Empowered to Love
It was on a Monday that I made the journey through treacherous Kampala traffic and arrived at the Empower-A-Child offices nestled within the city’s maze of roads. I was ushered into an office, a relief from the unrelenting Ugandan heat. I sat gazing around the office at pictures and posters plastered upon the walls as I waited to meet the man I had heard so much about. A large-scale layout of Empower-A-Child’s land in Zirobwe, Uganda caught my eye, boasting a beautiful multifaceted compound with a large church located directly in the center. Wilson Kabeera, the founder of Empower-A-Child, eventually walked into the room, apologizing for being late. He had come from a meeting with Ugandan government officials to strategize for his organization’s growth. He greeted me with a handshake and a gentle smile, introducing himself as he sat down adjacent to me at the table. My mind full of questions, I asked him when the roots of Empower-A-Child first began to grow. With a small grin creeping across his face he simply said, “Where should I even begin?”
Wilson sat back in his chair as his mind wandered to stories of his childhood. He talked of his life in a rural Ugandan village, and of eventually moving to Kampala to be fostered by his older sister. Wilson was born into a Muslim family, the last of ten children. As is common among large families, Wilson’s parents often struggled to pay for school fees and other necessary materials. Because of financial instability at home, Wilson could not consistently attend school. It wasn’t until he was in Primary 3 (the equivalent of 3rd grade in the U.S.) that he received the opportunity to be sponsored.
His sponsor’s name was David, and his decision to pay for Wilson’s schooling would eventually reach far beyond what either one of them could have ever imagined. It was through the gift of David’s sponsorship that Wilson’s life was radically altered. The burden of school fees was lifted from his family with monthly financial support from a world away. For the first time in his life, Wilson could stay in school.
As Wilson sat across from me, he continued to reflect on those earlier years that fundamentally changed his path. With each monthly check, Wilson purchased school supplies and other materials that his family previously struggled to provide. He received an education that empowered him to learn and pursue the future he wanted.
Through the sponsorship program Wilson was introduced to Jesus. Each week, he and other sponsored children gathered for activities and Bible teaching. The lessons were foreign to him as he had been raised Muslim, but Wilson found comfort and hope in the message of Christ and his new community. Church, something previously so unknown to him, became the place where he found life. Wilson attended weekly Bible studies and church on the weekends where he learned about the radical, unconditional love of Jesus Christ. Over time, his church and sponsorship program became his family.
When he was twelve Wilson made the decision to turn from the religion he had known all his life and choose Christ as his Savior. As he grew in his understanding of the Gospel, he realized it was Christ’s love through David that had first captivated him years ago.
The love that urged David to reach beyond himself to love a little boy in Uganda was the same love that took root in Wilson’s heart.
“If it wasn’t for David’s sponsorship, I’d be a lost boy somewhere,” Wilson says, “Sponsorship transformed my faith completely.”
Years passed and David continued to sponsor Wilson through his schooling and into college. The two regularly wrote letters back and forth. With each letter written and check sent in the mail, Wilson was humbled that someone he had never met from across the world would care for him. “Every time I would read a letter from David, it would capture my heart how someone who didn’t know me could possibly love me so much,” he says. His relationship with David progressed as he grew older. “I kept on praying for David, believing in David,” he says, “I mean…he was my beloved dad.”
With each word Wilson spoke about David, I could feel his deep sentiment and gratitude. It was the humbled love of a son for his father. Wilson told stories of David’s unwavering encouragement through the rough times and the good. As we sat together, Wilson reflected back on the moments in school when he faced judgement by the other kids. “In school, they would give you titles. ‘Kateyamba,’ which means ‘helpless person’ was mine. But that didn’t bother me. I just felt privileged. Even more privileged than the other kids.”
It was David’s support that pushed Wilson forward. From across the ocean he was the father that Wilson never had growing up. “I used to pray for him that one day I would get to meet him, to thank him for what he’s done. But it didn’t seem like it would ever ever happen,” he says. Despite the odds, Wilson kept on praying.
David’s unrelenting compassion eventually spurred Wilson on to see the needs of others around him in his community, to be a voice for the vulnerable, and to advocate for the oppressed. Wilson began to recognize the transforming power of love because his own life had been altered by the love of another. After graduating university, Wilson’s heart was specifically drawn to the vulnerable children within his community. His greatest desire was to empower local children living in villages and slums. “In the hopeless and desperate state they’re living, I could picture myself,” he says.
From this desire, Empower-A-Child was born.
