Irene Gleeson moved from an affluent suburb in Australia to a war zone in Uganda to start a ministry. Today she operates schools, feeding centers and churches for 6,000 children.
When Irene Gleeson got the call from God to leave Australia and go to Africa, it could not have come at a more inconvenient time for her.
She was happily married, attended a dynamic Pentecostal church, and lived in a spectacular beachside suburb of Sydney. With her four grown children and 13 grandchildren nearby, her life was rich, full and busy.
Gleeson’s journey to this season in her life had been a bumpy one, punctuated by moments of deep sadness and tragedy. But those days had passed. Now at 47 everything was on track.
So when God unexpectedly summoned her to pull up roots, leave her oceanside life, and move into a war zone two continents away, Gleeson, not surprisingly, questioned His timing.
“I remember arguing with God about this,” she says. “I didn’t want to leave my beautiful beach houses, my grandchildren and the country I loved.”
But despite her ties to home, she couldn’t escape what she knew God had told her: “Now that your children have grown up … go.”
In 1991, just when everything was set for Irene to enjoy the prime of her life in Sydney, she instead stepped reluctantly yet obediently from beach-front suburbia into a culture of violence in northern Uganda.
In a small remote community, under the shade of a mango tree, Irene and husband Jeff’s* vision of rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned children began.
Today that tree is still there, no longer surrounded by the sounds of gunfire and mourning but by joy and singing. Strapping young men and mature young women who call Irene, now 64, “Grandmum” can still recite the words and gestures to the songs she taught them in the last decade.
Back then, these Ugandans were destitute children who sat like zombies in the dust, trapped in a longstanding insurgent war that ignited in 1987 and brought widespread social devastation to the region.
Some were perpetrators then. Many were victims of The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group led by religious extremist Joseph Kony that terrorized the country for more than two decades. One of Kony’s tactics was the violent abduction and recruitment of children for use as soldiers, porters and sex slaves.
While the warfare raged, tens of thousands of Ugandans died or were mutilated by the LRA, and more than 2 million were forced into Internally Displaced People camps. At one time 200 or more of these squalid settlements, each housing up to 30,000 people, operated in the north of the country.
Conditions were appalling. All had overcrowding, open sewers, and no electricity or running water—only handouts from overseas aid agencies helped people survive. The conflict in northern Uganda was described by the United Nations as one of the world’s most-neglected humanitarian crises.
* The name of Gleeson’s husband has been changed to proect his identity.