“I didn’t bless the rains down in Africa (they blessed me)” with Jairus Withrow

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LOFT’s own Jairus Withrow went to Uganda in January to spread the good news through music and worship. He shares his testimony and reflects on the week he spent at the camp, creating relationships and watching God work in the people attending the camp and in himself.

Tell us about the missions trip.

Well, I wasn’t originally supposed to go on this trip at all, but as God would have it, I was graciously given the chance! The Reaction Tour team had their male worship leader drop out suddenly, and they were frantically looking for someone to replace him. Through a series of connections, I was given literally one day to make a choice to join the team. But providentially, my schedule was open. So I went to Kampala, Uganda with the Reaction Tour team over New Years. The city of Kampala sits on Lake Victoria (which I’m pretty sure is the largest lake in Africa). We were in Uganda for about 8 days or so.

What exactly did you do in Uganda?

The Reaction Tour team put on a free 5 day camp for adults (ages 17-35). The camp was basically both educational and spiritual in nature–working on developing student’s skills in focused areas as well as providing spiritual direction and times of corporate worship for the entire camp. Students chose class “electives” to do in morning and afternoon sessions. The morning session had electives such as Worship, Media Arts, Fine Art, and Leadership. The afternoon session had hip-hop dance class, sports electives (volleyball, basketball, soccer) and He or She class (dealing with men’s and women’s issues). I was in charge of co-leading the Worship class and co-leading our evening worship times. My partner, Annalise Bush, and I decided to take our class a different direction that in previous Reaction Tours and focused on songwriting.

Was it what you expected? Did God surprise you in any way?

Ha! In all honesty, I was pretty unsure of what to expect. Because I had been thrown into this trip so suddenly, I was behind on all the details. Even in the previous years that Reaction Tour had put on this camp (which have all been very successful, mind you), there was still no written curriculum. I just had to get details straight word of mouth from one of the previous team’s worship leaders. But in any case, the Lord knew I would enjoy the challenge! The songwriting class ended up being phenomenal- to hear the songs these guys wrote was astounding! Many had never written a song before, and some, even though they might have been leading worship their whole lives, had never written in a group setting. So we really felt like we came in and gave them a unique learning experience. You could feel the favor of God over the whole thing and by the end of the week, no one wanted to stop writing! We were all saying, “Week 2, let’s go!”

As far as surprises, I was pretty surprised at how our team banded together so rapidly. It has definitely been the tightest, most complementary mission team I’ve been on. And it seemed God was using the cohesiveness nonstop as we would keep getting these amazing stories coming in all day and night of things that were happening throughout the camp. I was shocked at how close our team got, and by the end of it, we all had that same sad and slightly confused question bouncing around of, “Why does this have to end?”

How did this trip make a personal impact on you?

It was powerful to see the fruit of God’s faithfulness to me in my own life. He’s taken me through all these steps over the past decade– in my career as a teacher and musician, in my spiritual maturity, in leadership– and this camp was an opportunity to see it all culminate in my own life, as my role required someone who had reached a certain skill level in these different areas.

It was like the Lord was giving me a special gift (like a kiss on the forehead, really) in allowing me to find a group of people and a situation where I was able to use the full gamut of skills he’s been working in me for years.

What was your favorite memory from the trip?

One of the most profound and dearest experiences to me from the trip was on the last day of our songwriting class, we split into men’s and women’s groups. They had already presented the songs they had written on the day before, and the last day was really a day for them to process and share what God had done in their hearts as well as to confess anything and be prayed for. This was the time where they guys really opened up. People needed real prayer and direction for so many things– men having trouble leading their worship teams back home, secret sin that needed to come out, people feeling like they needed help in different situations. It felt like the Lord was bringing many things out of darkness and into light.

It was a realization, that for me, the work of teaching songwriting and leading a worship band was doing more than just producing cool songs or music, but God was working on people’s hearts the whole time, and helping us all get to a place where we could be vulnerable and receive healing. So I pray that they can carry what they learned back to their churches and cultivate the same kind of culture of trust and vulnerability.

Okay, how about another one?!

reactiontour-jackfruitSo the double rainbow story…It was late in the afternoon and our team leader, Brad, and another teammate, Keenan, had developed an obsession with finding ripe jack fruit. You could climb the trees, tap on a hanging jack fruit, and know if it was good to eat or not. So here they are, about to go scalping the Ugandan forest for jack fruit, and I’m hanging around the team hut and they come up to me and say, “Hey Jairus, come join the hunt!” So I decided to join. Now, we’re headed towards the football (soccer) fields because we’re pretty sure we’ll sight some new jack fruit in the trees surrounding the field. And as we’re going, the sky has these ominous, dark-lavender clouds rapidly rolling in behind us that are just pregnant with rain. And while we’re headed down this narrow dirt road, of course, it starts to rain- a nice tropical rain. But here’s the thing about Uganda- when it rains, the sky emanates this golden hue. It’s as if the whole country is bathed in a golden essence. And while Brad is up a tree, and Keenan and I are standing below, we look up over the soccer field and behold! The double rainbow in the golden sky over a grassy Ugandan field. Needless to say, Brad got out of tree, and then we began prancing in the field. Here’s a picture that doesn’t quite do it justice…

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Did you have any hard days or experiences during your trip?

It was pretty taxing at first for me and my partner to get into the rhythm of Ugandan band practice and worship prep. It’s just different than in America. Often times, they don’t use chord charts. They just listen to the songs, learn them, and sort of improvise with a band leader calling out chord numbers in your in-ears during the worship set. That was pretty tough for me because I’m so used to referencing a chord chart during our practice times. So if there was a part we were trying to get down exactly, I could get frustrated that no one had the chord charts we’d passed out. But really what it was was just a difference in culture. It’s not that one way is better than the other necessarily, it’s just we were trying to mash our two ways together without realizing that we had different expectations for what practice and learning a song looks like. Ha! Sounds like a relationship 🙂

Was there a Bible verse or passage that kept coming to mind while you were there?

