps. We fly everybody from small, Christian missions, to ambassador and diplomatic entourages, to international aid agencies like various entities of the UN, and various aid branches of many countries.
LWF is very active working in humanitarian situations around the world. They've done a ton of work with South Sudanese refugees hosted here in Uganda. In fact, it was LWF who helped spearhead the effort to get the Adjumani airstrip opened over a year ago, to help the many agencies working among refugees in that area. You may remember the post where I mentioned the trip I took up there to survey the old site, and the first landing I did there just about a year ago.
Here's a shot of Joy and I in Moyo, along with a random, local boy wanted to be in the photo.
Uganda hosts more South Sudanese refugees than any other country in the world, and the number continues to grow daily as people flee southern South Sudan. The LWF members that we flew to Moyo were on their way to visit a brand new refugee camp that was opened just two weeks ago. Already there were over 20,000 refugees in that camp, and it was growing rapidly by the day! In fact, he said that they are having up to 6,000 new refugees pouring into Uganda each and every day. Six thousand! Per day!
Did you know that Uganda currently hosts the second largest refugee camp in the world? And as the numbers of refugees in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp decrease, the Bidi Bidi camp in Uganda is soon expected to take over that position as the largest refugee camp in the world.
Unlike many refugee camps where people are packed into tents like sardines, the Ugandan refugee camps are laid out across sprawling areas of land to allow for better, and more sustainable living conditions. Each "family unit" (the vast majority of refugees are women and children) are given a small plot of land for a garden. Below is a picture I took earlier this week, from several thousand feet above, of one of the refugee camps around Yumbe, Northern Uganda.
The dire situation in South Sudan does not get nearly the press attention in the west, that the Syrian situation seems to get. But if you do a quick search you can find many articles about it. Because South Sudan is our neighboring country right now, and because we know many South Sudanese, and because I fly regularly into South Sudan, I like to keep a close eye on the situation to see what the world and local media is saying. Last week I read this informative article from the BBC, South Sudan refugee crisis: The wooden bridge between death and safety. The article states that just since July there have been more than 340,000 refugees that have fled South Sudan into Uganda, far more than the 200,000 that fled Syria during the entire year of 2016. The article ends with a video of a young orphan girl, Patricia Mercy, age 16, reciting her poem, War. The article, and especially the video, are very sobering. The poem begins, "War, war, war, who are you and where do you come from? You have killed my mother and father, even my brothers and sisters, leaving me to be called an orphan." I will warn you this is not a cheerful video--but it is powerful. It does give you a real glimpse into the pain and suffering that SO many people are experiencing in South Sudan each and every day. If for some reason you you can't view the video in the BBC article, I also found it in YouTube here.
No doubt, the situations in both Syria and in South Sudan are terrible! Many millions of people are suffering. But since you are reading this blog, there's a good chance that you know my family personally, and or have an interest in our ministry with MAF. As such, you have an indirect connection to the people of South Sudan through us, and through the ministry of MAF, and through the people we fly. Therefore, please, on behalf of all of our friends from South Sudan, don't forget to pray for this young country, and the millions of dear people who are suffering there.
If you feel lead to do more than that this Christmas, then look for an opportunity to give back to someone in need. For Americans, it can often be easier to give money than time. But chances are, if you do a little bit of looking in your town, you'll find that there are people right there, around you, who are hurting--lacking food, shelter, family, or friends. Perhaps there are even refugees from Syria or South Sudan, living in your own town or city. It's easy for us to go about our Christmas celebrations in a blissful bubble of ignorance (whether intentional or not), talking the talk about Jesus--the reason for the season. But can we walk the walk too? If we truly believe and understand what it's all about, then let us each find someone, at least one person, with whom we can share the true joy and peace of Christ this Christmas season. Invite a homeless person to your house for Christmas dinner. Or volunteer at a soup kitchen. Or help your church or workplace provide clothes, food, shelter, or training to refugees. Or cut some firewood and deliver it with some hot food to a widow.
Do something practical (and outside your comfort zone) to share the joy and peace of Christmas with others this year, and chances are good that you'll quickly find that the meaningful joy you experience will far outweigh the temporal delight of a glittery package under the Christmas tree.
In closing this blog post, I'll share a few more fun shots to lighten things up. Here's one of Joy and I in the cockpit of the Grand Caravan plane.
Here's a shot from Kalongo. Do you see Joy, under the wing of the plane?
This is what it looked like when I walked to my plane yesterday, Friday morning, to preflight at 6:45 am. I flew the last, regularly scheduled MAF flight for 2016 from Uganda to/from Bunia East DRC. The weather was beautiful, though the winds of hot/dry season are howling now, making for bumpy flying.