By Heidi Thulin, Photography by Kate Magee
On a busy compound in the heart of Uganda’s capital city of Kampala sits a small government school. This is no ordinary school, however; in fact, it is one of the only of its kind in the country. Kireka Home serves as a refuge for children with mental and multiple disabilities, and as I walk from classroom to classroom, though the scene appears noisily chaotic and the teachers are understaffed and overworked, I see that these children have found something rare and precious: acceptance and love.
In Uganda, as well as most other African nations, children with disabilities often bring deep shame to their family. To the general population, a disability is often attributed to a curse or demon possession, and because of ignorance and fear, the afflicted are sometimes tied to trees, starved, hidden away, or killed. Many of those who survive are sentenced to lives of neglect or are exploited as beggars on the side of the road.
For these reasons, a safe haven like Kireka Home is a miracle. Many of the eighty children residing at Kireka have been abandoned by their families. Julie, a young woman who grew up the daughter of AIM missionaries and worked as a special education teacher in the States, understands, perhaps more than anyone, the great challenges disabled children face on this continent. Four years ago, she left her work in the inner city and moved to Uganda with a dream to be one of God’s vessels to instigate change in Ugandans’ worldview. Volunteering at Kireka Home was an easy starting point.
Since in 2011, Julie has worked alongside the twelve teachers at the school, giving them encouragement, new techniques, and teaching strategies. As we talk, she leads me up the hill to a room filled with Singer sewing machines and introduces me to the tailoring teacher, Justine. Here in this room, amidst the spools of thread and piles of colorful fabric, several of the older students practice threading needles, pumping the machine’s treadle, and sewing in straight lines: activities that strengthen their fine motor skills and enhance their hand-eye coordination.
I walk over to a stack of newly-crafted purses and baby clothes, and Teacher Justine’s face beams when I hold up a ruffled dress. “If you give them love,” she says in her thick accent, “if you encourage them, you find that they can produce much. They gain confidence and start to do well.” Because of her dedication, Teacher Justine’s students are becoming valuable assets to their families and communities, something that, in an African worldview, is vital to a person’s purpose and wellbeing.
A Church Movement
Though Julie’s work in the school is noteworthy, she insists that the heart of her ministry revolves around equipping the Church to work with children with disabilities. To this end, she travels the country with Ugandan partners, offering seminars and training sessions to interested pastors, church leaders, and families. “We start by showing them that these kids are made in the image of God,” she explains. “That’s a very new concept to a lot of people, that this thing they’ve overlooked or treated as an animal, is still made in the image of God. Once they get that, the rest comes quite naturally.”
Julie also emphasizes the Church’s responsibility to take care of the “least of these.” Referencing 1 Corinthians 12: 21-27, Julie teaches how God created the Body of Christ to have both strong and weak parts and how all the parts are equally significant. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you,’” the Apostle Paul writes, “And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.”
After studying biblical principles with them, Julie spends the second half of their sessions teaching about specific disabilities and ways to care for the children. “Here, anything that people don’t understand is chalked up to spiritual things,” Julie says. “If we can teach about specific disabilities and the medical reasons that cause them, it really helps with breaking those misconceptions.”
In attendance for the seminars held at Community Baptist Church in Jinja was a man named Pastor Peter. As a child, he contracted polio, and the disease left him with a permanent limp. For years, he lived with shame because of his disability. But as the weeks passed, the Word of God released him from his culture’s worldview and allowed him to experience the total freedom that comes in knowing that God had a purpose for him. This passionate man now travels to churches all over Uganda conducting the same training that forever changed him.
“People who are disabled can also be a part of God’s kingdom,” he tells me with a smile in his voice. “God loves people who are disabled, no matter their disability, and as a church, we have a responsibility.” Led by Pastor Peter, his entire church has taken up that responsibility. Members of the church take turns providing discipleship and encouragement to the families of children with special needs. They visit their homes, pray with them, and give parents practical advice on how to handle some of the conditions. “We talk to them from the biblical point of view,” Pastor Peter says, “and [teach them] that this is not a curse like they believe and that these people need not be excluded from the community.”
It’s not easy for Ugandans to understand why Pastor Peter and his church get involved with children with special needs. They see it as a waste of time and resources. Pastor Peter relates to their confusion. “Before the time that Julie came to us,” he explains, “we saw [people with disabilities] as a burden. We saw them as people who cannot help many others. We didn’t really treat them as people of value. Much has changed.”
When I hear of the success of their church program and see the improvements in care at places like Kireka Home, I agree with Pastor Peter. In a mere four years, because of the work of Julie and the Holy Spirit, much in this little corner of Uganda has changed.
A Heart Transformation
Another remarkable story of transformation occurred in the same town of Jinja. Auntie R, a Ugandan Housemother at a rural orphanage, was terrified of one of the little boys. Timmy ate everything: sticks, cardboard boxes, plastic bags, toys. Anything he could find. Many of the staff at the orphanage believed demons made him do these strange things, and Auntie R refused to have him move into her care. “I’m not taking that problem into my house,” she said.
She had packed her bags and written her letter of resignation by the time Julie stopped in to visit her. “I spent a couple hours with her,” Julie tells me, “explaining the Body of Christ and our responsibility to take care of even the most difficult people. But she wasn’t having it. It came to the end of our time together, and I said, ‘How about you try it for a week. I’ll help you and we’ll pray for him together everyday. So she hesitantly agreed to that.”
The next day, Timmy moved into Auntie R’s house. To prevent him from eating anything, she had bleached all the floors and removed everything from the room. So he ate his shirt. Auntie R was furious and disgusted, but she stuck to her promise to pray for Timmy everyday.
At the end of the week, after having to leave prematurely, Julie called to see how things were going, and Auntie R said,
“I don’t like this boy! He’s too difficult. He’s disgusting. But I’ve learned one thing: I’ve learned that God loves him. And so I have to try.”
Julie visited a few weeks later, and when she found the two of them, she discovered that Auntie R treated Timmy differently than before, like one of her own children. In fact, because of Auntie R’s daily prayers, the Holy Spirit had transformed her heart, and Auntie R fell completely and deeply in love with this boy who ate everything. Conversely, now that Timmy felt loved, his need to uncontrollably eat disappeared. The transformation of the caregiver translated directly to the child.
As with any change that challenges established cultural knowledge, however, this kind of transformation comes slowly. Sometimes, agonizingly so. Julie, though, does not dwell on the often hopelessness of the situation. Rather, she focuses on the Holy Spirit and the power of the gospel. “Here, the gospel is sometimes the only answer you can give to both the caregiver and the child with disabilities,” she says. “In America, you can fix a lot of things. But here, things like therapy are not readily available to the majority of the population.” And so, as it should be, the hope of new life in Christ becomes their first hope.
Julie sits back in her chair and sighs happily. “That’s why I love this job,” she says, smiling, “because the only answer is the freedom that comes through Christ and the eternal hope that comes through him.” It’s hard not to feel her joy and her desire to see a world where people of all abilities are loved simply because they were created by God. That truly is Good News!