Everywhere you turned there was something or someone that needed help. Everywhere there was a need,” explains Christine Plaza Bermudez. Wrapping one’s head around the very apparent needs of so many others at one time can be overwhelming for just one person, especially one who wants to make a difference. This is what Sherry Roberts, co-founder of the Ugandan ministry Loving One By One explained to Bermudez, the 26-year-old structural engineer, when Bermudez was first learning about the organization. Reiterating Sherry’s words, Christine continues, “Instead of being overwhelmed, focus on one concern at a time, loving one person at a time. In the end you are able to help more than you thought.”
Loving One By One was founded by Ken and Sherry Roberts in January 2005. At their local church, the couple met the First Love singing group from Kampala, Uganda. Since Ken was an experienced sound engineer, he agreed to travel with his wife to Uganda to help set up the first Christian recording studio in the city. During this first trip, the basic needs afflicting many of the people in the country, especially the children, were apparent and staggeringly real.
Uganda remains one of poorest countries in the world, with conditions worsened through conflict. For 23 years, tensions between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government resulted in attacks that ripped through the country’s social fabric. In 2005, rape, mutilation, slaughter, village raids, looting and structure burning, ousted 1.8 million people from their farms and livelihoods, forcing complete dependency on refugee camps. Within the campsites, these internally displaced persons (IDPs) were still not protected from further LRA attacks. At the end of 2008, a cessation of hostilities agreement was signed by the LRA, allowing almost half of the IDPs to return to their homes. But after two decades of violence and destruction, IDPs were faced with a new set of circumstances and obstacles to rebuilding. Complicating the situation, the 21-year conflict in southern Sudan brought a flood of 170,000 Sudanese refugees to Uganda, where they face similar circumstances to Uganda’s IDPs.
Unfortunately, war is not the only issue. An entire generation was fiercely hit by HIV/AIDS, leaving children to care for dying parents, elderly grandparents to care for grandchildren, or even children to care for their siblings. Even with available medical procedures to prevent passing on the disease from parent to child, many children continue to contract the disease due to a lack of prenatal care and overall medical attention. Malaria is another disease that plagues the population. It is a leading cause for miscarriage in pregnant women. The lack of clean water and unsanitary food preparation and storage further deteriorates the health situation. “This little community was in such bad condition that sewage water was flowing in different streams around the area,” remembered Bermudez, “people would walk through these streams while some used it to bathe in and most likely used it for cooking and drinking as well.” Eggs from parasitic worms are transmitted through contaminated water into food. After ingestion, worms hatch in the host’s intestines, causing infection and death. HIV/AIDS, malaria and worm infestation are the leading causes of death among children in Uganda. Sadly, many of these diseases could be prevented with simple immunizations, antibiotics, and hygiene. For example, the risk of malaria can easily be reduced with mosquito nets or a simple insecticide.
Children in Uganda are often the most vulnerable to these various social, political, and health issues. Witnessing the country’s hardships firsthand, the Roberts family decided to drastically change the direction of their lives. The two decided to partner with Sowers International, a mission-minded non-profit organization based in the United States, to create the Loving One By One ministry. Their mission is to meet the physical, spiritual, educational and medical needs of Ugandan children and their families. The ministry’s interest in serving children was what brought Christine, who currently resides in Detroit, Michigan, to work with the organization. “I wanted to go where there was something I could do and I really wanted to work with kids. It was the organization’s initial connection with kids that drew me in.”
Levels of poverty exist in every country, and although we hear of the conditions, we are never able to grasp the reality until we see it. “I was able to experience and see for myself the grave situation people continue to live in all over the world. I felt like I was so sheltered,” recalls Christine, “In this case seeing was believing.” Witnessing the daily hardships of Uganda’s people on her short term mission trip was an eye-opening experience. She adds, “It really hit me right then and there that this situation is happening all over the world and so many people don’t even realize the reality of it.”