Hmmm…1 Corinthians 4:20 was the one.

“For the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by God’s power.”

 

The word power was definitely highlighted to me throughout the trip. We wanted to see real, tangible life change and learning happening, not just our team being talking heads and the student’s nodding, but real power from God that transforms people’s lives forever.

What should the LOFT family know about our brothers and sisters in Uganda?

First, they know how to dance in worship! If you need a master course in it, go to Uganda. I’m not kidding. If you want to introduce dance in your church, do some R&D in Uganda and you will get what you need. And second, while there are certainly big differences from American to Ugandan culture,

I am always reminded when I visit a new place, that people all struggle with the same root things– sin, difficulties, and pain. And Uganda is no different. The very same things you pray for yourself, your church, and your family can be prayed for your Ugandan brother’s and sisters. So in your prayer time this week, please pray for the Ugandan church. That they will make their first priority to know, worship, and obey Jesus.

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Do you have plans to go back?

I would love to return, but we’ll see what the Reaction Tour leaders decide. I know that they are preparing to take the team to a Native American reservation soon. I and several others from our team are actually traveling to our team leader’s home in Arkansas next weekend to help plan future trips as well as develop curriculum so that we can expand to multiple teams.

Life on Mission

Camelot Tuesday LOFT City Church
When we first started, one of our deepest desires was to foster a strong relationship with the people in our church neighborhood in Richardson. We did not want to simply invite them to come to us, but we wanted to go to them. Serving at the Camelot apartments was the opportunity God opened for us. Every Tuesday night we have the privilege of hosting kids from the apartment and the neighborhood. With the help of volunteers, we created a place where they can be honest with each other, without fear of rejection, and where we can encourage them to pursue God in complete surrender. A few of months back, we had a chance to sit down and interview some of the kids. Here is what they had say:

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Alex, the General Contractor

Back in August, I signed up for a Groupon deal to have a handyman come to the house to do various house projects for an hour.  The day before he was supposed to come, “Alex” called to discuss the details of the projects.When he arrived, Alex mentioned that I needed to get some materials from Home Depot. We jumped in his car, and on the drive there, I got to learn about his story.

©Erich Ferdinand

Alex’s real name is Ali, and he is a Muslim from the Middle East.  He came to the United States in 2000 to study architecture at a university in Oklahoma.  While there, he met his future wife, also a devout Muslim. They got married a few years later, and now have two little kids.  His wife stays at home to take care of the children, while he works for a family friend to provide food on the table.

Ali had a brother in Florida, who had been brutally murdered.  Ali’s eyes were full of pain as he explained what had happened. Despite all this, Ali can’t imagine living anywhere other than the United States.  He loves American football, boating, fishing, and being with his family.

Ali spoke of his devotion to his faith. He faithfully prayed at the times that he was supposed to pray. During Ramadan, Ali would faithfully fast during daylight hours although it was difficult to do so as a handyman. Sometimes this meant that he would be in the heat outside all day without any food or water.

After a while, he began asking about what I did.  When I mentioned that I pastor a church, he wanted to know my thoughts about relationships between Muslims and Christians.  I began telling him of my friendship with the Imam of the Plano mosque.  I told him about how I have been to both the Plano and Irving mosques and have met both Imams.  Ali attends the Irving mosque, and was amazed when I mentioned Imam Zia by name.

We ended our long conversation with him wanting me to meet his family and pray for his business.

Why am I blogging about this?

Too often, we Christians tend to talk about other faiths, but we don’t dialogue with people of other faiths. If all we do is attack people of other nations, other religions or other races, we aren’t being representatives of Jesus to the world we live in. The only thing this does is close the door for relationships to be built.  Yet when I study the life of Jesus, I don’t see him doing that at all.

Jesus was interested in conversations with the “enemy.”  He spoke with the Samaritan woman, when no one else would have talked to her. He healed the daughter of a Gentile woman – another enemy of the people of God.  Although Jesus knew he would be crucified by Romans, he never attacked or talked about them. Instead, he healed the servant of a Roman Centurion.  These were enemies.  These were people opposed to the Gospel.  They were the terrorists.  Yet, Jesus didn’t see them that way.  He loved them enough to talk to them – not about them.  Loved them enough to heal them – not let them die.  Loved them enough to build relationships with them – not close the door on them.

I had previously posted about how the world is coming to Dallas.  It’s an incredible time to be living in.  God is giving us opportunities to interact with various people, learn from them, love them, and point them to Jesus. However, it won’t matter at all if the world is coming to our city if we aren’t willing to love and reach out to them.  If we stay closed and boxed in our little comfort zones, nations will come and go, and we will miss the incredible opportunities that God opens for us.

I love my Muslim friends.  I recently had a great lunch with an Imam, whom I genuinely care about.  I would love to see him become a follower of Jesus, and I pray for that often.  I’m sure he would love to see me become a Muslim and prays for that, as well.  We have incredible conversations about life, faith, and theology.  We disagree on many things.  However, our religious differences have not stopped us from being friends and from living in peace and harmony with each other.

My friend, Ali, left my house that day saying that he wishes he had met more Christians like me.  That was humbling to hear.  He even mentioned that he wanted to visit our church one day.  He figured if an Imam was welcome, he would be welcome as well.  Has he come?  No.  Will he come?  I don’t know.  I do know that because God led me to see him as a person and genuinely care about him, he had a better impression of Christians and the Church.

Photo courtesy of ©Erich Ferdinand under the Creative Commons License 3.0