In March of 2012, Jen and I traveled to Branson, Missouri where we (among other things) stayed at the Branson House, which is owned and operated by Dale and Carol. The house is an amazing 85-year old home which Dale and Carol had lovingly restored. As we talked to them it became clear that the BnB was much more than a business; it was a ministry.They asked lots of questions about our work in Africa and eventually asked if a Bed and Breakfast was needed in Jinja.
It was a question that came out of left field, but immediately we realized that there was a huge need for a BnB in Jinja. Time and time again we had seen adoptive couples get stuck in the legal system and spend weeks or months longer than expected waiting for the process to complete. We watched as they wiled away hours, then days then weeks hanging out in our restaurant, often bringing their soon-to-be-adopted children with them. We learned that the affordable guest houses offered only tiny rooms on small compounds and didn’t provide decent food. The higher-end guesthouses had more space (and better food) but were more expensive, stretching the means of most tourists. As the process would drag on, many couples found themselves struggling financially. One spouse would inevitably return home, leaving the other to slog through the system in a small room. The stress seemed intense and the time with the child was strained as well. It was clear that a reasonably-priced place with lots of room that was more like a home would help ease the stress (and the wallet).
But adoptive couples weren’t the only ones in need of such a place. Missionaries working in far-flung places (“the bush”) found it necessary to take a break relatively often to keep their wits about them. This was not a new concept. For centuries missionaries have realized that “the bush” will “drive you mad” if you don’t get a break every now and then. Modern mission organizations realize this too and have begun funding “paid vacations” to allow their teams to recharge. Often, we would hear of folks heading to Kampala (a dirty, bustling city) instead of Jinja (the gorgeous tourist town) because of the high rates for accommodation.
It was clear that the BnB idea had legs, and Jen and I immediately felt called to pursue it.
But the timing was terrible. In all honesty, we were seriously struggling as a couple at that time and despite all our best efforts to pursue the idea back in Uganda, nothing came of it. Property deals were too shady to consider, rental properties were in horrible condition and homes were renting for way too much money. Eventually, we had to drop the idea.
After all, we already had a ministry. God had spoken very clearly that we were here to serve others that were here serving. Serving the servants, if you will. So we focused on our computer ministry and on The Keep, our restaurant in Jinja.
Besides, we reasoned that it would take a pile of money to even begin a project as big as a BnB and we were beyond broke. In August of 2012, I stepped away from my dream job (again) to focus on HFC full-time. This was a clear calling since HFC floundered without my attention and after all, HFC was why we were in Uganda in the first place. We trusted that God would provide for us financially, but the fact remained that we were broke.
The next month, in September of 2012, we saw a real answer to prayer at DerbyCon II. Thanks to the staff and attendees, we raised over $30k for HFC! Knowing we were really struggling, the HFC Board decided to start funding our family with HFC funds. At first I wasn’t convinced this was a good idea. I had always worked hard to separate personal and charity funds, but the vote was unanimous. Without our life in Uganda, and without my attention, HFC simply wouldn’t exist. I returned to Uganda with renewed focus and one overwhelming feeling: we needed to scale back our lives, to live with a smaller “financial footprint”. One thing was perfectly clear: we needed to move.
So we started looking around for rental properties. I’ll skip most of the details, but the bottom line was that we could find almost nothing. We did find one tiny place that was extremely affordable but it required so much work that we would have to pay over two years worth of rent in advance to even make it livable. Besides that, Jen had no peace about that house. The landlord seemed a bit slimy, and it was just a bad situation.
I took it upon myself to really put in a lot of effort to look for a different place. I really did put in a lot of effort, but came up short. At one point, a local motorcycle driver took me to a place that was just around the corner from where we were already staying. I was excited, because it’s a nice area on the banks of Victoria Lake and the Nile river. It really is a beautiful area overlooking Jinja’s only golf course so I was excited that we were driving down this road. However, as soon as I saw the place, my heart sank. I had passed this place many times in the past. It is (in my opinion) the most beautiful house in Jinja on the nicest piece of property in the best location. For lack of a better term, we referred to it as the “mansion”.
