What do noisy music, raising money, and land theft have in common? Nothing, it seems.
That was my first thought when a friend recently invited me on a brief tour with his band (based in New England), offering the space to sell some jewelry and reach out to music lovers on behalf of Solidarity Uganda.
My second thought was about money. Could I really afford, with no steady income, to venture up to New England and travel state-to-state, convincing uninterested youths to donate money to people/a cause with which they are unfamiliar?
I then recalled an experience while I was with the archdeaconry at St. Augustine Church of Uganda in Lira. There was one old lady who attended every service every Sunday, from 6 AM to 10 AM for the Lango services, then again from 10 AM to noon for the English service. She could not speak English.
Not only could she not speak English – she couldn’t communicate well with anybody. It seemed she was partially blind, missing some appendages, reliant on tattered crutches to get from place to place. Some weeks she would ask people for money to take a motorbike ride back to her home. I got the sense that people treated her passively, as they would treat others with mental illnesses (for better or worse). She always sat outside of the overly-crowded church, behind all of the action and out of view. When music played, she clapped and sung and tried to dance around in her own little world.
One week tithes were being collected. Certain parishioners offered seemingly generous gifts: a few hundred thousand shillings, many bags of cement to help build a new church, large sacks of groundnuts. People clapped calmly and without thought for these donations as they were being given. When the time for tithing came to an end, the program began to advance ahead to announcements or liturgy or something else. After this transition in the service had already been underway, I noticed the old lady making her way through the dense crowd. She finally reached the front, knelt on the cement, rested her head against the pulpit, and offered her tithe to the MC. “Wait!” he interrupted his own program. “We have one more tithe. This lady has given 300 shillings (about $o.12) toward the building of the new church!” The building erupted in applause. People cheered as though they had just won the lottery.
How could this experience not remind someone of Jesus’ teaching of the widow’s coin? Here in Lira, a beggar giving all she had – was more interesting, more of a cause for celebration, than the massive contributions of the wealthier and more popular church members. In Jesus’ story (which can be read in Luke 21 or Mark 12), he claims that the few coins given out of poverty are worth more in the Kingdom of God than the big money of the rich, who give up a tiny fraction of their comfort. (Imagine how offended the wealthy must have been upon hearing such a claim!)
So what does this story have to do with touring with hardcore bands and trying to generate support for Solidarity Uganda?
During the first 20 minutes of the tour, the band’s van broke down. It was out for good – definitely not going to last 1500 more miles. We worried, we made calls, we prayed, we hoped. Finally a friend’s mom generously offered her mini-van.
The original van still had $60 worth of gas in it. Members of the band spent hours trying to transfer the gas to the other vehicle, even sucking it into their mouths, but little progress was made.
Some of the venues played were trashed. Not much money (for the band or for Solidarity Uganda) really came out of any gig. Occasionally a musician or other hospitable person would open their home and let us sleep on the floor.
When I reached home, glad to see my wife and daughter for the first time in what seemed like an eternity, I thought about the experience from a capitalistic perspective, and for the first time, I was glad we didn’t hire an accountant yet because I would have likely been scolded for making a mostly dumb economic decision (don’t worry – it wasn’t that dumb).
I would like to believe that the Kingdom of God functions in a much different way than the kingdoms of worldly empire. How much money gets funneled into nonprofit initiatives in Africa, yet land is still being stolen, systemic violence continues, and those who receive millions in funding are hesitant to do anything risky to truly transform the status quo? But we are a network of people putting our lives and wellbeing on the line, with or without financial resources, knowing that what we do is perceived by the powers and rulers as subversive. We know we are being watched. We know some are out to stop us, yet we believe the obscure well-wishers – the poor hardcore kids, the victims of abuse, the youth group pastors, the youth group members, the smallest of the small, and all other collaborators are doing more to build the Kingdom of God through their mouth-full-of-gasoline-but-we’ll-give-you-a-$2-Tshirt-of-our-band-anyway trials than the seven-figure-salary worship bands trying to sell more albums.
It is nonsensical – but we want our support from the trenches, and this includes donors. We want the poorest of the poor to be the financial backers, and so far, statistically, they are. Don’t get me wrong, big infusions of money would do a whole lot of good for Solidarity Uganda’s efforts to break out of the grassroots and become financially self-sufficient, but interdependency is the ideal. We are giving ourselves. The Solidarity Uganda network (in Uganda and abroad) has emptied their own stomaches through fasting on Earth Day. Youth have sacrificed time and sleep. It goes way deeper than Excel spreadsheets. Success is quantified differently in the Kingdom of God than it is in our bank accounts (thankfully)!
I have truly begun to notice that the dispossessed are most likely to join our struggle, whereas the comfortable are hesitant to even do something small. Solidarity Uganda staff members and volunteers have risked it all, down to the safety of their families. It is much harder for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but it’s not impossible. We are calling people of all colors, classes, and creeds to join hands – and to truly and authentically do that which inherently requires risks. The widow risked all she had. The donors before her risked nothing.
I’m not saying Solidarity Uganda is doing everything right (we definitely have a long way to go and lots to learn). I’m merely trying to entice all people to consider living for something much more beautiful, to build the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven in a way which demands the whole of themselves, not just a small dose of effort.