Thursday is always the hardest day. The adrenaline of being in a new place has long ago worn and we still haven’t fully adjusted to the eight-hour time change. The cumulative sleep deprivation coupled with hours of standing and concentrating and working have taken their toll. So there are fewer people waiting for the breakfast line to open at 6 am and the first bus to Lacor leaves at least fifteen minutes late.
And everyone is on the verge of tears.
I woke up reluctantly at 5:30 and looked at my phone. The smart people don’t check email and social media while on these trips, but with teenage kids I feel like I need to keep in touch. Unfortunately, there were at least four troubling emails and texts concerning work, my personal life, and nonprofit activities. Nothing major really but it wasn’t a great start to what was sure to be a difficult and emotional day.
One of the nice things about a mission trip is that as difficult as the conditions are and as physically demanding on our bodies, at least the stress is different. The day-to-day activities seem less and we’re able to focus more directly on the job at hand.
So there I was at breakfast, drinking instant coffee from a tiny mug, eating a huge slice of toast dripping with local honey and sitting at the long table in the cool morning with skies that appeared photoshopped with their rich blues and oranges, and yet my mind was far away. Even the fact that some of my favorite people were surrounding me didn’t help. On the bus I didn’t notice the waving children illuminated by the light shining from the red dirt, the severely overloaded bicycles and trucks, the men in matching yellow scrubs in the fields surrounding the prison, or the women balancing ridiculously heavy loads on their heads while carrying children in front and back. None of it.
Not until we pulled through the gate of Lacor Hospital. And there she was. Sister Carmel. Waving and smiling, her eyes searching the bus windows for familiar faces.
She was with two other nuns, and it took me a few seconds to convince myself that it was really her. The head of the school of midwifery
in Kalongo, three hours to the east, it didn’t make sense that she was there, greeting our bus. But she really was there.
Sister Carmel is an incredible woman. A tremendous leader with the heart of a saint, she is both a visionary and the rock of that school. I had finally been able to meet her in June. Kay and I spent a memorable day in the beautiful setting of Kalongo that involved Sister Carmel along with a surgeon with the last name Smart, an Italian resident named Francesca and one of the best cups of espresso I’ve ever had, served by a Milanese pediatrician and his wife. It’s a flashbulb memory that will never leave me.
And here she was.
I made my way off the bus, saying thanks to Moses, the driver, and came around the back where she was standing. She recognized me and we hugged and talked for a few minutes. She had been at Lacor for a meeting and was on her way back home. She needed to get back and really couldn’t stay long.
But those seconds were enough. They were enough to help me forget my own problems and refocus on all that is important and beautiful in my life. Sister Carmel’s wide-open smile and warm embrace reminded me why we were there. The way she has been able to train generations of young nurses and midwives. Her fundraising and tireless effort. And the grace in which she does it all. It’s an inspiration and a gift to everyone who meets her.
And it’s how I want to be.
The day ended up being very long and emotional. It was still Thursday in Gulu after all. But I was so grateful for that perfectly timed, providential moment. I carried her smile, her encouraging words, and her hug with me the rest of the day. Seeing her was a comfort and a challenge.
In order to use our gifts in the way we were meant to, we have to find our true selves. We have to let go of the temporary problems that hold us back and of the different masks we wear to please others. We have to be open to change and to correction. And when we’re offered a chance to meet someone remarkable, we should always take it.