A 19-year war in northern Uganda, initiated by the LRA (Lord's Resistance Army) against the government of Uganda, has subjected its people to brutality and violence beyond imagination. Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, abducts children from their homes to use as soldiers and sex slaves; sadly, since the start of the conflict, an estimated fifty thousand children have been abducted. Once the children are kidnapped, they are taken to a training camp where LRA soldiers beat and often disfigure them. Many of these children are forced to kill. They receive little food even while working up to twelve hours a day, and girls given to LRA officers as sex slaves are regularly raped. Girls who escape often return as child mothers with children they conceived as the “wives” of LRA rebels.
Proclaiming Christ to Traumatized and Victimized Children
How do we, as Christians, proclaim the message of Christ in this context? How do we tell children who have been abducted, traumatized and forced to kill that there is the hope of a kingdom of truth and light beyond the dark kingdom they have seen and experienced? Where do we even start?
While we know the gospel holds the power to bring freedom, hope and light, we must deliver the message while addressing the reality of a child who has been engaging in guerilla warfare or who has been sexually violated and abused. We must face all truth—even the truth of a broken, depraved world where children are exploited and power is used for corruption.
During Jesus' ministry, he addressed the realities of his day head-on. He stood up for the rights of children (Luke 18:16) and rebuked corrupt religious leaders (Matthew 23:13-29). He proclaimed God's kingdom with relevance. His example shows us how to declare the message of Christ as we walk in a world suffering from the consequences of sin.
As Jesus interacted with the crowds, he healed the sick and fed the hungry. He met the needs of the whole person. His attention to both physical and spiritual needs emphasizes the fact that a relationship with God involves the entire individual. We see this especially in Jesus' admonishment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). We cannot speak to the needs of the soul while ignoring the needs of the body.
Holistic Evangelism in Uganda
Confronted with the conflict in Uganda, Food for the Hungry sought for a way to speak God's message in a relevant, holistic manner to those most affected. Food for the Hungry learned that child mothers in Uganda who escape from the LRA continue to suffer even after they obtain freedom. These women often feel they have no control over their situation and express feelings of guilt, shame and hopelessness. In addition, they face social stigmas due to sexually transmitted diseases which lower their chances of marriage. They desperately need God's truth.
In response, Food for the Hungry implemented a residential rehabilitation center called the New Life Center in Kitgum, Uganda, to provide holistic development and psychosocial support to formerly-abducted child mothers and their children. Food for the Hungry works with other organizations, community leaders, church leaders and families to rehabilitate the women emotionally, spiritually, educationally and psychologically. Even after “graduating” from the residential care center, child mothers receive ongoing follow-up and counseling as needed.
The New Life Center provides a safe, secure, temporary residence where child mothers can live with their children and participate in:
- Literacy and catch-up classes
- Home economic and preventative health care classes
- Christian psychosocial counseling
- Nursery care
- Technical training for mothers based on their strengths and experiences
- Health clinics and HIV/AIDS counseling and prevention
Mary, a child mother, entered the New Life Center after escaping from the LRA and living in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp. Her story highlights the need for loving, long-term care to address the physical and emotional wounds suffered by abducted children:
In 1995, I was abducted. Three of us from the same family were taken. They took us to Sudan. When we reached Sudan they divided us into different groups and we were given to men. Of the three of us, two of my sisters were able to return to Uganda, but they kept me there. They said I looked like I wanted to escape. I was given to a man and had a child, Estella. Then I had Jack, my second child. From Sudan, we all left and headed back to Uganda. But instead of entering directly into Uganda, they took us to a hill. From there, life was very difficult. I had two kids and I had to carry them and all my belongings. It was too much. Every day we were bombarded by soldiers and we had to keep moving with all our luggage and children. We were frightened for our lives. They decided to divide us into two groups. One remained in Sudan, the other in Uganda. I went to Uganda. When we were entering Uganda, they give me six soldiers because they thought I would escape with my kids.
In Uganda, we were being followed by soldiers every day. We had no time to prepare food or to rest. It was like this every day—walking like this for hours and hours. It was horrible. One day we were trying to hide under a tree and a plane dropped something out of the plane and it hit me. I began to cry very loudly. I was very hurt. They said if I continued crying they would kill me. So I hid my tears and kept quiet.
Then another attack came and I decided not to run. I just stood there, not caring. I was standing in an open place but they did not target me. Then another plane came and dropped something and many people were injured. They decided to move us to another location. From there, I decided I needed to escape.
One of my friends tried to escape but was rearrested and brought back. She was beaten in front of us. When that girl was being beaten, she told them that I was one of the ones trying to escape. Then we were all beaten. I prayed that God would help me and take me away from this group.
I prayed like this over and over again. A group of us decided to escape together and I was their leader. We prayed to God that he would help us. When the leaders heard we were trying to escape, they decided to relocate us.
When we moved, we saw a plane coming. Immediately, the soldiers began to shoot at us and the plane started to bombard us. When everyone was running we went the opposite direction. I thought I was running alone, but the other four girls saw me and followed me. We had no food or sleep for three days. The children who were young had no strength to walk. The LRA soldiers followed us and were instructed to kill us when they found us. We found some children who gave us cassava. I told them we had escaped from the LRA and begged them not to take us to the soldiers. Instead, I asked them to take us to the local consulate (LC). A man did.
I am still traumatized by the things that happened in the bush. I still have nightmares. When I hear a loud noise, I get scared. I don't feel safe in the IDP camp. The people tell us that if the LRA finds us, we will be killed. I have seen a lot of people being killed.
I am looking forward to coming to the New Life Center to learn how to better care for my children and to learn how to make a living for myself. My dream is to become a doctor. If it is God's will, he will provide the way. After all, he provided a way for me to escape.
The stories the child mothers tell are horrific and difficult to hear. It is heartbreaking to imagine such evil experienced by innocent children. But for this evil, Christ came, died and rose again, bringing healing to even the most broken of hearts. What hope the Savior gives! This is the message the world needs. This is the message we are called to proclaim.
At the New Life Center in Uganda, this is the message that is restoring women and children physically and spiritually, allowing them to reenter their lives with a new hope and calling.