Saturday, July 9, 2016

Exile and Exodus

For a couple of years now, we have often felt like we were in exile, stuck in a foreign land, stranded away from home. It started two years ago when life in Ikland went from being an open-ended adventure (with its difficulties, nonetheless) to a situation that was almost intolerably hard for us. It was around that time that the ambition to 'make it' in Ikland slowly morphed into a desire to 'get out'. In late 2014, four months after gaining legal guardianship of Mercy and Immaculate, we applied for tourist visas for our girls so we could take a furlough with them in the USA. To our astonishment, the visas were denied by the embassy in Kampala.

Since then our yearning for home has not lessened at all, and we have had to learn how to cope and how to live in the present when our minds and hearts constantly drift elsewhere. But as so often is the case, our time in exile has been a time of growth and productivity. And when it has been the most difficult, God has supplied doses of grace and hope to keep our spirits alive.

Last December we got the opportunity to complete our adoption of the girls several months ahead of schedule. We took that as a sign that a way may be opening for us to leave in 2016, so we quickly filled out applications for the girls to have immigrant visas to the United Sates. Invigorated by the hope of an impending exodus, we were somehow able to ride out the rest of December in Ikland. But during that month, it seems the Adversary threw everything at us but the kitchen sink. Our days alternated between gutwrenchingly hard to inexplicably peaceful. Then, at the end of the first week of January, all the hard things we had undergone for eight years finally caught up with us. Ironically, a breakdown in our ability to cope with stress provided us the way out of our difficult circumstances.

Little did we know, we were heading from one place of exile to another. We have been in Kampala since the beginning of February. Through a series of bizarre events that I won't go into here, those applications we filed in December didn't make it to US Immigration until March 15. Three precious months had been wasted. In January, thinking we had a good chance of leaving by the summer, I (Terrill) applied to a graduate degree program at FSU (in the history & philosophy of science). I took the GRE exam in March and just barely got the score I needed to qualify for a research assistantship (that pays a small salary). Then in April, I was accepted into the program as their only new student for Fall 2016. To keep my scholarship, I need to show up at the university on the 23rd of August.

Also in April, seeing that time was getting short, we applied for our visa applications to be expedited. Going through a Florida congressperson's office, we sent our request letter along with supporting documentation. For the next six weeks we waited in suspense, and in vain, for a response. On May 31, I had to give a definitive answer to FSU as to whether I accepted their offer. For the second time in two months, I told them 'yes' in faith, without any certainty. Finally, on June 2, we found out that our case file had been opened and was under review. This gave us a surge of hope, and we began taking bigger steps to get ready to leave. We sold our vehicle. We went to a flea market and sold a lot of our other stuff. Then, on the morning of Saturday, June 18, we checked our visa status online. Amber's eyes started at the top where it said a decision had been made. I can still see and feel her light up with excitement. But my eyes quickly skipped down to the next line where the word DENIED stood out. Yes, our applications had been denied. Our hopes were crushed yet again.

Something died in me that day. Something that needed to die, I suppose, something God wanted to die. A striving, a will to resist. I was tired of the fight, weary of the struggle. For the first time in ages, I knew I could accept living in Uganda for six more months, for eighteen more months, for years to come. It didn't matter anymore. But I still just wanted to know either way: We are leaving by August or we are not. Even at this very moment as I write this, we don't know the answer to that question. If we knew we were leaving, it would energize us to plan out our remaining weeks, to make the most of the limited time we have left. If we knew we were not leaving, we could make the needed adjustments to our outlook and lifestyle and settle in for the long haul. But we don't know.

The visas had been denied because the US Immigration didn't recognize the first year we fostered the girls as part of the two required years of 'legal custody'. We were led to believe that fostering counted, but as it turned out, we had permission to foster from a government representative instead of from a family court, and that was the issue. Curiously, on June 2, the very day the officer looked at our case, we reached the two-year mark of having legal guardianship over the girls, which definitely counts toward the requirement. And so, on that basis, we decided to put together two brand new applications for the girls' visas and send them with friends who were flying home to the US that weekend. That's what we did, and this week we found out the applications have been accepted into the system and are now in the service center in Nebraska. Once we found that out, we wrote our congressperson's office again to ask them to ask the Immigration people to expedite our applications...again.

And so, we wait. From a human standpoint, getting home by August 22 seems nearly impossible. It would probably take getting a positive ruling on the case in the next week or two, when it took them two and half months to open the case last time. But we believe that if God wants us home by August, he will make a way. I won't stop believing until it is September and we are still here.

When the Israelites finally were able to leave their captivity in Egypt, it says they plundered the Egyptians, not with force but peacefully, asking for and receiving riches from their neighbors. Whenever God decides to release us from our own personal Egypt, we will also go with our own plunder. During this season of waiting, longing, and hoping in Kampala, we have not been idle. By the end of July, Amber will have led the girls successfully through all of kindergarten, preparing them for first grade. I will have finished the Ik-English dictionary that I've been working on for eighteen months. Our house in Timu and our vehicle will be set to bless the Ik community for years to come. We have changed some of our less healthy eating habits and have gotten back in shape physically. We have taken up tennis as a fun way to get exercise and spend time together as a couple. We have made good friends in Kampala. We have grown in our marriage and grown as a family. The list goes on.

We still don't know what the immediate future holds. If we get the visas in the next six weeks, we plan to fly back to Florida where I will begin my studies/work and Amber will homeschool the girls. If we don't make it back by then, Amber will keep schooling the girls here in Kampala, and I will have to find something useful to do. One possibility would be to help the Tepeth community of Karamoja (related to the Ik) in their desire to begin developing their endangered language. Our medium-term plan is to settle back into Tallahassee for a season of at least a few years. Eventually we'd like to put Mercy and Immaculate in school, but only after they've adjusted to America. We also see ourselves going overseas again, but probably not for several years. We need time to recover. Our dream is to be based in the US and make shorter field trips to language communities, for example during the summer months, as a family. This degree program I want to do is part of what I believe God is leading me into, which is helping heal the rift between science and faith. I want to study the origin of science in Christianity, the events that pitted them against each other, and what might be done to repair the relationship. But whether that means a second career after linguistics, or a dual career with linguistics, I do not yet know. I am simply following the 'golden thread' winding through my heart and mind. As for Amber, she would like to get back into the medical field again, but hopefully part-time and at a more low-key level, possibly hospice or home health.

Many of you reading this have prayed for us, and many others have given financially so we could continue living in Uganda. For that we sincerely thank you. I don't know what we would've done had we been unable to leave and unable to provide for ourselves. If you think about praying for us, please pray that we'd treasure each day we have to be in this country and in our circumstances. Pray that God continues to refine our characters but with a touch of gentleness for our fragile condition.
Pray that we learn to put our faith and hope in nothing but God himself, the source of our lives. Pray that whenever we set food on that airplane, we will have allowed God to shape us to the utmost our exile could have made possible. And lastly, please pray for the rapid coming of our day of exodus.