For over a century, Uganda has been known as the pearl of Africa. But come with me to the village of Kasana, and we will find treasure of a different sort. These Treasures are children and young people with special needs and disabilities. Their bodies are like jars of clay, and, initially, you might be overwhelmed by the brokenness and frailty of their physical bodies and minds, hindered by pain, deformity or disease. Here in Uganda, many see them as worthless, a burden on their families, their bodies and minds useless and dysfunctional due to cerebral palsy, brain and spinal injuries, genetic disorders, or learning difficulties. But in the eyes of our heavenly Father, each one is a precious and valuable treasure, uniquely created in his image, fearfully and wonderfully made by him.
It wouldn’t take you long to see treasure shining and spilling out. As one girl leads her friends in praise and worship songs, smiles stretch across faces, and many eyes and faces light up exuding an inner joy, peace and contentment. There are many remarkable stories as, in the face of human frailty and weakness, God reveals his glory and power. This year it has been exciting to see two girls starting to walk independently. We rejoice and thank God for the big and small things he enables each child to achieve, whether it is gaining a kilogram in weight, taking a few steps, eating some ‘normal’ food or learning to write their name.
Six children with disabilities live in one of the family groups at New Hope, Uganda. Some of these children are totally dependent for all their needs, needing round the clock care, feeding tubes and regular medication. Another fifteen children live with their families and join the Treasures school class each day. Other children and families in the wider community are supported through monthly group sessions, physio sessions and home visits.
As their physiotherapist, I’m able to use skills God has given me to help children to develop, and to prevent complications which are a result of their disabilities. This involves stretches and exercises; teaching new skills like rolling, crawling or walking; getting children well-positioned in chairs, wheelchairs and at night; and helping parents and carers to do these things too.
Many need therapy, equipment, care and help to reach their God-given potential. We are regularly blessed by God’s provision. Last month I returned to Uganda with a hoist, a special walking frame and several pairs of specialist shoes. God certainly provides for all our physical needs, often through sponsors and visiting teams, and he provides for our emotional and spiritual needs too.
The treasure of the gospel
The name Treasures in jars of clay comes from Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:7. The ‘treasure’ Paul is speaking of there is the priceless, precious light of the gospel within the believer, the only hope for the hopeless. The gospel and a desire for people to know God and come into a personal living relationship with him as their heavenly Father is at the heart of all that happens at New Hope Uganda. In the beginning, New Hope Uganda’s foundational verses were Psalm 68:5-6, which speak of God being the ‘father to the fatherless’. Fast-forward thirty years and the vision continues to be to bring the fatherhood of God to the fatherless, place the lonely in families, and bring his love, healing and the light of the gospel to the broken.
At Kasana Children’s Centre (New Hope Uganda’s main site) there are seven family groups where children experience love, protection, discipleship and family. Over 400 children and teenagers receive a Christ-centred education at the primary and secondary schools. There is an Investment Year programme, where young adults are given the opportunity to experience different workplaces, alongside being discipled and trained in biblical manhood and womanhood. Gospel truth is taught clearly in each of these contexts, as well as in the church services, pastoral training institute, and on Musana FM radio station.
During our Sunday service at Kasana, it’s wonderful to see the inclusivity of the gospel – through the tribes and nations represented, and the freedom that children and adults with disabilities have to worship God in their own, sometimes noisy or ‘messy’, way. In the Treasures class the gospel is also intentionally shared with children with special needs. With the help of a translator, I share a multi-sensory Bible lesson with the children, helping them to know more of God, his love and salvation through Christ. For some, we have no idea how much they can understand, but we know that God can do a work of grace in their hearts. Others do seem to have a simple faith, and it’s lovely to hear them pray and see them daily trusting in God.
In 2004, the Lausanne Forum for World Evangelisation recognised that people with disabilities worldwide are a huge under reached people-group, with only 5-10% effectively reached with the gospel. As individuals and churches, let’s prayerfully consider how we can grow in Christlikeness as we welcome and include those with disabilities, and recognise the joy, value, diversity and challenge that God’s image-bearers with special needs could bring to us.
Treasures in Heaven
God has a perfect plan and purpose for each precious life, and he has determined the number of days for each one (Job 14:5). Some of our Treasures have surprised us with their fighting spirit and their ability to bounce back from serious medical problems. We are thankful to be needing to consider how to support and care for adults with complex disabilities, as some of our teenagers have exceeded doctors’ expectations, and God continues to give them strength and life for each new day.
But for many, life here on earth is hard, and for some it is short. Working with children with complex needs and disabilities has made me think a lot more about heaven. Michael Bates wrote in his book Disability and the gospel, ‘Weakness and brokenness can serve as a whisper reminding us that while life is good, heaven is unimaginably better.’ Three Treasures I’ve worked with in the last two years are already home with Jesus, and another may soon be joining them. It is hard to see children struggling with pain, reflux, breathing, fits and other medical problems. This makes me anticipate heaven and that glorious day when sufferings cease, when brokenness is a thing of the past, and when, with new resurrection bodies, we will be home forever. But here and now, there are many Treasures here at New Hope Uganda (and much closer to home too) who are in need of your prayers, and parents and carers who need a daily outpouring of God’s grace and strength as they care for their Treasures.