By Octavia Lehman
Faithful attendees of Grace Church, a Grace Brethren church in Long Beach, Calif., knew that Sam and Ruth Sebabi always disappeared at Christmastime. However, the congregation did not know the deep burden that Sam and Ruth carried: the couple was caring for 15 of their nieces and nephews orphaned by AIDS.
Both Sam and Ruth are from Uganda, an east African country slightly smaller than Oregon, where an estimated one million of the 32 million people live with AIDS. Sam and Ruth visited their homeland every year since arriving in the U.S. in the 1980s, only to witness the devastation in their families, as many deaths left a large numbers of orphans.
“We lost brothers, cousins, and uncles,” Sam relayed. He is the oldest son in a family of thirty-six children, and half of his siblings have now died from AIDS.
To support his nephews and nieces in Uganda, Sam worked as a traffic manager in Long Beach, handling multi-million dollar shipping contracts. The lucrative job did not provide enough. Sam needed to work two supplemental jobs, as well. His three jobs left him tired and weary.
When Long Beach senior pastor Lou Huesmann learned of the Sebabis’ burden, he urged them to meet with Julie Schumacher, then-director of missions at the church. He wanted to know if there was a way for the church to come alongside the couple.
The result was Ugandan Lambs (UL), a ministry launched in October, 2004 to provide each child with food, clothing, education, and medical care through a sponsor. The first Sunday the program was announced, they were overwhelmed; they had more sponsors than children. “We had to put people on waiting lists to sponsor the children,” Schumacher said.
Nearly two million children in Uganda are orphans, and life for them is cruelty and neglect. Unless a relative takes them in, most children are forced to the streets. During the school year all the UL children attend boarding school in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. When school is out of session, they live in one of the two homes owned by UL, where they are cared for by extended family members, the majority of whom have been widowed by AIDS.
The children range in ages from six to 20, and all are relatives of either Sam or Ruth. Even though the Sebabis do not live in Uganda, they are a vital part of the ministry and travel each year to visit the children. Providing the main line of communication to Uganda, they help Schumacher and the leadership team understand the cultural ramifications of the decisions they make. English is spoken in Uganda, but the staff prefers to speak in Luganda, their native language.
UL employs two administrative assistants, Ronald Ssebuliba and Harriet Nabwami, both Ugandan natives, who run the day-to-day operations in Uganda. Ssebuliba, an experienced educator in his thirties, oversees all the educational aspects of UL, as well as the spiritual discipling of the boys. Nabwami, a recent university graduate with a degree in NGO administration, oversees the medical concerns as well as the spiritual discipleship of the girls.
As AIDS ravages the nation, UL has changed the lives of many children. Alex Mutawafu and Mark Dotty are two examples.
For nine-year-old Mutawafu, UL fixed his heart. Literally. Born to a well-respected builder, Mutawafu lost both parents to AIDS. He lived with an uncle and brother before his aunt, Ruth Sebabi, brought him to UL. Yet, Mutawafu had more problems