All posts by Jacob Tilstra

What I’ve learned (the three big take-aways):

  • The world is a terrible place- suffering seems inevitable, and it’s so prevalent in Africa. The fact that people can live at this level of poverty across the world from us is incredible, and so confusing to wrap my mind around. Why does this sort of suffering still exist, and how is it excusable? I think that experiences like this really put into perspective how little the world has improved, and how the majority of the world really is suffering even while we are comfortable.
  • I’m still hopeful- I still think there is a lot of fundamental good inside human beings, and I hope for the world to become a better place. There is a lot of terrible humanitarian needs that aren’t being met in Africa, but there are people who are trying to meet those needs, and are doing so even with so much stopping them. I don’t think
  • I kind of enjoy film making, and should really try to do it more often- I’ve always tried to avoid taking pictures on trips since I feel that it takes me out of the experience, but sometimes when I had a camera I felt I was almost getting more. I was more actively looking for what was happening and more present because of that. Also, it means that I can show people what was happening much easier than just explaining it to them.

Getting back

While we were in Uganda, toward the end of the trip we would often mention how we wouldn’t be able to process the trip until after we got back. Interviewing, trying to get b-roll, it was stressful, it took time, and often made us less present in events then we would have liked.

Transcribing, then reading back and trying to organize the story for our documentary has really been the processing. There are many interviews that I wasn’t around to listen to, people whose stories I wasn’t around to hear. There were images and things that I wasn’t around to capture. Coming back, I’ve been able to see these things, along with review what I already knew.

There’s so much.

Lewi, Sr. Rebecca, the girls at St. Mary’s, and others I never got to hear their full stories. I had heard the spark notes version at best during the trip, but coming back to transcribe them I learned of the senseless bombings and killings in Uganda, of the plight of young women and child brides.

I had shot b-roll of a guard understanding that he was important at the school, but understanding little else about it. He had seemed a little suspicious with us there, and generally like he didn’t want us to be there bothering him. I remember leaving feeling a little confused to why we needed to bother him.

I found out while transcribing Sr. Rebecca that men commonly came to the school and posed as relatives of the girls so they could get the one they had bought as a child bride. I found out that some of the girls had specifically said that the presence of this guard helped them to feel safe. I found out that men had even showed up that morning and had been turned away.

It made a lot more sense why we were bothering him after that.

The entire process of editing has helped to bring context and understanding into my experience of Uganda, and it has also helped to put pressure on the necessity to make sure that others will be able to understand this experience.

It will be interesting to see how we can come down to do that in a 20 minute film, and if it will truly help people to understand and respond in a way that’s appropriate.

I feel weird

It’s been a weird return to the United States. The first news that I received after plugging in my phone at the Minneapolis airport was that my grandfather had died early that morning. In a lot of ways, my experience since has been trying to make sense of two tragedies: The larger humanitarian crisis happening in Uganda with the refugees and the stories I had heard from them, and my own more personal tragedy with the death of my grandfather.

Both of these events really deserve to be looked at separately. There is nothing that should link them besides my timing and proximity to them. They are independent tragedies.

Yet, it’s impossible for me to separate them. In processing my grief with the one, the other always found its way in, forcing me to process both almost together. That’s why I feel I need to talk about both together, and don’t think I can simply explain how I’ve felt since my arrival back in the United States.

I know that I’m nowhere close to having processed either and will probably spend a lot of time thinking about this experience throughout the rest of the summer.

Ultimately, the best way I can put my feelings right now is that I feel weird. There’s some guilt, lots of sadness, a little bit of disillusion. Guilt, for where we’ve left countries like Uganda, for not having been there at the end of my grandfather’s life. Disillusioned with death, with the capacity of humanity to do good, and whether if there is that much good.

We often talk about reducing the suffering of humanity. Many of the places where Christian theology intersects with politics and sociology tends to focus on ways of making a so called “Kingdom of God.”

