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Uganda mission trip was unforgettable for Detroit Lakes group

SUBMITTED PHOTO Seventeen men and women from the Zion Lutheran Church in Detroit Lakes traveled to Uganda to help the local people build a classroom. The building in the background shows what the finished product will look like once it's completed.

When asked back in October about an upcoming mission trip to Uganda, Royal Herbold stated it would be "an interesting experience."

Now, one month after the Dec. 29-Jan. 12 trip, several of the Zion Lutheran Church travelers sat around a table and couldn't stop talking about that interesting experience.

"We got off the plane and were hit by the heat," Herbold said of the 70-80 degree weather. "Then you got off the plane and saw armed guards."

They soon found out that armed guards would be everywhere.

"Although everyone was with rifles, security was pretty lax," said Rod Nord, after explaining group leader Bob Kohler would take all 17 passports and hand them over and be walked through security.

The group of 17 flew 17 hours to the African country to work through the Kampala Pentecostal Church with the Watoto group, help build a classroom, take a safari and attend church services.

Although the area they stayed at was filled with gun-toting guards, barbed wire and barred windows and doors, they all agree they never felt in danger.

"People in general respected us and were gracious (in accepting) the Americans were there in their country," Joe Milner said. He added that they heard over and over, "thank you for loving us" from the Uganda people.

Doug Leitheiser said he was amazed at seeing the people, the happiest people he's seen with absolutely nothing.

"The people made you feel comfortable," he said.

Nord said the friendly people and continuous thanks were "almost like it was too much, like we didn't deserve it."

But they received it nonetheless.

The Zion group got to see the extreme class difference between upper class and poverty -- with no middle class to speak of -- the effects of the past civil wars, the dirt and littered cities and villages, corrupt government and the over-flowing baby orphanages. But they could also see the openness to worship and believe in God.

"Religious freedom. They flat out knew God" was present and wasn't afraid to make it known, Joe Milner said.

"They didn't separate faith from their life. It was their life," added his wife, LuAnn Milner.

"We were told that 'hope is in our church, not our government,'" said Carol Nord. The churches get support for the children and help them with education and encourage them to become leaders, because the government doesn't encourage that at all.

The people of Uganda have no belief in their flag or country, Herbold added.

During their time in Uganda, the group helped build a classroom, which is one-fourth of a school building. They were also able to meet with teachers at the school, one of which the Milners are sponsoring.

The Detroit Lakes group is by no means the only group to come help build schools and buildings through the Watoto organization. (The Watoto Children's Choir has performed in Detroit Lakes in the past.)

About 150 groups come each year to help build. With their trip overlapping 2008 and 2009, "we were the last ones in 2008 and the first in 2009," Bob Kohler said.

As they built, they learned to mix, haul, set, carry, stack, and do everything by hand. There was one hammer for the group to work with. And when it came time to level the bricks, workers used a string for the final measurement.

"A level was just a tool," Herbold said with a laugh.

The group listed other things they were amazed to see. For instance, meat would hang outside all day in the 70-80 degree heat. There were no street signs or directional signs either. And in a city of three million, there were only six signal lights, five of them having been installed recently.

They watched village people carry six-foot couches on the backs of mopeds and women carry 70-pound bundles of wood on their heads. They also got to experience the village market.

"If we took our fish houses and lined them up in the street," Herbold described the experience. "And the pollution is unreal."

The streets were a bit rougher than the group was used to also. It took them seven hours to go 125 miles because of bumps and holes along the way.

"They made our low maintenance roads look like super highways," Rod Nord said.

While on those roads, the group took a safari and got to see pretty much any and every animal in that country. They noted the large amounts of baboons and bats in the area. They also got to take a ride on the Nile River.

The next project the Watoto group is looking to complete is to hire social workers to rehabilitate the 9-12 year olds who have been trained to be killers, to get them back into society as children, not murderers.

"That's a huge undertaking for them," Kohler said. He had visited the same area a few years ago and was able to see the structure he had worked on and some of the children he had visited previously.

The Nords have also taken a mission trip in the past, but it was to Jamaica through the JUMP program. They said while Jamaica has poor areas too, it was nothing like Uganda.

Although everyone agreed it was nice to be home after 10 days in Uganda, they also whole-heartedly agreed they'd return for a second trip.

"In a heartbeat," Joe Milner said.

Those on the trip included Bob Kohler, Mike Kohler, Royal Herbold, MaryKay Herbold, Sheri Leitheiser, Doug Leitheiser, Rod Nord, Carol Nord, Matt Weiss, Andrea Weiss, Wade McDonald, Devin McDonald, Gerry Bogatzki, Joe Milner, LuAnn Milner, Samantha Milner and Katie Milner.

"We're very blessed to go and thanks to those who contributed, financially and (by) praying for us," Joe Milner said.

Those who took the trip to Uganda will share their experience at a community presentation on Sunday, Feb. 8, at 2 p.m. in the Zion Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes.

Anyone wishing for more information on the program or to sponsor a child in Uganda, visit or online.