A few days ago, I was reminded of a story from Uganda. A lesson I learned. A lesson I’ve had to learn often. Two years ago, summer of 2013, I and 9 other people were in the middle of Uganda. We were working with an organization called A Perfect Injustice. While we were there, we worked between Kampala, Uganda’s capital, and a village called Bombo for 5 weeks. In Kampala, we worked in the streets. In the slums. We fed kids, did devotions with them, taught them, and played with them. The boys in the slums were given the opportunity to move to the orphanage in Bombo when they were able to demonstrate an ability to abstain from drugs, violence, etc. for an extended period of time. They were counseled and before long, they were given a ride to the orphanage.
While we were in Kampala, we got word that one of our favorite kids from the streets, Abdul, would be going to Bombo. We were thrilled. We knew that he would no longer have to fear for his safety every night, as danger lurked around every corner. We knew he would no longer have to beg for food, beg for money. He would no longer have to hide. We could hardly wait to go back to the orphanage to welcome him and celebrate with him. A couple days later, we started the drive back to Bombo. While we were still about 20 minutes away or so, we saw a kid with a backpack walking toward us on the street. It was Abdul.
David, one of the missionaries we were working with, stopped to talk to him. He talked to Abdul for maybe 10 minutes and walked back in the van. We drove off, and Abdul continued his walk. We asked David what was going on, and he told us that Abdul was running away back to the streets in Kampala.
Why didn’t we just pick him up?
Why did David just let him keep walking?
Before anyone asked out loud what we were all thinking internally, David answered. He said that he didn’t pick up Abdul because the boys have to make the decision to stay at the orphanage. He’s brought kids back who have run away before, and they just keep running away. It has to be their choice. The kids have been homeless, living on the streets for so long, that they often don’t know how to handle security. They don’t know how to deal with safety. It’s unknown to them. The unknown is oftentimes scarier than what they know, even if what they know is terrible. At least they know what to expect. It isn’t until they choose to come back and choose to stay that they really start to make progress.
We were crushed. We knew that Abdul was making the wrong choice. If we could, we would just pick him up and bring him with us because we know better than he does. We know what he needs more than he does. And in that moment, in that moment of pain and hurt, I got a glimpse of God’s heart for His people.
God has brought so many people out of some terrible stuff. He has rescued us from our own demise. He offers us security. He offers us unconditional love that so many of us have sought to find in other things and other people. He has given us everything we need. Yet, so often, we run away from it. We go back to what we know. We leave the safety and security of all that He has given us, all that He offers, to go back to what we know, even if what we know is terrible for us. At least we know what to expect. And though He longs for us to return, He doesn’t force us to do so. He has given us free will to choose. It’s the most loving thing He could do for us. When we choose to love, that love is more authentic than if we were to be forced into it. Like the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32, He longs for the day that we choose to return. And whenever we do, He runs to us with open arms, ready and willing to accept us unconditionally.