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Lutz couple returns to Tampa to raise money for African mission in Uganda

For Deb and Mike Gilbert, how they traded comfortable lives in Lutz for mission work halfway around the world is one long "God story."

They say God gave them the strength four years ago to turn grief into action after the death of their teenage son. They credit God with giving them a vision to launch a ministry in an economically depressed and war-ravaged nation.

God, they say, put people in their lives who helped them reach their goals. He placed signs along the way confirming they were on the right path. The Gilberts have no doubt Uganda is where they were called to be, and now it is their home.

Though their ministry is only three years old, the Gilberts believe it was God's plan for their lives all along. Everything else — their jobs, their church experience, even their son's addiction-related death — was preparing them to fulfill that purpose.

Though the move to Uganda was their first mission trip and very uncharacteristic for the couple who were comfortable in their suburban, middle-class lives, they don't describe it as an odd turn of events. Instead, they say, it was just trusting God enough to move when he said "go."

"I know it's not a surprise to God that we're in Africa," said Deb, who is in Tampa to raise money for the mission. "That's what he was raising us up to."

• • •

Deb never envisioned herself sleeping under a mosquito net while animals seen and unseen frisked around her.

She was the director of assimilation at Grace Family Church in Lutz, helping new members adjust to church life and connect with others. Mike, 61, was a real estate investor who also conducted emergency-response training sessions.

He felt called to do mission work in Africa, but tucked the ideas away in the back of his mind because he knew Deb would never agree. She wasn't the roughing-it-in-the-outdoors type.

But the summer of 2007 changed everything.

The couple was struggling at the time to handle their son's drug addiction. Sean's peaks and valleys — he'd clean up for a few weeks then relapse — had troubled them for months.

When he didn't come home after partying with friends, they were worried. But experience had taught them the 18-year-old would resurface after a few days.

On July 30, 2007, while the couple was teaching a premarital class at church, Mike's phone rang and the caller said she heard a rumor that Sean died. They rushed home and found a business card that a sheriff's deputy left in the door.

They learned Sean overdosed on oxycodone and alcohol.

After his death, Deb, 56, would spend a few minutes in Sean's bedroom every day. Usually she stayed just long enough to tell him hello, but one day five months after his funeral she lingered and prayed.

"Really, God, this is all I have left with my son? Just a box of ashes?" she asked.

That day, she said, God reminded her that nothing on Earth is forever. There was still work for her to do. Go to Africa, he said.

Instantly, Deb and Mike's lives were given new purpose, and they approached it without hesitation.

The couple sold their home and all of their possessions through a series of garage sales. Deb held a fundraiser to sell her prized collection of snowmen and raised $6,000. She was surprised at how the stuff she once cherished didn't seem so important anymore.

"It was so easy to give that up," she said.

• • •

The money they raised financed their first trip to Africa, where they decided to focus on the Mbale District in eastern Uganda.

They launched One City Ministries, so named because they wanted to symbolize the belief that "we're all citizens of the same global community," Mike said.

All of Uganda had suffered under the violent Idi Amin's regime, followed by civil war, rebel conflicts and, of course, the AIDS epidemic. But additional problems linger in Mbale, where the main causes of death are preventable waterborne illnesses and smoke inhalation because charcoal is the main fuel used for cooking, the Gilberts said.

Since arriving in October 2008, they are trying to change that.

Now, they conduct emergency-response training sessions similar to the ones Mike once taught in Tampa. They network among the various tribes and religious leaders in ways that reminded Deb of her work as Grace church's assimilation director.

The center of their effort is the Light Village, a 23-acre compound currently under construction.

Once completed, the village will include a church, school and orphanage. There will be a fish farm to harvest tilapia, hydroponic produce and programs to create alternative, cleaner burning fuels.

Eventually, the couple will launch Saving Our Sons, which will allow formerly troubled American youth to travel to Uganda to volunteer and, hopefully, take away some memories and insights that keeps them on the straight path.

But that vision takes money, which is why the Gilberts are now in Tampa.

They return once a year to sell objects purchased through One City's Africa TrAID program. The Gilberts pay Ugandan artisans to create handmade items. Some of the residents can't read or write, so they sign contracts using thumbprints.

This year, the Gilberts have brought thousands of items made by more than 200 artisans to be sold during Saturday's "I Love Africa" event at Tampa Covenant Church in Carrollwood.

They will reinvest proceeds from the sale into One City Ministries' programming in Uganda.

Through Africa TrAID, artisans and their families have built homes, provided medical care, started new businesses and trained others, Mike said. The Gilberts see their role as providing resources and training, not handouts, to improving the lives of the people in Mbale.

Eventually, they want to replicate One City's model in other African nations. But first they want to get this first Light Village up and running.

Deb says she feels that God gave her a choice that day as she sat on Sean's bed. She could either live in the pain of her son's death or do something with her pain.

To her, they didn't give up their comfortable lives in America; they found peace in Uganda.

"Every day I wake up," Deb said, "and I say, 'Wow, thank you, God. I'm in Africa.' "

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3405.

>> If you go

I Love Africa

When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

Where: Tampa Covenant Church, 13320 Lake Magdalene Blvd. in Carrollwood

Featuring gifts and items for sale, handmade by Ugandan artisans to raise money for One City Ministries (onecity.ws). Seventy-five types of items will be priced from $5 to $200.

A sample of items for sale:

• beaded ornaments• dolls

• jewelry• wood carvings

• woven baskets • scarves

Lutz couple returns to Tampa to raise money for African mission in Uganda 11/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 17, 2011 3:30am]

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