JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)--After spending 10 days in Uganda with hundreds of orphans in August, members of the Union University Lady Bulldogs team came home with a new appreciation for love, life and their faith.
Several members of the basketball team, along with coaches, friends and staff of the university, traveled to the eastern African nation on a mission trip to visit orphanages, said coach Mark Campbell.
Kayla Hudson, who plays guard on the team, said she gained a new perspective on Christianity from the Ugandans.
"I realized that church buildings mean absolutely nothing to them," she said. "They see the church as the body of Christ, which is what it should be. We put so much money into how a building looks, when it's really global. There are Christians in Uganda and Christians in the U.S. They helped me realize that."
Paige Parker, a guard for the team, said the goal of the trip wasn't to build buildings or lead backyard Bible studies.
"We just went to love on them," she said. "We spent time on games, sports, we did stuff with a basketball that the kids loved. We played soccer. We also did face painting. We did all kinds of things. We shared some Bible stories and showed we cared for them."
The Lady Bulldogs regularly spend time in prayer and reading about ministry. Campbell and assistant coach Katie Woodruff have all the players read blogs or books on the subject. One blog inspired the group to travel overseas to see mission work firsthand.
Campbell and his wife, Molly, recently went through the adoption process for a child overseas.
"Molly came across Katie Davis' blog," Woodruff said. "We started reading portions of her blog to our girls because she started an orphanage at 20 - the same age as most of our girls. We were telling them to live life and live the life God called them to live."
On Davis' blog, the team read her story - how she went to Uganda and has over the past couple of years adopted 14 children.
"The girls were captivated by what Katie had done," Campbell said. "They eventually asked about the possibility of visiting her."
Molly Campbell got in touch with Davis' mom, and the arrangements were made.
"I had no expectation of what that trip would mean other than that none of us had been on a mission trip where we're just going and loving people," Mark Campbell said. "We spent a lot of time with orphans. For the girls, I think it was a recognition of what maybe they didn't know - ignorance of what's going on in the world."
This was the first time the team has made a trip like this.
The team left for Uganda on Aug. 8 and returned Aug. 18. During their stay, they visited schools, orphanages and churches. Thirteen members of the team and staff, a couple of Union professors and other friends of the university came along, Mark Campbell said.
The countryside was beautiful, with Lake Victoria - which feeds into the Nile River - and mountains spotting the landscape, said Lady Bulldogs guard Rebecca Sharpe. The country's orphans either have no parents or their parents can't support them, so they send them to orphanages, she said.
The population of Uganda is 32.4 million, and half of its people are under the age of 15, according to the CIA World Factbook website. The landlocked country is surrounded by Sudan to the north, Kenya to the east, Tanzania and Rwanda to the south and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west.
Every night, members of the Union group slept under mosquito nets in cots or beds, Hudson said.
"The places we stayed, even their nicest place doesn't compare to anything here to me," she said. "It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. It wasn't super clean, but they were so welcoming and so proud of what they had. It was awesome to be part of their culture."
With all the activities the team members had planned, the one thing the children at the orphanages wanted most was attention, Hudson said.
They didn't want to be played with, she said, "They wanted to be held."
In several photos from the trip, every member of the group can be seen holding a different child. Everyone took part in that, the players said.
"They wanted you to pick them up and hold them," Hudson said. "I'm talking even older children. 'Hold my hand. Pick me up.' That's what they wanted. We take for granted the families we come from - they don't have anyone but each other. The older ones take care of the younger ones like they are their children."
Parker said she saw a 4-year-old holding her baby sister, despite being small herself. That moment speaks to how the children care for each other, she said.
"I think I went over there with the mindset of, 'How can I help them?' but they helped me grow spiritually," she said. "It made me grateful for the things we have - things they might not have over there, like running water, shelter. They are thankful for every meal, because it's not guaranteed."
Sharpe said she was awed by the love the children and those who care for them showed each other and how they expressed that love.
"You could see it on their faces when they were happy or something was bothering them," she said. "Each emotion was pretty, I guess. Especially when they smile. They have the best smiles."
It was an honor to be in Uganda and take part in that love, she said.
The country's faith landscape was different than what Sharpe is used to, she said.
"We learned a lot when we got there, being able to see culture first hand," she said. "We heard Muslims pray at 4:30 in the morning, every day."
About 84 percent of Ugandans are Christian, and 12 percent are Muslim, according to the CIA World Factbook.
"But everywhere we were was predominantly Muslim," Hudson said. "Even in the airport, there were lots of Muslims in prayer. We saw mostly Muslims in the cities."
Attending Christian church services in Uganda was a unique experience, Hudson said.
"Seeing how the children worshiped with their whole bodies - their hands, voice and faces," she said. "They're so simple, so real. There's no questioning. You could tell God was in that place."
Hudson said she learned there are many ways Christians can take care of widows and orphans, as they are commanded to in the Book of James.
"I have a new appreciation of taking care of people," she said. "So many people have embraced the stories we've told them. They want to be involved. It's grown from a personal experience to something my whole family has shared in, and the community and my church."
Sometimes people on mission trips become overwhelmed and don't interact, while others thrive and take part, Woodruff said. The first place they visited was a school, and all the teammates immediately bonded with the students, she said.
"It was awesome to watch the girls immediately take hold of their hands, play, laugh, paint faces and dance with them," Woodruff said. "There was no fear whatsoever. It was a real joy to see.
"The biggest thing for me was how those kids didn't have much, but they loved each other well," she said. "In the midst of not having much, they were grateful for what they did have. They had smiles and fun, despite having no parents. My prayer going in was that the girls would totally respond to those kids."
Senior Kayla Bryant said the trip was a great experience. Bryant is a guard for the basketball team.
"The whole culture is different," she said. "It was great to see believers do what they can there to help. We went to a couple of orphanages. Katie (Davis) started a school and a weekend program for kids to have a place to work, do their homework and have fun."
Bryant said her favorite part was coming together as a team and experiencing something so much bigger than them.
"We want to plan more trips, like maybe every two years going to a new country," she said. "Because of this trip, the team has decided that we want to go out in Jackson and do some mission work when we can. We're coming up with a list of places we want to work at, places where we can volunteer on the weekends, things like that."
Randy Carter, pastor of Northside Assembly of God, was asked to join the group. Campbell and several of the basketball players attend Carter's church.
"I'm a huge Lady Bulldog fan," Carter said. "Campbell had invited me to go, he wanted several men to go with the girls. I went as the grandpa of the group."
While in Uganda, Carter held a one-day pastor seminar along with Paul Jackson, a professor of biblical studies, theology and missions at Union.
"My role was basically to love the orphans and support the girls," Carter said. "I was there to serve both of them in any way that I could. The girls were awesome. They've proven they are champions on the court, and they were incredible champs with those kids. They did everything that was asked of them and more. I never heard one complaint."
Carter said it was inspiring to see the team be so involved with the people of Uganda.
"Mark wanted his girls to see that there's more to life than what we see in this country," he said. "He wanted them to be exposed to the needs of the world."
The group went to five or six orphanages or schools, and every day was a little different, Carter said.
"It was a great trip; it really touched my heart to go over there and see the need," he said. "We don't have to feel guilty to be blessed to live in this country, but we have to be responsible. We're blessed so we can pass these blessings on."
One thing Carter said he heard the players talk about was that they couldn't believe how pampered their daily lives are.
"They have a greater appreciation for all the things they're blessed with," he said. "They really are great kids. I've really missed everybody, too. We got to be together for 10 days, like a family."
Tracie Simer is the religion and health reporter for The Jackson Sun, where this story was originally published. Reprinted with permission.
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