Loving One By One’s mission team in January 2009, which Sherry led, consisted of eleven participants, including Christine. Before embarking on the two-week mission trip to Kampala, Uganda, Christine had loose ends to tie and motives to evaluate. “In the beginning, I thought of this as just another trip, just another country to travel to,” she says. Recalling the various work projects and financial issues during that time period, she says, “When Christmastime came around, I wasn’t sure how it was all going to come together. I felt like things were falling apart for me. I started spiritually preparing myself, fasting 24 hours at a time, and praying more about it and asking God ‘Is this really where you want me to go?’ Doing that gave me a better focus on God. I also started talking to others and getting more inspired.” Collecting donations, both monetary and physical (such as clothing), through letter writing to friends and family became an unlikely source of affirmation as well. “I was surprised at the response,” Christine recalls. “I was expecting people would give maybe $20 but some people gave me $200. People I hadn’t spoken with in a long time donated. It was encouraging to see people believe in the cause.”
Upon arriving in Uganda, the team was quickly put to work, working at four medical clinics and two additional de-worming stations, visiting the Sanyu (Happy) Babies Home and Mulago Hospital’s pediatric ward, and teaching at the New Creation Center. Medical clinics provide proper medical care to families in outlying villages, orphanages, the streets, as well as those in the New Creation Center and Family Home. Antibiotics, medication for common sicknesses, vitamin supplements and basic hygiene education are supplied to communities by Ugandan doctors and short-term medical professionals from the United States. Volunteers administer de-worming tablets and look after children while parents receive medical care. “Another girl on our team and I were put in charge of entertaining the children in a small enclosed brick building,” recalls Christine. “The thing that touched me most was when the kids kept singing and were so happy to be in this little room. Their clothes were very worn out and some didn’t even have shoes on. But they were still happy and just wanted to play with us.”
The New Creation Family Home (NCFH) provides orphans with a warm home and clean environment, along with clothes, food, educational support, and medical attention. At NCFH, children are also taught practical life skills, such as growing food, which equip them to later contribute to their community. The New Creation Center (NCC) offers Northern Ugandan and Sudanese refugee children free education, a school uniform, and a nutritional meal five days a week, nine months a year. The school, which recently received its approval as a non-government organization, serves 63 students with no more than eighteen students per teacher. The mission team frequented these two locations, since they are one of the main points of service for Loving One by One. The NCC provides employment for Ugandan teachers, teachers’ assistants, cooks, and maintenance helpers, which “gets locals involved in the process and allows the people to understand that the help they offer only comes from God,” says Christine. The children from NCC and NCFH have also become involved in the process, ministering to the patients at Mulago Hospital’s pediatric ward.
It was within the NCC and NCFH that Christine was able to connect with individuals among the masses. “I expected more in-depth relationships and to build deeper relationships with the people we served. But we weren’t in one place for a long time; we kept moving,” she says. “But there was this one kid who was kind of rebellious. He was one of the staff’s kids. But after you got to know him, he was very gentle. Before you go, you don’t really think of what individual personalities will be like…but they have the same concerns that we do.”
The team also visited Jokalera, a village of about 35 families where many grandparents were caring for their grandchildren due to the loss of the middle generation, in large part to HIV/AIDS. Loving One By One helps support the self-sustained village by creating a program to supply goats and pigs for members of the community. Families can use or sell milk, meat, and animal offspring, and then use profits towards other needs, including their children’s education. The program focuses on helping others by working towards a community that will sustain itself, an important lesson in community development projects and missionary work today. Christine explains, “Mission trips and missionaries are tough work, but very necessary. People definitely can use the help, but helping by just giving them what they need isn’t enough. Teaching people to help themselves can be the most helpful.”
Despite the evident poverty and poor conditions, there was a constant reminder of God’s presence in Uganda. “Everywhere you look in Uganda, ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ and different Christian sayings are written all over the place,” Christine recalls. “The country is very well-helped in terms of knowing Jesus. I almost felt like they didn’t really need me in that respect.”
In a world of human chaos where there are constant causes to take up, we can easily sit back and think, “I am only one person. What can I really do?” For many, it is not out of apathy that we do nothing, but it is the depth of the issues or our own lack of skills that intimidate us. We never muster the will to answer this question, allowing inadequacy for a problem too big for one to stop us from being a part of the solution. After going on the mission trip, Christine found inspiration in Loving One By One and has begun her quest to effect change. “After going on a mission trip, [you realize] one person can make a difference in the world by making a difference in one person’s life. After seeing how those kids light up with joy and their spirits become filled with hope just from the work Sherry was able to accomplish, I was able to see a brighter future for each and every kid and realized that they are the future of their country, and they are the key to improving the situation of their whole country.”