With the help of Ugandan and expatriate volunteers, Empower-a-Child (EAC) began as an outreach program to serve children throughout Kampala. The program evolved from outreach into sponsorship, and by 2008 fifteen children were sponsored through EAC. But Wilson wanted to reach more. Wilson and a group of like-minded friends gathered together to fight for the children in Uganda who desperately needed to know they were loved and that someone cared for them.
He decided to pursue a visa to travel to the United States in hopes of raising support and awareness for Empower-A-Child. It’s well-known amongst most Ugandans that a visitor’s visa is incredibly hard to obtain—the application process is extensive and there are very few who who pass their interview. With little money in his bank account and a slim chance that his dream would become ever become a reality, Wilson sat in the office of the U.S. Embassy waiting to hear the verdict. Against all odds, he was granted a 6-month visitor’s visa to the United States. His shock quickly gave way to excitement: “I didn’t care about my itinerary or where I was going, as long as I could meet David. It was the evening after I was granted the visa that I felt conviction from the Lord that He was answering my prayer,” Wilson says, “A prayer that I had initially made when I was seven years old in hopes of one day visiting the U.S. and meeting David.”
There was just one problem: after graduating university and completing his sponsorship program, Wilson and David lost touch. From 2004-2007 they didn’t write letters or communicate. Immediately after receiving his visa, Wilson wrote to his sponsorship program and asked for David’s contact information. The program obliged and soon he was in contact with David, making arrangements to meet one another as they both anticipated his arrival to the U.S.
Wilson’s first stop in America was Chicago—the same place where he would finally meet David. “It was the first time that I was able to meet him face to face, me sharing my story and him sharing his, all in tears. I remember telling him in that moment ‘Because of your act of love, you have engraved your name on my heart forever’.” As they sat together, Wilson poured his heart out to David, recounting the years they spent writing letters back and forth, and expressing the immense impact that was made on his life as a young boy that David had never witnessed firsthand.
I sat in amazement as Wilson recounted the first time he and David met in America. Their reunion was a true testament to God’s faithfulness; a long-awaited answer to prayer spoken from the lips of a little boy in Uganda so many years ago. Jesus loves to move mountains whenever we are simply willing to step forward in obedience of our calling to love one another selflessly. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus had orchestrated this beautiful bond of two souls from opposite sides of the world from the very moment David responded in obedience to sponsor Wilson.
After the meeting, it would have been easy for Wilson and David to return to writing letters back and forth—but their story wasn’t over. Wilson told David about Empower-A-Child and all that he was doing in Uganda to help vulnerable children and families. “David plugged in right from the day I met him,” he says. David was thrilled to hear about the program and was eager to support EAC in any way possible.
David now sits on the board of directors for the organization. Every year he brings teams of medical personnel to host free medical camps for the people of Uganda. To this day, he is one of Wilson’s greatest supporters and biggest advocates. What started off as sponsorship through financial support and written letters has grown into a lifetime of mutual love and support between two strangers who’ve become family.
A few weeks after meeting Wilson, I had the opportunity to travel out to Zirobwe with a few staff members of EAC. As I walked through the program’s compound, the very land I had initially seen laid out on the wall of Wilson’s office, I sensed Christ’s presence filling the air around me. Years of prayer, love, sacrifice, and commitment have turned this piece of land into a community center dedicated to providing hope and restoration to surrounding villages.
As we toured their 40-acre plot of land, I saw children who were once unable to attend school sitting in classrooms, learning and engaging their minds. I stood in a church built directly over land where witchdoctors once made child sacrifices. I witnessed a family who once shared a tiny shack now residing in a sturdy brick house, a mansion compared to their previous living conditions. I sat with women stringing beads into beautiful necklaces, dignified by the work they were creating. Hope was in their toothy grins and joy was in their laughter. This land was sacred, holy ground. The love that altered Wilson’s life as a boy was the same love I witnessed radically transforming lives throughout Zirobwe.
As Wilson and I sat together in his office that hot, Monday afternoon, there was a simple joy in his smile and gratitude in his eyes as he reflected on the ever deepening roots of Empower-A-Child, inseparably intertwined with his own journey of sponsorship.
“David’s act of love will never leave me,” he said. “That is why I am doing what I’m doing today…It’s because of his love that I’m passing on the same love he poured into me.”
Photos by Gregory Woodman & Kayla Cervenka
Kayla is a Chicago-based artist, writer, and photographer. Her life lately has been a journey of letting Jesus take her where He leads, whether that’s down the street or across the world. He’s given her a passion for people and the intricate stories that their lives tell. It is the hope of her heart to share love and bring light wherever she goes with whomever is placed in her path.
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