I gave the motorcycle driver a nice tip, to thank him for the effort and said, “This place is too big for us”.
I did, however, call Jen to come take a look at the place, almost as if to jokingly prove that I had actually been successful in finding other places.
However, this move was no joke. We really, really felt like God was telling us we needed to move.. somewhere.
Together Jen and I prayed in front of the house that God would open doors. We knew the other house we are looking at wasn’t going to work for us, and we were at a loss. What, exactly was God trying to do here? We prayed for extreme clarity and for open doors.
The property manager gave us the tour, and we were astounded at the place. It was a proper British Colonial in every way. It was spacious with a massive, gorgeous, mature compound, huge outbuildings and it was in a gorgeous location across the street from a golf course and Lake Victoria. The nearly-constant breeze from the water blew soothingly through the property’s massive palm trees. It was gorgeous, but I couldn’t enjoy the tour. I knew (KNEW) it was expensive. This was not a house we could ever, possibly hope to be able to rent.
We felt like we were on a TV show. Looking back, I felt like there were hidden cameras everywhere and somebody would be laughing at us for even looking at a place like this.
But one overwhelming thing struck both of us: we knew this was more than a house. This was the perfect spot for the BnB we had thought about back in March. But financially, this seemed like an impossibility. Living off of donations is hard enough without thinking big thoughts like this.
Looking back to the days before we moved to Africa, Jen and I had thought several times about exactly this kind of thing. The discussion in March had only brought it all back to the surface. But we always felt discouraged when we even thought about something that big. After all, I had walked away from everything. We left everything behind. We were living hand-to-mouth, had no savings and since focusing on HFC full-time, we had no real steady income. But God had always provided especially when we followed his lead. In our situation, was it even “proper” to assume that God might deliver a place like this to us?
Well, He had done it before. Our restaurant was that same exact story, realized. And even though the restaurant isn’t making money, it’s still a ministry, but God has provided the resources to keep it running on His terms.
Back to the house, Jen and I were in absolute awe of it. We knew our family could fit in a couple rooms upstairs, and the rest of the place could be used for guests. It had a gorgeous, sprawling compound, a big dining room, living room and outdoor porch, and even a fire pit outside, all of which our guests could use to feel “at home”. Another guest bedroom was built into the main house just off the kitchen, and even the kitchen and guest room area was built in such a way that it could be cordoned off at night, leaving guests with access to the kitchen while securing the rest of the house. (You might recall that security is an issue here in Uganda. So listing details about security are pretty relevant!)
As we finished our tour, our minds were reeling. Jen and I asked the property manager the million dollar question, “How much is the rent?”
What he told us floored us even to this day. He told us, “We can’t let it go for less than (exactly what you’re paying right now).”
Moving from our current house into this place would be a lateral move, financially.
When I contacted my Board of Directors, they all immediately dismissed the smaller place based on Jen having no peace about the situation. They know, like I do, that Jen has very strong discernment about things like this.
The only question they had about the bigger place was, “Will it expand your ministry? Will it allow you to ‘serve the servants’ more than your current place?”
Since the answer was a resounding “yes!”, they gave us their blessing to move ahead with the place, despite the fact that originally we thought God was telling us to scale down. But looking back, I realized he was simply telling us to move. My interpretation was that meant “scaling down”. So we started praying again that if we were meant to go this way God would open the door.
The doors flew open in so many ways.
We found out that several other parties were interested and had jumped up the management chain above our property manager to try to secure the place at a higher price. They were turned away.
For some reason, the property manager and his directors were very interested in us having the place.
As it turned out, they had a long string of renters who hadn’t cared for the property. As such, the house was in disarray. The compound was overgrown, and the place did need a good amount of fixing up. The upstairs had been locked and unused for so long that mold was growing in the bathrooms.
