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OCMC News - THIS is Orthodoxy

by Anastasia Loejos (Posted 8/24/2010)

“As for the Team Members the trip was a spiritual success. They were able to treat Jesus Christ over 3,800 times. These Team members will return to their respective parishes as leaven for the benefit of the parish and the Orthodox Church as a whole.” Fr. Joseph Ciarciaglino – Team Member

Where do I begin? How do I go about putting on paper an experience that plays in my mind like a favorite song? Over and over again it plays, most of it memorized, but never getting old. Nothing I write will truly do Uganda justice, but I owe it to the beautiful people I met and learned to love to try to put words down.

After a very long and eye-opening journey, I was able to meet up with the other members of our OCMC Health Care Team to Uganda. A Team of eight, we would later go on to see over 3,800 patients during our travels to different villages. Upon arrival, I tried to ward off any thoughts of “what did I get myself into?”, but I quickly realized I didn’t have to try very hard. The initial culture shock I faced was quickly dissolved by the overwhelming warmth and hospitality that engulfed us. “You are most welcome,” they would say, as our hosts greeted us as if we were long lost family who had finally come home. From that moment on, that’s exactly what we were - family.

I went to bed that first night, as I am sure we all did, with a racing mind full of all the sights, smells, sounds, and emotions evoked by a radically different land. I finally dozed off thinking about what one of the Ugandan priests said as he greeted me earlier, “Are you ready for the clinic tomorrow?” “Yes, I think so,” I said, not knowing at all what to expect from the following day. He took my one hand and smiled in a way that said he DID know what to expect from the following day. “Ah,” he sighed. “These people have been waiting for you.”

Each morning after a breakfast of bread, bananas, and peanut butter (perhaps the best thing I packed from home), we would head out to one of the nine villages we were to visit to set up our free clinic. The rides to and from were an experience in themselves. In the mornings we bounced around on unpaved orange clay roads, passing the sometimes long rides with songs, plans for the day’s clinic, and conversations with our hosts and translators about the differences and similarities between the United States and Uganda. Through all of the obvious differences however, the similarities quickly surfaced and served as a glue, bonding our Ugandan hosts to our Team, and us to them. Amidst similarities like our Orthodox faith, respect, sense of humor, and a genuine love for people, it’s no wonder how we all “just fit.”

Despite my best efforts, I’m convinced that there was no way to fully prepare for that first clinic. We were greeted like honored guests, with crowds of people and curious children, singing and often dancing, grabbing our hands, bowing, hugging, smiling those radiant smiles and repeating “Apoyo, Apoyo!” (Thank you, Thank you!). After a few minutes of greetings, our Team got to work putting together our clinic. Sometimes in churches or abandoned buildings, other times in mud huts, all the while doing the best we could with no electricity and no running water, we set up makeshift areas for triage, patient care, and a pharmacy. “Where are all these people coming from?” I thought to myself, as the crowds seem to have multiplied every time we looked up. People were just everywhere. The fact that we were so busy was a good distraction from the reality of what was in front of us. There were hundreds of people, who had just walked miles in the scorching sun to come, and usually barefoot at that. There were women with babies tied to their backs, children with babies tied to their backs, men with multiple children in tow, and elderly too weak to stand, taking a seat in the dirt to wait. “Oh my God, these people are so sick,” I kept thinking, as the unending lines of people explained their many ailments to us. “Malaria, fevers, malaria, ‘worms’, malaria, dehydration, malaria, seizures, malaria….” This, I quickly learned was field medicine. Though overwhelmed at times, our Team became a well-oiled machine, learning from each day and applying the lessons to the next.

The ride back was always the most difficult. All of us were exhausted physically and emotionally, covered in a fine layer of orange dust. Though we didn’t always talk right away, I think all of our minds were in the same place, trying to “download” what we just saw, trying to rationalize the many people we had to turn away in order to see the very sickest. How we had to pack up an entire clinic to beat the setting sun, but with a line of people still pleading to be seen. Re-living the pictures of desperate faces, trusting us to give them some relief, and certainly praying to God, hoping we served His people with as much love and compassion as we could, and asking for the strength to do it all again tomorrow.

If space would allow, I could go on for pages about the fine details of this experience. These few words seem to barely scratch the surface of the impression Uganda has left on me. However, none of these words would matter if I didn’t take time to point out the most engrained memory I brought back. The absolute joy with which these people exist is overwhelming and humbling. They have nothing and give everything. Among such need, there is very little want. Even as they pull themselves out of the shadows of war, surrounded by disease and poverty, they chase away what would be justified sorrow with such joy and resilience. How is this possible? We witnessed a big part of the answer as we attended our first Divine Liturgy together. Gathered in a large hut of mud and sticks, we experienced the most beautiful Liturgy I could have ever imagined. Standing barefoot in the dirt after walking miles to get there, the people sang the liturgy by heart! Adults and children alike not only sang by heart, but with such faith, vigor, smiles, such joy, and at times with a gentle sway back and forth as their beautiful voices meshed into the hymns they knew so well. THIS is their joy. THIS is Orthodoxy. THIS is our Faith in its purest form.

In hindsight, I remember beginning this trip thinking we were providing all the service, that I was using my God-given talents to help those in need, and that however small, we would somehow change their lives for the better. How silly that all seems now that I’m home, forever changed and having been given so much. I’m left to wonder “who needed this mission more?”.

At the airport, as we said our tearful “until we meet agains” to our new Ugandan family, one of the priests said it best as we hugged. “The tears you have in your eyes right now are because you now have Uganda in your heart.”

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Prayer for Missions

God of truth and love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Hear our prayer for those who do not know You. That they may come to a saving knowledge of the truth, and that Your Name may be praised among all peoples of the world. Sustain, inspire, and enlighten Your servants who bring them the Gospel. Bring fresh vigor to wavering faith; sustain our faith when it is still fragile. Continually renew missionary zeal in ourselves and in the Church, and raise up new missionaries who will follow You to the ends of the world. Make us witnesses to Your goodness full of love, full of strength, and full of faith for Your glory and the salvation of the entire world. Through the prayers of all the missionary saints, Have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
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