Immanuel at the side of the road in Gulu, Uganda

“God with us,” plants sunflowers and sunsets even as the shadows deepen.

“The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light;
Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,
Upon them a light has shined”

Isa. 9:2, NKJV

I find a stick, carved, from a branch by the side of the road where we’ve broken down. The engine popped, a lack of coolant and other things leading to overheating and breaking near the town of Gulu, Uganda. A blazing sun bleeds across the sky; a tree stretches its wide arms – like someone has taken a black sharpie and sketched its silhouette across red paper.

I’m here with five guys I’ve traveled with to South Sudan, and now we’re waiting – in a place where no one stops, in what we’ll find out is called the “shadow of death.” Cars just careen around the white van with its tailgate up, and one of my friends climbs on top of the van to sit there, resting, like we’ve come here for a holiday. The air smells like the dry red dust beneath our feet. 

Later we will find out people were murdered here, just kilometers from us, that very day, for their land. We will see dozens of villagers marching with pangas and sticks, angry, ready to defend their land from a muzungu (foreigner) who is trying to buy it from afar so he can turn it into a national park. Meanwhile, he’s hired locals to ask the landowners to sell it, and when they try to argue, they lose their lives.

Even after I’m told this, my friends will try to distract me – “Look, sister, look at the flowers!” 
I will glance up and see a crowd of sunflowers, a burst of light. 

Meanwhile, we’re praying – praying for someone to rescue us. My other friend has tried to contact a mechanic in town but they’re demanding too much money and asking for it to be sent to them before they even come to us. 

(The sun begins to set as Emily and her fellow travelers hope and pray for help.)

When things seem darkest

So we wait, and pray, and the sun sinks lower in the sky. We see young men in shorts and tank tops walk past carrying large Zebra balloons. They nod at us, sadly. Walk off into the distance. I wonder what party they are going to. Another truck drives past and blinks its lights and we think he’s going to stop but he’s just warning cars ahead of him to slow down. He goes on past.

Just when the sun is about to disappear completely, a government vehicle pulls up, and an official climbs out, wearing a white uniform like some kind of angel, and asks us if he can pull us to town. We look in the back of the van and miraculously, we find three cords of rope. A cord of three strands is not easily broken (Eccl. 4:12).

Slowly we follow the government car into the bright lights of town. Past the shifting shadows. And I’m thankful for our Immanuel – our “God with us,” who appears when things seem darkest, when the world is overrun by death and pangas and anger; the God who plants sunflowers and sunsets even as the shadows deepen, and then – who sends his Rescuer, and the ropes with which to pull us, the love with which to save us, on that long stretch of road near Gulu, Uganda.


  • Emily Wierenga

    Emily Wierenga is a wife and mother who is passionate about the church and lives in northern Alberta. She is the author of the memoirs Atlas Girl and Making it Home (Baker Books), and the founder of a non-profit working in Africa and Asia.

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