Yet, it’s difficult to think about an end to suffering when it’s so prevalent in life, or to even imagine a place in which it ends. In Uganda, suffering is prevalent anywhere that you look. In the United States, we have done a lot to reduce suffering, yet it would be hard for me to say that my mother or grandmother or the rest of my family wasn’t suffering. It’s disheartening to think that despite all we have done, there is still prevalent suffering here, and that there is virtually nothing we can do about this suffering. Death remains inevitable, and the people that are left behind after will always feel the passing.


Throughout the trip, I have been surprised by the refugees.

There definitely is no right reaction to having to leave one’s home and start a new life. Yet, the refugees have been so much different than what I expected.

I almost expected there to be more displeasure, and there is (I don’t want to make it seem as though I’m downplaying how terrible the refugee crisis in Uganda is), but often I found there was much more joy then I would have ever expected.

The church that we went to at the settlement was one the most joyous places I’ve ever been inside. Even though it was nothing more than a couple of sticks with a tarp, there was so much excitement and energy inside it that I found myself quickly forgetting where I was.

People were much more willing to smile or to wave at strangers as they passed then anyone in the United States were. There was more openness, more willingness to reach out.

The children had no fear. They would run with us as we took shots in villages, watching us film and playing with each other. They would wave at our bus or try to run with it as we went passed them.

Lewi, smiling as he showed us his house and family, Kizaza with all of his charisma talking of his music, the girls at the school with their passion and pride.

Yet there is always pain. Lewi told horrific stories of bombings and senseless killing, of sadness that he would never be able to go home. Kizaza was separated from family and lost everything while trying to flee the Congo. The girls at the school still are struggling, with threats of child marriage and a culture that doesn’t give them the choice they deserve.

Outside the church at the settlement, we walked through a village of refugees. For a short while, I tried to get footage of a girl, probably in her early teens, working on making a pungent liquid. The person who was guiding us through the settlement later told me that she was trying to make alcohol to sell. Others mentioned that this was often one of the few things that was easy enough for children to produce and sell, and was commonly something done by orphans.

She still smiled at me as she was working.

Flippin’ Tables

When we were at the South Sudan-Uganda border, a few of us went up to the road to film refugees as they crossed the border and walked to the  refugee receiving center.

Isaac, one of the directors at JRS, came up with us, and decided to talk with some of the vendors while were shooting. While he was at a money changer, I decided to try and sneak in to find out a little bit about what seemed to be a lucrative business in this part of the country.

While vendors tend to line the streets throughout Uganda, with store fronts set up by various citizens with just about any product that they could get access to, there had been a clear change in products when we got to the border. The products got a little less random and more focused towards a specific category. Everything was focused towards people who had left quickly, bringing only necessities with them. They were the things people would need when they arrived in a new country, and would need prominently, before they could replace the rest.

The most prominent of these needs was currency. The South Sudanese would need to replace all of their money before they could buy other products inside Uganda, and nearly everything on the road at this point, this close to the crossing (except for the odd poster salesman… whom Isaac had bought a number of informative wall hangings from while we were shooting. We were confused too) was focused on exchanging currency.

When I was talking with Isaac and the money changer that he had gone to, they attempted to show me how much the difference in exchange rates were. The money changer pointed to a single Ugandan bill, then taking a wad of South Sudanese cash said that the two were equivalent. Isaac emphasized the refugees weren’t getting a good exchange rate.

At the receiving center and on the road, it was obvious that these refugees weren’t carrying much with them. There were no large items that they could sell, there wasn’t much food, no animals. For the most part, all they had were there families, and whatever close they on their back. These people did not have much.

Yet, when you looked at the tables of the money changers, it was filled with South Sudanese money. My mind wondered looking at these tables. How many life-savings were on those tables? How many people had left their homes, leaving nearly everything behind, only to lose the little they had left to these money changers?

In Matthew 21, Jesus flips the tables of money changers in the temple, telling them they have turned the house of worship into a “den of thieves” as he chases them out with a knotted rope. When you look at these people who have been taken advantage of in this way, it isn’t hard to understand why Jesus would react like this.

