Rural Uganda: Bugadde, Mayuge District

A day (and life) in photos. There was an essence of life present in their expressions. A sort of oneness with the earth and each other. A grandmother gathered her grandchildren and asked me to take their portrait. (We want to remember our togetherness). A family was grieving the loss of a loved one yet invited me to sit with them. (We find comfort in the simple presence of others during times of loss). A man told me how he had lived in the same thatched hut home for 29 years. (We all want to feel grounded). A woman was eager to tell me of the twins she had just given birth to. (New life brings the joy of hope and a belief that life will be better for them). Both cooks and kids smiled as over 200 were fed for a back to school celebration and prayer time on the Peace Gospel rural campus. (Provision brings joy in the hearts of the grateful).

Rural Uganda: Kafu Village, Lake Victoria

In the small town of Kafu, Uganda, located on the shores of Lake Victoria just a 20-mile boat ride from the Kenyan border, you will find some of the most beautiful smiles in all the world. All you have to do is give yours first. That has seriously been a theme I have noticed on this trip to Uganda. I cannot recall smiling at anyone on this trip who did not smile back. There have been times in these days where it almost felt as if I was on a movie set and all the locals had been paid to play the role of extras cued for “ok here he comes, smile now!” At the Peace Gospel rural boarding high school, we have received several primary school graduates from this town and were visiting some of the families of the students here. Despite their joy and contentment, there are still several challenges the residents of Kafu face. The main water sources here are from open wells and the lakeshore, both of which are at high risk for contamination. 75% of all diseases in Uganda are a direct result of lack of clean water and proper sanitation. The number one cause of death here is from diarrheal diseases. To get to the closest major town with any serious medical treatment options takes about two hours on the bumpiest, muddiest roads I’ve ever traversed. I often talk about the contentment and joy of the poor that comes from their simplicity and communal lifestyle. And that is without doubts very real and inspiring. But there remains the undercurrent of disease and the cycle of poverty and corruption that is crippling this nation. The key is to improve infrastructure even if it means just drilling more closed wells and to focus on affordable, quality education for the next generation. Slowly, I believe Uganda can get there, with a little help from her global good neighbors. Their smiles tell me it must be true.

Day 7: Predawn Via Dolorosa, Holy Sepulchre, Garden Tomb, Holocaust Museum, Garden of Gethsemane, Farewell Lunch

Continuing my journey with Ecclesia Houston and Pastor Chris Seay via the always-innovative tour company Breaking Bread Journeys, day 7 of our itinerary was perhaps the most profound. There are many inspiring moments along the way but there’s something about waking up before dawn and taking a vow of silence only to hear the scriptures related to the path that Jesus took to his crucifixion at each of the 14 stations. We departed from our hotel at 5am to take the short walk to Herod’s Gate and then made the descent to Station One of the Via Dolorosa, or “The Way of Sorrows.”

There in the predawn blue glow of a sleepy Jerusalem sky, we listened with broken hearts as Chris read us the scriptures that chronicled or prophesied of Jesus’s walk to his death. It struck me that many of the stations depict those who loved him reaching out to help him, to do something for their beloved teacher and friend. They did not understand anything he had said about his coming resurrection, so to them, this was just the most awful, dark, miserable thing they could imagine happening. Here was the man who had healed, preached forgiveness of sin, fed the poor, taught a Gospel of a higher love, yet here he was the scorn of man, bruised, beaten, flogged nearly to death, then sentenced to carry his own tool of execution while wearing a crown of thorns.

I cannot imagine anything more profoundly distressing, depressing, confusing, or anguishing than these scenes laid before the very eyes of those who had followed him and loved him. In that dark hour, before the sun had risen, I and members of our group were gripped by the reality of those accounts as we trod over stones sometimes dated to the first century. We were moved to tears as we meditated on those seemingly slow-motion brutal moments of the Via Crucis, or the Way of the Cross.

