When I was arriving at the tiny airport in Arua, the president of Uganda was preparing to leave. Our paths overlapped for a brief moment. To give perspective on the small airport, luggage is transported from the plane a few hundred yards away, to the driveway of the airport in the trunk of a car. Passengers walk along a path beside the dirt runway to the “terminal,” which is a little room that seats a handful of people, so most activity takes place outside. Once you have been through the Ebola check at the health tent, you wait for the car to arrive with the bags. Most planes here carry less than 20 people, so bag retrieval is a simple process of grabbing yours as they take it from the trunk.
On this day I was held at the health tent. I was told to stand aside as I attempted to retrieve my bag. I had noticed a large army helicopter preparing to leave as we landed. There were more guards than usual and all the usual drivers were parked across the street from the airport rather than in the parking area. I recognized something was happening though I wasn’t sure what. Maybe they changed procedures since I was last here? I didn’t know. However, when you are in a foreign country and a soldier with a gun says to stay put, you do it.
I stood for what seemed a long time, long enough that some of the other passengers decided to walk toward the terminal to get their bags. I started to follow, but I decided to hold back to avoid an international incident. I watched as the others were turned back and asked to get out of the driveway. Then the gates opened and truck after truck full of soldiers strapped with guns entered the area. A long, official looking car with Ugandan flags fluttering in the wind entered, followed by more trucks with large guns mounted on the tops of them, and even more soldiers. I was curious as to what was going on, but also wanted to remain as small and insignificant as possible. The president exited his car with a wave, and then he was surrounded by his entourage and loaded onto the helicopter. A crowd gathered outside the gate to watch and wave. I was in the middle between the people and their leader, just watching the spectacle and taking in another culture and feeling very much like a foreigner. Once the president was gone, the soldiers left and life went on as normal. I got my bag and was on my way.
The next day, Uche began his devotions for the week as he does at every teacher conference. He pulls a story from the Bible which always includes a refugee character. I have read the Bible my whole life and not really realized how many refugees there are in it. It is a great encouragement to the refugees here in the camps to know that not only has God not forgotten them, but also that he can use them even in a foreign country.
This week’s story was about Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Unlike most of the teachers at the conference, you have probably heard the story before. I know it well, because our youth choir did a musical about it back in the day. I remember sewing two towels together to create a tunic/robe type costume. Sewn at one end so my head could go through, then draped over front and back and tied at the waist with a rope. We wore kazoos tied around our necks so that when King Nebuchadnezzar said to bow down we could play the “fanfare.”
Our king was a man at our church who did a fabulous job of making this character come alive. We sang songs at each point of the story, and I still remember most of them. What I didn’t remember however, is that the boys in the story were refugees. I mean I knew it, but hadn’t really thought about what that actually meant until this week.
Sitting in a foreign place, among refugees who are in very difficult circumstances opened my heart in a new way to this story and to these people. Actually, it does this each time I come, and sometimes I wonder if it is the sole purpose of my being here. I am somehow transported back in time to see with new eyes how it would feel to be in an unfamiliar place with little understanding of how things work. Now, I can more accurately imagine what courage those boys in the story had. The day to day living as foreigners was not easy. Fish out of water, really. Finding your way around, being different than everyone around you, not knowing if what you are doing is right or wrong in the culture you are in, all of it is overwhelming. They had to cling together and encourage one another. They had to stay true to their own beliefs even while in a foreign place.
They attracted the attention of the officials and even the king himself. Trust me, that is the last thing you want to do in a foreign culture. I thought back to my intersection with the president the day before. It was enthralling to watch it all, but at the same time, I was acutely aware of my foreignness. Had I been brought before the president, I would have been scared to death and tried my best to be as culturally respectful as I knew how. Yet, in the story of the fiery furnace, the boys had courage to both stand for what they believed in, and be respectful of the culture in which they were living. The king was enraged at them, but they did not bend. He wanted them executed, and they did not give in.
I remember our King Nebuchadnezzar from the play. He almost hated to throw them into the furnace, but he didn’t understand why they wouldn’t bow to him and he got angry. He threw them into our tin foil furnace and then was astounded they didn’t burn. We sang “It’s Cool in the Furnace” which was kind of a rap, while the king stood there stunned.
That furnace was hot, and burning red, he thought we’d burn like homemade bread, but we didn’t burn and we didn’t run, God just smiled and said, “Well done!”
It was a powerful lesson, learned in a fun way. I was reminded of it this week and it became real. The king was arrogant, prideful, and dangerous. The God of the Hebrews used refugees to show him who was really in charge. A king bowing to refugee boys. What a sight that must have been. The teachers at the school were wide-eyed at this part of the story. It seemed to be dawning on them that their time in the camp could be more than they thought and their role as teachers could train the children for leadership in the future. It’s cool in the furnace, indeed.