Build the school, then the church

Just outside Gulu, we visited OCER, a Jesuit boarding school. While there, we talked with Fr. Tony, the Jesuit priest who was the director of the school. He made a comment about how the diocese had been getting on his case to build a church at the school. It’s a quote that has been stuck in my mind since.

“I didn’t come here to build a church,” said Fr. Tony. “I came here to build a school. I’ll build the church later.”

Liberation theology makes a case that traditional Christianity has separated the body and the soul. The church has taken responsibility for the soul, while it has left the fate of the body up to the state. Yet, the argument goes that this is a false dualism. The body and soul are inextricably linked together, and as such the needs of the two cannot be separated. It’s false to think the church can address the needs of the soul without also addressing physical needs. Put simply, poverty, hunger, sickness, or lack of education can take away from ones ability to have a practicing faith in Jesus Christ. These problems are no where more prevalent than in the needs of the Ugandan poor and South Sudanese refugees.

In Uganda, it’s clear that the spiritual needs of the people are being met. The church is strong in Uganda, with nearly 85% of the population being made up of Christians, mostly Anglican or Catholic. Christianity and faith is much more openly discussed and displayed here than it is in the United States. Yet it’s equally clear that the physical needs are not.

This is part of the reason why I find Fr. Tony’s thoughts so striking. Despite his past as a Catholic priest, he has seen that the most striking need in Gulu that needs to be addressed is not a spiritual one, but this physical one: the need for education.

One of the growing branches of Christianity in Uganda (and in much of the undeveloped world), which has begun to threaten the established churches here, are Pentacostals. They have been able to push their way into a sizeable chunk of the population through prosperity theology, a doctrine that corrupts Calvinists ideas of election and predestination to propose that God chooses the elect based upon their merits (rather than unconditionally) and rewards them for these merits while still on Earth through wealth and power. It creates a construed misconception that God sees the rich as good, while poor as bad. This is a dangerous line of thought to follow, and one that goes against much of scripture.

In a strange way, this theology has been able to grow because of the physical need that has appeared here. When other churches have failed to address the physical needs of the people here, they have turned to another source, one that promises to meet their needs. Yet, God doesn’t work in this way. If churches don’t wish to continue losing ground to prosperity theology, they will need to begin addressing these same physical needs, but do so in a way that is real. They are going to need to realize there are times to build the school first, and the church later.

Unsure, or a Blog about Flowers and Hapiness

In the United States, when it comes to injustices, I often find that my response is something sure. It isn’t always easy to find the injustices that are here, but over time you recognize the patterns. Economic, social, or civil, they are here.

In some ways, I think I’ve become comfortable in my response to these issues. Compassion, followed by anger. Recognition that the people these injustices are committed against are humans, just like me, and that they are suffering, unlike me, because some larger force in society has allowed that to happen. Then, recognition of how agonizingly unfair it is that they should suffer.

Then, action.

Whatever it is, some step needs to be taken to correct that injustice. I need to speak out; I need to do something. If an injustice exists, and I don’t do anything about it, I also become personally accountable for that injustice along with the rest of society that has ignored it.

In Uganda, I feel unsure.

Unlike the United States, injustices lay no matter where you look. There is no need to understand any patterns or to read a newspaper. They’re just there; glaringly obvious on every street corner and in every slum we pass. Unemployment, violence and disease are everywhere. People are suffering, and the same flood of compassion and anger comes over me. But it isn’t action that follows. It’s dread, unsureness.

In the U.S., injustices give you time to think, time to plan out a response. In most cases, it isn’t a pressing need of life and death that needs a response. But in Uganda it is, and it’s everywhere.

Community organizers often take an approach that looks to separate “issues” from “problems.” Problems are systemic, they are overarching injustices that face society. They can often be stated in a single word: racism, war, poverty. Problems are nearly impossible to tackle. Issues are the small chunks that we cut out of problems. The things that we can manage. I alone can’t address racism, but I can work to change a zoning law that helps to enforce the de facto segregation of a city.