At the same time, as Pastor Chris read these scriptures, it became apparent that another emotion felt in those steps is a realization of the profound love that God has for us, that while we were yet imperfect people lost in our own ways, Christ died for us because he loved us. I’m no theologian, but I do know a few things about the Bible from years of studying it personally. I believe that when Jesus was buried in his tomb (Station XIV of the Cross) he descended into hell (“Hades”) and conquered death so that we might have the resurrection into eternal life at our bodily death. “Following his death for sin, Jesus journeys to Hades, to the City of Death, and rips its gates off the hinges.” —Joe Rigney

After this intense experience, we visited a much brighter place called the Garden Tomb, a location just to the north of the Damascus Gate believed to contain the empty tomb of Jesus, a site many historians believe to be the place of Jesus’ resurrection. The overseers of the location have done an amazing job of keeping the gardens bright and colorful, as a representation of the glory of Christ’s resurrection, symbols of rebirth blossoming all around us. We took communion in that holy space and we all felt a very present touch of the Holy Spirit, a touch of the very palpable hope of the resurrection in that supremely serene garden.

As if we had not felt enough for the day, we ended our tour at the Holocaust Musem, “Yad Vashem.” There we experienced yet another kind of darkness, one of history’s deepest wounds, the Jewish Holocaust. There are no words to appropriately express the horrors of the Nazi’s deliberate cruelty, a merciless and systematic murder of millions of innocents, in the most unthinkable ways possible. In this contrast to the beauty of God’s love as demonstrated on the Via Dolorosa, we remembered the total depravity of mankind, that we could fall to such a grave brokenness, to an antithesis of love, and the ambivalence of so many who turned their hearts and eyes away from the reality of what was happening all around them in those days. Yet even in those horrible chapters of history, the museum beautifully and thoughtfully documented “The Righteous Among the Nations” — accounts of those who stood up to the ultimate brutality and evil, to rescue and hide Jews who would have otherwise perished.

We then took a much needed time of reflection and prayer on the bus as Pastor Chris led us in a liturgy to help us process all that we had taken in on this inexpressible day.

Later in Day 7 but before lunch (we had already been going since 5am), we made our way to the foot of the Mount of Olives (the location of Jesus’ ascension into heaven 40 days after his resurrection) to tour the Garden of Gethsemane and The Church of All Nations. The garden is another important scene in the story of Jesus’ path to his death. It is very revealing to me that Jesus prayed in the garden the night before his crucifixion, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” This reveals his humanity, that he knew the fight for the salvation of the world was before him, and in that humanness, perhaps he did not feel he could bear it, and thus he prayed for God to take it. Yet in his humility and submission to God the Father, he relents, “yet not my will, but yours be done.”

The olive trees we saw there were at least descendants of the trees that would have arched their embracing arms in sadness over Jesus on his last night before his death (some say they are saplings of those trees that provided rebirth for the trees to carry on, as is the manner of olive trees to regenerate in their same location for thousands of years– either way, a beautiful symbol there, too). So many touch-points for us to feel, see, and experience in these places where he walked, where he prayed, and where he loved us with an ultimate love unfathomable among mankind.

Then Christina Samara and Lisa Moed of Breaking Bread Journeys met us at a farewell lunch and presented all of the group with a small but beautiful gift of certificates of our pilgrimage. We were all so grateful for them and our faithful tour guide, Bassam, who left us with this moving statement:

It is your job to go back and share what you have witnessed. We must try to work – not just to speak – but to work for peace. We should all try to help build bridges for peace, not walls for peace. We are one family in Christ.

If you’ve read this far, thank you for following along. I hope these images might be inspiring as a visual expression of what I felt this day. God bless you.

Day 6: Jerusalem Old City Tour, Western Wall, Church of St. Anne, Pools of Bethesda, Eucalyptus Restaurant, Razzouk Tattoos

Day 6 with Ecclesia Houston on our Breaking Bread Journeys tour of the Holy Land was a deep dive into Old City Jerusalem.

We first visited a famous photography print shop and heard from shop owner Kevork Kahvedjian. The shop is known as Elia’s Photo Service. The pictures this Armenian family sell are part of a collection of about 3,000 photographs taken by Kevork’s late grandfather Elia Kahvedjian, a refugee of the Armenian genocide and one of the greatest photographers in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century. The pictures, which had been hidden away since 1947, were rediscovered by the family just 30 years ago and serve to help researchers and aficionados of Jerusalem probe its past. For a fascinating article on the importance of the photographs, you can read this article. Several of us bought his book, Jerusalem Through My Father’s Eyes, which is a rare and beautiful collector’s item of which I myself am a proud owner!