Then the property manager shared with us that what they really needed was someone to come in and really care for the place. They loved the idea of the family staying there to take care of it combined with it being a bed-and-breakfast, which meant it would have to be kept in tip-top shape.
Because, get this, the place had been vacant since March. Since March, exactly when Jen and I were in Branson! A big company had been renting the place for its employees and inexplicably the renters took off in March leaving the place empty. They continued to pay rent on the empty place, almost as if it was being held specifically for us! We like to think they were.
When the lease ran out in September the property manager went back to the company to ask them to release the house because it was getting run down. The company released the house and it became available.
This was the final straw. After lots of prayer and a lot of fear about stepping into another project at a time we thought we should be scaling back, we signed a two-year lease on the house.
And just like that, God provided the Bed and Breakfast, and in November 2012, we moved in.
The amount of work that is being done is astounding. The workers are all skilled and very diligent and they are cutting no corners. They have been working every day for a month and the work continues. And just like the miracle that is our restaurant, we are not paying for the renovations. I am absolutely astounded at the miracle that’s unfolding right in front of us, and our goal is to not forget that miracle.
We don’t “deserve” this house. It’s not like I’m Gandhi and Jen is Mother Theresa (even though Jen could easily aspire to that, while I on the other hand..). So the idea of just living here and accepting this as some Karmic gift is absurd. On the surface, it also seems like a great business opportunity. I’ve had one person call me “crazy” for not renting rooms at premium prices to pay for the place while we just chill out and enjoy someone else paying our rent. Yes, there will be four available rooms aside from the ones we’ll live in, and yes accommodation is the most sure-fire way to make money in this town, but that’s not the primary goal. We don’t want to run a hotel, or a guest house. We want to simply take people into our home, care for them the best way we can and strengthen them for their journey and their work in Uganda .. very similar to what Dale and Carol have done with the Branson House.
We want to make it affordable for traveling missionaries as God leads. We also want to make it available to those coming to seek adoption and those coming to work on ministry as they transition through town or look for more permanent places to stay. Lastly, we want to make it available to teams as a clean, safe and better alternative to the local guesthouses.
Just this month we had our first “team” even though the house isn’t even close to ready. It turned out that the team was staying at a local guesthouse and a guest who checked in without ID robbed all the other guests. The mystery thief checked in hours after the team did (curious) and stole every bit of electronics they came with including laptops, ipods, iphones, cameras and more. What a terrible welcome to Uganda. How can anyone work here effectively when their trip begins like that? So even though we weren’t nearly ready for guests, we knew we could offer safety, security and a relaxing home environment so the team could recharge and do what they’ve come here to do. And they’ve done just that. We’re amazed by their positive spirit in light of losing just about every valuable they arrived with. Seeing that was exactly the kind of confirmation we needed that we’re headed in the right direction.
But whatever the clientele, we’ve learned our lesson: it’s about what God wants, not about business.
Every time I focus on money or something other than God, I fall flat on my face. I’m so tired of that. I’m thick-headed and yes, it’s taken a few hundred face-shattering falls for me to realize this, but I’ve realized it. And shattered or not, God’s not done with me yet. I’m utterly and completely astounded, thankful and humbled for that, so I want to serve him with everything I’ve got.
So that’s the story of how this new “adventure” has unfolded and the origin of what we’re unofficially calling “The Jinja House” in honor of Dale and Carol’s “Branson House“. We hope you’ll join us if you need a home away from home while visiting Jinja, Uganda.
Update, May 2013: We are considering adding three more rooms to accommodate the larger teams coming to Jinja. We want to do this to assist with those teams but also we’ve discovered that if we add these rooms and book them through the two-month busy season, we can fund our family’s living expenses for the whole year as we work in Uganda. If you’d like to learn more, or are interested in helping out, see this post.