It seems nearly impossible in Uganda to cut any single issue out a problem. I can try to address the refugee crisis, but you can’t separate the refugee crisis from nearly any other problem that’s going on here, let alone separate an issue out of it. The problems overlap and interlock, in turn making each other worse.

I thought I was ready for Uganda. I had been to Haiti in the past. I had seen life-shattering poverty and its ugly complications. I had taken my classes with Dr. Wunsch, I had heard of the economic and political terrors that face the countries at the bottom of the economic ladder and their path to development. But Haiti isn’t Uganda. Dr. Wunsch’s class isn’t Uganda.

I’m left with this feeling in my gut of simply being unsure, of being disadvantaged to affect change. And that isn’t even touching into issues with whether I, in my white skin and privileged American upbringing, could ever understand this country and the problems it faces in a way meaningful enough to take action. I may simply just be another person who came to Africa with a “white savior” complex and an unhealthy sense of worth.

In this way, the first few days for me have been coming to terms with my own limits in Uganda. In the past, I’ve often found myself caught on the question of theodicy, or how an all-powerful, all-good God could allow for needless suffering. I don’t have an answer to that question, or at least not one that I’m altogether satisfied with. In the past, I’ve always been able to look past this by telling myself that even if God may tolerate suffering in this world, I don’t have to. But what happens when I find myself unable to take action? When it seems I’m forced to tolerate that there is suffering?

I’m unsure, and I don’t like it.

What does Trump say about Refugees?

Back home, I often find myself trying to calm down my friends about the dangers that our current president poses to the United States. I try to push that Trump isn’t representative of the people he represents, that he doesn’t pose the long-term threat that we have often fatalistically assumed that he does. In the end, there will be change, and things will be alright.

On our first day inside of the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) compound in Kampala, we stopped inside a classroom where refugees were gathered to learn English. We introduced ourselves, telling them who we were, where we were from, and how we had come to film about a documentary about their struggle. Before we left, we took a few questions.

“What does Trump say about refugees?”

My mind wondered immediately to last year, when Trump had reportedly asked in a cabinet meeting why the U.S. had to accept so many immigrants from “shithole” countries like Nigeria, a relatively well-off African state. The people in this room have come from the Congo, South Sudan, Somalia and other places in east Africa that are far more worse off and hopeless then Nigeria.

I thought the journalists were supposed to be the ones asking the hard questions.

Trying to calm someone down about the effects our president can have on futures and outcomes becomes so much worse when the stakes of those futures and outcomes are as high as they are for a refugee. Most of my friends will come out alright from Trump, but that might not be the same case for these people.

“What does Trump say about refugees?”

How do you explain those remarks to someone who is so desperate for stability and a better life? How do you explain that even if our president doesn’t support them, there is a huge body of people who recognize the problems they face and wishes to receive them with open arms?

In a lot of ways, many of the same things that I tell my friends back home can be repeated back to these people. That Trump isn’t a dictator, just one of many parts in our democracy. That not everything he does is going to hurt them, and that what does most likely isn’t permanent. A new president will come along, and they will make new decisions. Hopefully, the injustices that the president commits will again one day be made right. People are constantly fighting to make sure that happens, and in the end, you may just have to trust in the process.

But my friends aren’t spending the next two and a half years or more separated from family and loved ones, living in a culture that isn’t their own. Our problems seem small in comparison.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The moral arch of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

It’s a quote that I’ve often taken to heart when I look at the problems that the world faces, when I feel I’m losing hope in change and a better future. It helps to stop and remember the world has improved, and that improvement cannot stop.

But there’s a danger in going too far into this long-term, idealistic thinking. People in the present are facing problems in past or future, they are facing them now. Problems are not something can be solved simply by letting them lay fallow. It requires work and dedication, commitment to that better future.

The refugee crisis is not something that can just be waited out. The decisions that we’re making at home have an affect not only on the people that are at home, but across the world. Decisions that are pressing, and very well could affect someone’s life.

