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Couple saves former Ugandan child soldier

The Rev. Stan Cardwell and his wife, Michelle, followed God’s call to Uganda where they met with youth who were victims of the country’s civil war. The Cardwells hope to become the legal guardian of one former child soldier. UMNS photos courtesy of the Rev. Stan and Michelle Cardwell.

By Melissa Lauber*
August 25, 2009 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

They’re called “the invisible children” – a generation of young boys and girls in Uganda who were torn from their villages, brainwashed and used as pack animals and bullet fodder for the Lord’s Resistance Army of Joseph Kony.

Youth in Uganda are hungry for compassion and care, the Cardwells found.

A teen named Lazarus, who also calls himself Joe, lived amid these atrocities, and then on the streets, eating out of garbage pits, after escaping Kony’s terrorist army.

Only about a year ago did he let himself smile.

This fall, if all goes according to plan, Joe will join the Rev. Stan Cardwell, his wife, Michelle, and their three children in Bel Air, Md., welcomed as a blessing from God.

Talk about a divine plan. Less than four months ago, the couple knew next to nothing about the civil war that had ravaged the east-African nation for 23 years. They had never heard of Joseph Kony.

The whole whirlwind journey to become the legal guardian of a former child soldier is overwhelming and risky, said the associate pastor of Bel Air United Methodist Church.

“But God doesn’t call us to love abstractly,” he said. “God calls us simply to love, and love is messy.”

Saving one life

The journey began in May, when Caldwell and his wife joined friends from a house church called Burning Hearts on a mission trip to Uganda.

Young people in Uganda clasp their hands together in prayer during worship.

With the assistance of the ministry Active Blessing, they met with victims of Kony’s campaign to establish a theocratic government in Uganda. The United Nations estimates that his rebellion as leader of the Lord’s Army from 1987 to 2006 involved the abduction of an estimated 30,000 children, who made up 90 percent of the army, and the displacement of more than 1.7 million Ugandans.

In Mbale and Kitgum, the Cardwells spoke with the former child soldiers and discovered many of them had moved past sheer survival instincts and were now searching for some kind of love, trust and purpose.

They walked with the boys to church and worshipped with them.

“They would teach us their music and some songs and dance and we would teach them ours,” Michelle Cardwell said. “Our team would teach them from the Bible about love and the Father’s forgiveness, because a lot of them have a lot of guilt about what they were forced to do in the war, and they all still have nightmares every night.”

One day, Simon Peter, 17, approached Cardwell carrying a King James Version of the Bible. “I don’t understand this passage,” he told him. Cardwell, who had an easier to understand Today’s New International Version, suggested they trade Bibles.

The passage Simon Peter was having trouble with also stirred Cardwell’s heart – Psalm 68, which reads, in part, “A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows is God in his holy habitation. God sets the lonely, the solitary, in families.”

Considering adoption

Both Stan and Michelle Cardwell had, over the years, toyed with the idea of adopting a child.

Michelle Cardwell says many young Ugandans are searching for trust, love and purpose.

But, on this trip, the idea of God creating families spoke to them both, and each also knew the person to whom God had led them.

Joe had taken Michelle Caldwell into town to buy souvenirs. On the second night of their visit, he told them his story. Several of the details were vague. “He said just enough, making sure to not displease us,” she said.

The teen gradually let his story unfold, an act of trust the Cardwells hold as sacred.

They don’t see a victim when they look at Joe. They see a child of God – someone God has placed in their path to love.

“We hope to give him back a family,” Stan Cardwell said. “We will love him as a father and a mother and help him grow fully into the person God created him to be.”

Sacrifice for love

It will not be easy.

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The Cardwells are aware that someone who lived as a rebel soldier at the age of 5 is bound to have post-traumatic stress disorder or other trauma-related issues. They will be dipping into their college savings to bring Joe to their home.

“It’s a level of trust with God that we’ve never had,” Stan Cardwell said. “It’s one more step in the journey.”

Their act of self-sacrificial love is already bringing blessings.

On Father’s Day, 14 families from Bel Air United Methodist Church sponsored young men from Uganda through Active Blessing after Stan preached, sharing their story.

The Cardwells’ children, ages 14, 15 and 17, also share their excitement. Daniel, their son, volunteered to share his room with Joe. They wonder about this new member of their family, who may arrive as early as November.

“I wonder if he’s a picky eater and how he’s going to do at night. He might have nightmares, I could comfort him,” said Daniel, who is looking forward to teaching Joe something about American sports and American girls.

They exchange e-mails now. “He’s a cool guy,” Daniel says.

The Cardwells no longer love Africa abstractly. They cannot ease all the suffering there, but they can make a difference in one youngster’s life.

“God doesn’t call us to love the whole world, that’s his job. But God does call us to love a slice of the world,” Stan Cardwell said. “Uganda is our slice.”

* Lauber is the editor of UMConnection, the newspaper of the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5472 or newsdesk@umcom.org

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