Cheerful African music plays at Mark and Judy Taylor’s Carmel home, dotted with hints of their love for a far-away place, including pictures of smiling children with dark, shining faces. They take turns telling the tale of how God led them on a journey to each other, to Hazel Dell Christian Church, and finally to Kigungu, Uganda where they will return for the fifth time this fall.
In 2004, Mark and Judy Taylor had been married for about five years. They were each on their third marriage and were focused on raising their three teenagers and maintaining all the trappings of a 3,000-square-foot home. They gave little thought to God, and had no idea He was working mightily to change their lives and the lives of others through them.
“After a couple of failed marriages,” Judy says, “I had walked away from the Lord.” But when both of her parents died within five months of each other, she felt drawn back to church. Although her husband, Mark, was not an atheist, he was what he calls “unchurched.” He agreed to attend Hazel Dell Christian Church (HDCC) with his wife. They met with Pastor Mark Wright, who suggested Mark read the first chapter of Genesis. He told Mark that if he believed that, to read the Gospel of John. He did. “I was saved by the time I got to the woman at the well,” Mark says.
Over the next two years, Mark and Judy’s relationship with God, and each other, continued to strengthen as they studied and served at HDCC. They attended classes, joined a small group, and participated in church ministries. In 2006, Mark became a deacon of the church. Their growing trust in God helped them face life’s uncertainties and challenges, including losing Mark’s business and their lavish home and cars. “There was a reason God had us go through that,” Mark says.
In August, 2008, Mark attended a local simulcast of the annual Leadership Summit, held at Willow Creek Church in Chicago. It was there that Mark saw a life-changing interview between Willow Creek pastor, Bill Hybels, and Irish rocker, Bono. A vocal follower of Jesus Christ, Bono urged members of American Christian churches to increase their work in poverty-stricken Africa. Mark came home and said to his wife, “I think God wants us to go to Africa.” Mark says he knew God would let them know when the time was right. He just had to be patient.
Two years later, Mark and Judy heard about a program called Church2Church that works through a larger ministry, Compassion International. “Church2Church partners resourced churches in the West with under-resourced churches in the world,” Mark says. The Taylors went to Willow Creek Church in Chicago for training on the Church2Church ministry. “God was opening the door right in front of our faces,” he says.
In January, 2011, Mark and Judy made their first trip to see, first-hand, the Church2Church property in Kigungu, Uganda in Africa. Although the Taylors were not sponsored by HDCC, church missions minister Kurt Berger accompanied them. Kigungu (pronounced Cha-goon-goo) is home to 13,000 people and sits on a peninsula on Lake Victoria, about 30 minutes south of the capital of Kampala. The average income there is two dollars a month, earned mostly from fishing, farming, and manual labor. Mark describes the people there as “warm and wonderful.” He says, “Spiritually, they are way ahead of us.”
Mark and Judy learned that for each church that Compassion International sponsors, there are up to 300 children from the area who need individual sponsorships. Sponsorship is a minimum of $38 per month (though most sponsors contribute more) to pay for the books, supplies, and uniform required to attend public school, medical needs for the family, and meals served at the church property, known as “the project.” The Taylors’ treasured photographs show children laughing, learning, and playing at their church, a modest, brick building with a kitchen consisting of a row of black iron kettles heated by bundles of sticks.
The Taylors returned from Kigungu even more enthused about the ministry, and that summer they held a Compassion International Sunday at HDCC to find sponsorship for 76 Ugandan children. Mark explains that many children in Africa do not have parents. “The AIDS epidemic wiped out an entire generation of people. So there are many children who are now living with grandparents and relatives.” In just three hours, all of the children had HDCC sponsors. Mark and Judy sponsor three children from Kigungu – Shakira, Gerrad, and John. Judy proudly shows a family portrait of Mark and herself with the children. “These are real people you can touch, and hold, and love,” Mark says.
As Mark and Judy’s passion and commitment to this ministry has continued to grow, so has the church’s. HDCC members now sponsor 132 Ugandan children. Although it is not a ministry directly sponsored by HDCC mission funds, last year the church gave $25,000 (through members’ faith promise donations) to build a new resource center on the church property in Kigungu. HDCC is also paying the tuition, room, and board for two young villagers, Pauline and Joshua, to attend college in Uganda. “The vision we have from God is families from Hazel Dell building friendships with people there that will continue long after we are gone,” Mark says. He adds, “The vision of Church2Church is to change the world through relationships, not just aid.”
On their 2013 trip to Kigungu, the Taylors were joined by Rick and Diane Freed and Pastor Mark Wright and his wife Sarah, all of whom sponsor children there. Mark says, “We just go there and love on 300 African kids. What’s going on down there is relationship-building, with God at the center.” Judy explains, “We go on these trips with no agenda other than to just get to know them and love them. Life for a child in Uganda is work-related as soon as they can carry a bucket. We go there to play games, and sing, and make them feel loved. For them it’s like going to heaven. All they want to do is hold your hand…we just don’t have enough hands for them to hold.”
Mark and Judy are planning their fifth trip to Kigungu August 28 through September 9. So far, there are 11 other people from HDCC signed up to go, and the Taylors are hoping for a few more hands to hold. Judy says, “Fear is Satan planting a seed to keep people from going and working for God.” They are quick to dispel any myths about the dangers of traveling to Uganda. They say disease is not a concern, visitors stay in a resort hotel that caters to Westerners, and English is the national language. The trip is expensive – $3,300 per person. Judy admits that she is still employed to support her “African habit.” But Mark says it’s not about the money. “God will provide the money. You just have to trust Him.”
Mark and Judy do offer one huge warning about such a trip. “It changes you,” Judy says. “It affects your daily life. You come back and think about all of the ridiculous ways we spend money, and then you remember that that there are good people in the world who will go hungry tonight.” Mark agrees, “It has given me an enormously strong faith in God because…” He stops himself mid-sentence, shakes his head slowly and says in awe, “It just continues to change me.”
Written by: Alicia Woodward