Gettin cheesy

Today, we ended the last of our pre-trip preparations. We distributed camera equipment for carry ons, printed and made sure we all had our documents together, threw in a little ecclesiology, made some super impressive b-roll, threatened us a couple of times in there about not forgetting camera stuff at home, and then we all got together to reflect on how we all felt about all that.

A little tense, John. But also excited. My current line of thought is relating it to the first day of kindergarten, but if kindergarten could  be 3,000 miles away from your parents instead of three blocks, and lasted eighteen days instead of eight hours. There is a definite chance it could change my life, and lot’s of ways it could go wrong.

So, essentially, how my first day of kindergarten felt when I was actually in kindergarten.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that’s exactly where I want to be right now. There’s a subtle enjoyment I find in not knowing what’s going to happen. I feel like it’s an environment that I thrive inside. Just letting life kind of push you where it wants you can bring you into a lot of situations you wouldn’t find if you tried to push it around. I seem to be spacing out and unaware of what’s going on in the first place, so when everyone is on that level I’ve got a step up on them. I know what I’m doing, in a weird way in which I absolutely don’t.

It’s an attitude that I hope serves me well in the airport.

Also throughout the rest of Uganda.

But I don’t want that to fall into a comfort. This should be a challenging experience, and it’s important to remember that. Uganda is different from my day to day life, and there should be things that make me uncomfortable, and not just from having to sleep in an airplane seat. So that’s in some way what I’m really hoping for on this trip, to be uncomfortable.

The Uganda Backpack Journalism squad, pre-trip and discomfort.

Gross, that’s cheesy. Not a fan of that line. I’m finna end on that, so you can all feel uncomfortable with me in the name of solidarity. May you all feel a discomfort.

A Letter to the Blog Readers

One of Paul’s letters stands out from the rest. Usually, his writings focus on reaching out to communities and churches which he has already been in contact with, and is reinforcing a teaching or giving advice. Romans wasn’t; instead, it was written before Paul arrived in Rome. It was meant to be a letter of introduction — the cover letter for his ministry to the Romans. Paul wanted to introduce himself and explain his ministry to the new church before his arrival.

There's where I'm going!
Uganda’s location in Africa

This week, I started “boot camp” for Backpack Journalism, a program that has us traveling to Uganda to create a documentary about the ongoing refugee crisis that is happening at the edges. I’ve started learning bits and pieces about how to use a camera, and why I’m doing that completely wrong. This is my letter to the Romans.

Well, obviously this is a little less high minded, but this is my introduction and explanation to the ten of you that will probably read this blog for why I’m traveling  to Uganda next week.

First of all, a little bit about me. I grew up in a town in the middle of nowhere in northwest

It's not a phase, Mom
The edgy picture I took in high school and still use as my profile pictures on Facebook and the place to “find God’s match for you.”

Iowa  called Rock Rapids that has a lot of people that would be angry I called it a town in the middle of nowhere. I’m going to be a senior next fall at Creighton, and I’m studying theology and political science. Yay writing papers. I’m planning on pursuing a career in ministry (Reformed, not Catholic, so I can keep my Christian Mingle profile running).

So, why am I going to Uganda?

It’s an opportunity to experience a story that’s unique to Uganda and to be able to make that unique story something others can relate to and learn from in their own life. The way Uganda deals with refugees is something that is sure to be different from that of my own home communities here in the United States. There are things to be learned about how this small African country deals with the problems that face it and its neighbors. Things that can be learned, and brought back home.

Next to these experiences, I wish to be able to get better at that last part: bringing it back home. I believe God calls us to do justice, and there are few ways better to  do that than advocating for those at the margins of our societies. I hope that this opportunity gives me the option to learn about film making and writing that will give me a better grasp and ability to share these experiences, and others like it in the future.

Finally, if this pastey white boy is ever going to get a tan, he’s going to need some high powered rays. My mother won’t let me stand shirtless in front of an open microwave, so I guess I’m going to have to do it the normal way that nature intended.

I look forward to the trip, and can’t wait to keep you all updated as it happens!