We live in a Western culture that often doesn’t grasp the implications of the non-Western thinking that goes on Scripture. This past month, I had a real-life example of how a slight difference in definition can cause a huge misunderstanding.
If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ve heard about Rev. Dr. Milly Erema, an Old Testament scholar from Uganda who has been sharing contextual insights on the Bible from her non-Western culture.
About a year ago I decided to get involved more in her life when a crisis threatened Kingsway Christian High School, the secondary school (8th-12th grade) that Milly’s family owns and directs. COVID had forced schools to close for over two years and Kingsway was on the verge of shutting down forever. So I traveled to Uganda and built a website to raise awareness and money, which has allowed the school to stay in business. Many other schools did not survive.
Yet because of a cultural misunderstanding, I was missing a critical detail about Kingsway until recently. Originally I thought that the school’s purpose was to support Milly’s family. It had been built with the help of churches in my area because when Milly was here attending seminary in 2001, four of Milly’s brothers were killed in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) conflict, and Milly became responsible to educate their 22 orphaned children. Raising school fees for so many would be impossible, and Milly and her husband were both educated, so they decided to start a boarding school where they could receive income from other students who would attend, and make sure their children had a good, faith-based education.
Remember the Invisible Children?
What I was shocked to learn recently was that Kingsway was actually serving a much bigger purpose. Shortly after Kingsway began in 2008, Milly and her husband Sam were contacted by other families suffering in the LRA conflict in northern Uganda, where they both come from. They were pleading for their children to attend Kingsway too.
You may remember hearing about the “Invisible Children” who fled from their homes every night to avoid being abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that was forcing young boys to become child soldiers and girls into sexual slavery. Many walked long distances each night to sleep in cities like Gulu, where the Ugandan army was on guard. In the morning they’d return home.
There was a huge social media campaign (see below)* to call attention to the crisis, and reporters and international aid organizations flocked to Gulu to help children there. But because of the danger of the LRA, no one set foot outside the city to visit surrounding villages. There, children had been hiding in the bush every night for years, unable to attend school or church, and some had lost their families in the LRA’s massacres.
Kingsway was in southern Uganda, which was safe from the conflict. In spite of the danger, they decided to enroll many desperate young people from the villages in the north. Of course, none could pay. Yet many of Kingsway’s first students came from the conflict area, about 150 children. Milly and Sam made many trips to get kids from up to 300 miles away, even from Gulu.
Milly’s harrowing tales of war zone travel shocked me. Normally they traveled by bus, but the LRA would stop vehicles and set them ablaze with the people still inside. So buses stopped going to the north. Milly and Sam would take the bus as far as they could, then walk the rest of the way through the bush, often many miles. Sometimes they were stopped by the Ugandan army, who held them at gunpoint until they explained their mission.
One time Sam was bringing four children back with him when he was captured by the Lord’s Resistance Army. When they took him back to their compound, he knew his likely fate – he would be shot and the children taken into bondage. But one of the soldiers recognized him and pled to his commander, “Oh, this man was my teacher! Please spare his life!” So they let him go. It was almost evening and he was exhausted, but he walked through the bush all night long to find safety. The children were lost to the LRA.
When “Our Children” does not mean “Our Children”
I asked Milly, were these relatives or neighbors, that you would risk your life to get them? I wondered this because Milly always spoke of bringing “our children” from the north to Kingsway. I assumed they had to be at least from her own Lugbara tribe, a minority in Uganda.
The answer was actually no! They were mostly from other tribes and villages in the north. People who were sheltering “invisible children” had contacted Kingsway. Milly reached out to each one she could help. Many Kingsway graduates now have attended university and started jobs and found good lives, a fate unthinkable otherwise. Milly even spent her own money to send one of the brightest to university, and he works for a United Nations refugee camp today.
What’s ironic is that for years I didn’t grasp the heroic, unselfish nature of Kingsway Christian High School because of how Milly was using the phrase, “our children.” Local churches saw Kingsway as serving Milly’s nieces and nephews. I assumed the children from the north were extended family. But to Milly, “our children” actually referred to any desperate Ugandan child who they could help.
The supreme irony was that this phrase, “our children” was actually creating the misunderstanding, because she seemed to be only interested in her own family. Other Ugandans came to study at our seminary, and local donors would support them when they went home too. Some even commented that it was better to give money to others than Milly, because they would at least share it with their churches. Donations to Milly would only benefit her family… using our narrow definition of family, not hers.
Why yes, you would be so welcome to donate to Kingsway!
Go to KingswayUganda for more information.
Kingsway has just finished the current school year in December 2023. The new class begins in February and their applicant list is very long. Please pray for them! They are planning to increase their enrollment from 63 up to 100 students in 2024 to meet the need.
*You may remember the social media campaign called “Kony 2012,” which was the first video to become a viral media sensation on Youtube. Produced by Invisible Children, Inc., it attempted but failed to bring the LRA leader Joseph Kony to justice. But promotion and endorsement by Oprah Winfrey, Taylor Swift, Bill Gates, George Clooney and George W. Bush among others brought enormous attention to the tragic situation going on in northern Uganda.