We then made our way into the Jewish Quarter to say prayers both spoken and written at the Western Wall. After that, we walked north to the beautiful Church of St. Anne, built between 1131 and 1138 on top of the site believed to be the childhood home and perhaps the birthplace of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The church possesses mesmerizing acoustics, and this makes the church a pilgrimage site for soloists and choirs, of which we got to hear a few from around the world singing praises in various languages. We contributed our own songs as well!

The church is located right beside the archaeological excavation of the Pool of Bethesda and its collonades mentioned in the 5th Chapter of John’s Gospel. Pastor Chris Seay read to us this Gospel account of the crippled man who had been waiting 38 years to be healed in the pool which was known at the time to have healing powers (“a heavenly messenger would come to stir the water in the pool. Whoever reached the water first and got in after it was agitated would be healed of his or her disease”). Chris mentioned how we have trouble waiting 38 days, much less 38 years.

And I thought about how this crippled man had kept his faith all those years, believing that he could be healed if only he could get in the pool at the right time. And the passage indicates that Jesus knew of this man’s longsuffering spirit in waiting for so many years. I think perhaps that’s why he chose to heal him, to underscore how great this humble man’s faith was. Look at the results of his faith: a visit from the son of God himself, and he was instantly healed. May we all have even half the faith and patience of this man.

After our visit to St. Anne’s, the Pool of Bethesda, and the beautiful gardens therein, we ventured out for a food and market tour of the old city within the walls. We made our way up to the hidden gem of Zalatimo’s Sweets. In a small room with just an oven, a refrigerator, and a few tables, Mr. Zalatimo and his relatives serve up the greatest pastry the Old City has to offer, an Arab treat known as a mutabak (from the Arabic for “folded”). The flaky phyllo dough type creation is the only food served at Zalatimo’s, and ordering is simple: “with nuts” or “with cheese.” The shop also includes another treasure: one of the original entrances to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is now sealed off and no longer used.

Our next stop brought us to the spice market and then on to lunch at Abu Shukri, a cafe famous for its hummus and falafel, located beside Stations of the Cross V on the Via Dolorosa.

We then had some free time to wander the city and I found some more scenes to document in the old city. After our free time, we made our way to Chef Moshe Basson’s “The Eucalyptus” restaurant just outside the old city near the Jaffa Gate. Basson is famous worldwide for his revival of the biblical menu. He shared with us several stories of herbs and spices used in biblical times, as he passed these herbs around for us to smell. We then enjoyed an unforgettable meal at his beautiful restaurant.

Last but not least, we ended the night with a visit from Palestinian Christian Wassim Razzouk, whose family has been in the tattoo business in the Old City for over 700 years. It has been a longstanding practice for Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem to get the Jerusalem Cross tattooed as a commemoration of their pilgrimage. Several of the members in our group did just that. To learn more about the fascinating history of the Razzouk family business, you can read an article here.

Day 5, Part 3: Mount of Temptation, Qumran Caves, Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Church of the Holy Sepulchre

This is my 8th holy land tour group to shoot for, and our itinerary generally follows a similar path. I will say that this day of the itinerary is usually the most intense, as we cover so much ground in one day. As a result, it’s the day that provides the most photo opportunities. It’s like packing three days into one (thus 3 posts to cover this one day). Probably the hardest part of publishing this blog is narrowing down the photo choices! From this day alone I’m publishing over 200 photos.

My devotional thought for Day 5 focused on the transitory nature of time and life. By the time we reached Jerusalem, many of us remarked something to the effect of, “Wait, we were just on the Sea of Galilee this morning?” I have often reflected on the power of a photograph to freeze time and capture a fleeting moment, and for this single moment, at least a thousand words could be written to describe what was felt and experienced within that frame. Then you stop to think of all the countless trillions of images like this which are accessible to God at any given time, and that he knows each one, feels each one, and has books written in his heart for each of us, lovingly journaling all that we have seen, felt, celebrated, and suffered. God sees all and knows all. Just a few pages ago, Jesus was being baptized by John, and in just a few page-turns in our story, we will be in the glory of heaven with God. “You see, the short-lived pains of this life are creating for us an eternal glory that does not compare to anything we know here. So we do not set our sights on the things we can see with our eyes. All of that is fleeting; it will eventually fade away. Instead, we focus on the things we cannot see, which live on and on.” (Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 4:17-18).

