Lay Counseling in Uganda

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We love hearing stories about the beautiful work you all are up to in the world—like this one from Lisa Crowe, who writes about how the Lay Counseling Certificate has helped her recognize and engage the pain of others more fully.

I went to Uganda this summer. As a medical doctor, I have been on many short-term mission trips—but this one was different. I knew God was going to use me there in a way that was as unique and as different as I was. I had identified my calling—to be a witness of stories and to call out truth—and I had identified my kingdom—people of diverse cultures and ethnicities. I expected God to surprise me.

“This may be the only time this year that these people see a doctor. Last year we saw 1,500 patients in four and a half days,” the group leader emphasized before the trip. We packed up rolls of gauze, bandages, toothbrushes, cloth diapers, underwear, shoes, intravenous fluids, medications to be used in case of cardiopulmonary arrest, surgical instruments, and 50 matching T-shirts to wear in the group photo.

In the airport, the other team members were joking, laughing, getting their last Starbucks, and having one final conversation with friends and family on their phones. I was quiet. I knew it was going to be a difficult trip and was preparing myself spiritually and emotionally. I had a medical degree, decades of medical practice experience, a lay counseling certificate from The Allender Center, a new awareness of my own story of desolation, and a hope that my suffering would uniquely qualify me to be God’s heart to someone.

Patients started lining up at daybreak at our little tarp-and-pole clinic in a field near the mission compound. I’d hear their medical complaints—fever, cough, flu, joint paint—then ask every patient if they would like for me to pray for them. All said yes—Catholic, evangelical Christian, and Muslim alike. “What do you want prayer for?” I’d ask. Then I’d hear the stories: “I just lost my husband and my child.” “I was hit by a truck and can’t work anymore.” “Pray that I could find money for school fees so my grandchild can continue to go to school.” “My husband is beating me, and my family is far away, and there’s nowhere I can go for help.” I said each person’s name, no matter how many syllables or how foreign to my native language, heard their stories, and joined my heart to theirs in prayer.

I believe I was there in Uganda for two people in particular. One was a man in his twenties, wheelchair-bound and cared for by his mother since an accident a few years before. Somehow he wheeled himself to our clinic. “I have headaches, and my chest hurts.” He described several other unrelated symptoms, but I knew his problem wasn’t medical. “I think it’s because I am lonely”—I knew that before he said it.

UgandaMy own brother had cerebral palsy and grew up wearing braces and crutches, unable to run and play with other kids. My brother died. What killed him was desperate loneliness. He got around with crutches, drove a hand-controlled car, and even had a job. But he didn’t have friends, not one. He took his life at age 36 and was found dead in his apartment a week later after he failed to show up at work.

I was pierced by this man’s pain. No one else could have understood his loneliness like I did. I spent some time talking to him and asked him if he’d like to learn about Jesus. With hope in his eyes, he looked at me and said yes. The local pastor’s wife, an immensely kind and patient woman, was just outside my room. She talked with him and invited him to be part of their church community. She told him about Jesus’ love for him, and he believed in Jesus for forgiveness of sins and for new life.

The other person I believe God sent me for was a 7-year-old girl. Her name started with an M and had about four syllables, and I regret that I can’t remember it. Her hair was shaved close to her head, and her dark legs and bare feet were covered in ashy dust. She wore what looked like a grown woman’s skirt, pinned up so it wouldn’t fall off her little waist.

She looked down and didn’t make eye contact. I understood her as soon as I saw her. The lack of spontaneity and mistrust of human connection was familiar. I tried to engage her and lowered my head to her level. “Do you have parents?” I asked. She looked off into space and said in a small voice, “I have a mother but she went away.” She stopped. “My father is not around.” A few tears fell from her eyes. Crying is rare in that culture. I felt like someone had taken a long sword and shoved it under my rib cage, and its tip was in my heart. I knew how that was—to be small, helpless, unloved, unconnected, alone. Tears fell from my eyes, too. I asked the translator if it was culturally acceptable to hug her. He was moved as well and said, “Yes, it is fine to hug.” I did.

Why had she come to see me, the doctor? I don’t remember if she had a stomachache or if she needed a checkup. How did I “help” her? I don’t know exactly. I just know that the angel of the Lord found Hagar in the desert. He called her by her name and and asked her to state her predicament. “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” (Genesis 16:8). He told her to go back to Sarai, and Hagar called him “the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13).

Our God is a God who sees. I don’t know exactly what it is about seeing, but it is powerful, and he sees us. I recall the sword with its tip in my heart and the pain I felt for the lonely man and the orphan, and I know this is God’s heart. He hurts so much for us. He feels our pain, and it breaks him up. He sees.

If you have a story to share about your experience with any of The Allender Center’s events, conferences, or programs, email our Content Coordinator, Beau Denton, at

Photos by Amy Hunley and Elizabeth Netsch.