The shrill trill of an unfamiliar phone unceremoniously yanked me from a deep slumber. A clock I didn’t recognize mockingly blinked 2:03 a.m. “Where am I, and who’s calling me at this hour?,” I thought.
The cobwebs vaporized as the caller assured me no student interns were injured by the bomb blast that killed more than 100 spectators two hours earlier at a venue projecting the 2010 World Cup finals onto a big screen in Kampala. As I hung up, I thought about what in the world I was doing in Uganda for third time this year.
The answer was simple: Bob Goff.
Nine months earlier, he exploded my apathetic life. And if you’re ready to blow up your own apathetic life, too, I can offer you a few lessons that I learned during my own journey:
Compassion is Contagious
If you want to pull the plug on apathy, hang around compassionate people like Bob Goff. Read his book, Love Does. Call the cell number in his book. If you can, get within earshot of his voice (about a mile and a half). Trust me: compassion is contagious.
Bob was the keynote speaker at the 2009 Christian Legal Society national conference. “Our God is a God of justice, and He’s nuts about kids!” he said. When Bob told the audience about juvenile prisoners in Uganda languishing for two years with no lawyer, no trial date, and no hope, my heretofore steely resolve to preserve all-things-clean-and-comfortable simply dissolved.
One Small Step Often Leads to a Giant Leap of Faith
This lesson tends to follow on the heels of lesson one. Start hanging out with compassionate people and you’ll find yourself doing crazy stuff way outside your comfort zone. It feels pretty scary. And awesome.
Thirty months before the conference, Bob invited two Pepperdine law students to join him on a justice trip to Uganda. As the dean of students, I approved the trip and encouraged them to go.
“There they are, Lord, send them,” I essentially said. But 30 minutes after the conference, I talked to Bob about the juvenile prison he referenced in his speech. When we were finished speaking, a tear rolled off my chin and “Here am I, Lord, send me” spilled from my lips.
Once You Personally Encounter the Needy, You Won’t Be Able to Turn Away
Once you take that leap of faith, you’re going to come face to face with what you’ve been avoiding: the powerless and oppressed. This is the game changer—now your heart is engaged and there’s no going back to your former life of apathy.
As four other lawyers and I approached the juvenile prison four months after Bob’s speech, I couldn’t believe what I saw. No electricity. No running water. No advocate. No hope. And what we heard as we interviewed the 21 prisoners and prepared their cases for trial wrecked me.
“This isn’t OK with me,” hamster-wheeled in my head. My two-week, one-and-done “voluntourism” plans for this trip obliterated.
One of the juvenile prisoners we met was Henry, who was charged with a murder he clearly didn’t commit. After spending a week with him, I vowed to see his case through to the end—come what may. Two months later, he was shockingly convicted. I boarded the next plane back to Uganda.
Over the next week, I prepared a presentence report, which led to Henry’s probationary release into the care and custody of Restore Leadership Academy—Bob’s Goff’s school in war-torn northern Uganda. The next month, I hosted at Pepperdine a delegation of Ugandan judges for a study tour about how to restructure the system so there were no more Henrys ever.
Look to Younger Generations
The younger generation believes that a world without systemic injustice is achievable in their lifetime. They are right.
If we want to help the next generation avoid our own complacency, then we must allow them to engage in the fight. Show them what life is like for the underprivileged. Stop shielding them from unpleasant realities. We need the gifts the poor and oppressed give to us; we need to share our gifts with them.
Two years and two gallons of tears after my first visit to Uganda, my wife, three kids (16, 13, 11) and I moved to Uganda for six months. I would be helping the Ugandan judiciary implement structural reforms of their criminal justice system—and an opportunity opened for my wife and children to assist with mobile medical clinics throughout Uganda.
My two younger kids dispensed medications in the pharmacy, and my 16 year-old daughter—who’d been deathly afraid of needles her entire life—learned to draw blood to test for HIV and Malaria. She’s now a junior at Pepperdine studying pre-med, and the two younger kids have been back to Uganda multiple times.
The End of My Apathy
I was given the privilege of arguing Henry’s appeal before the Ugandan Court of Appeals in 2013—the first American ever allowed to appear as an advocate in Ugandan court. In June 2015, we received the final judgment in Henry’s case. His name was cleared of all charges, and thanks to Henry’s long journey and to dedicated leaders in the Ugandan Judiciary, Uganda’s criminal justice system for juveniles and adults will never be the same. (You can read more about this journey in the book Henry and I wrote.)
Today, Henry is studying medicine in Uganda. My daughter (the one who was afraid of needles) also wants to pursue medicine as a career. And I continue to lead Pepperdine’s Global Justice Program as we seek justice around the world.