As it is recorded in John’s gospel, Jesus assures us, “My Father’s home is designed to accommodate all of you. If there were not room for everyone, I would have told you that. I am going to make arrangements for your arrival. I will be there to greet you personally and welcome you home, where we will be together. You know where I am going and how to get there.” (John 14:2-4). This idea of pilgrimage extends not only to a visit of the holy land but of our entire lives. We are on a journey, and God, in his ultimate love for us, has shown us the way to live it and promises that he prepares a final home for us at the end of this long journey. What is beautiful is that, while the journey is often full of sorrows and intensity, he has given us fellow sojourners to share the burdens along the way. We have experienced that on this journey here in the holy land. Just a few days ago we were a group of strangers. Now, already, especially after a day like today, we are already starting to feel like family. We have access to so much in the Body of Christ if we only choose to open our arms and receive the love and life-giving support that is available. While my life has had its share of heartbreaking moments and plenty of loss, I am grateful for all the ways I have found strength through God’s promises and all of my brothers and sisters whom God has gathered around me on this pilgrimage; both this week and in the grander pilgrimage of life.

To start out this post, we take a trip up to the of the Monastery on the Mount of Temptation for incredible views of the areas around Jericho. After being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the Judaean Desert, through which we journeyed today. The Gospels tell us that during this time, Satan appeared to Jesus and tried to tempt him. It is thought that he endured these temptations at this location.

From there we made our way to the Qumran Caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by a shepherd boy in 1947. We learned that The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in eleven caves along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea between the years 1947 and 1956. The area is 13 miles east of Jerusalem and is 1300 feet below sea level. They have been called the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times. There are now identified among the scrolls, 19 copies of the Book of Isaiah, 25 copies of Deuteronomy and 30 copies of the Psalms. The Isaiah Scroll, found relatively intact, is 1000 years older than any previously known copy of Isaiah. In fact, the scrolls are the oldest group of Old Testament manuscripts ever found.

We then headed to the Dead Sea where members of our group were able to experience the extremely buoyant properties of the highly salinated water. We learned from our tour guide Bassam that most seawater contains 5-7% salt, but that the Dead Sea contains approximately 27-33% salt.

We then journeyed west through the mountains that divide the dessert from the coastal plain and reached Jerusalem in just 30 minutes. Pastor Chris guided the group into the holy city through the Damascus Gate. We arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre just in time to see the famous event many come to watch each evening: the locking of the church doors. The key is held by a Muslim family in a symbolic gesture of interfaith cooperation. There’s an interesting article about the key you can read here.

Day 5, Part 1: Sea of Galilee

We had a very long day with many stops so I’m breaking Day 5 into different parts. Here are some images of our sunrise sail on the Sea of Galilee. Around 6am we embarked upon a boating excursion on the Sea of Galilee with our guide David of Galilee Sailing. Pastor Chris Seay shared with us from the account of Matthew’s Gospel describing Jesus walking on the water and Peter’s struggle with his faith to follow Jesus onto the water. We experienced first hand how quickly the weather can change, with a rainshower appearing suddenly on our excursion.

I stopped to ponder the events accounted in Matthew’s Gospel describing Peter’s struggle as our guide David explained to us how bad the storms can get on the sea, with waves recorded as high as 12 feet. I love the metaphor that a boat, a vessel, provides us with, in parallel to the journey of life. The storms of life will come, there is no question about that. The question is what is my anchor, what is my constant when I’m feeling lost and tossed about when I’m feeling that everything around me is unstable? For me, it’s the grip of Jesus much like Peter felt when he began to sink on the water in his attempt to walk in faith.

We will all find seasons in life when we feel we’re sinking. We can either reach up with an open hand or clench our fist in bitterness and just keep sinking.