“They are going to put Bo in jail.”
The phone call comes from my wife Leah around 6:45. “Bo pulled onto Entebbe Road after we thought the presidential convoy had finished going through, but it hadn’t. He was pulled over and now they want to impound the car. Can you come and get us?”
Bo (our son) and Leah had taken one of our staff girls to the doctor and were on their way back. They just so happened to be on the same road at the same time that Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were traveling from the airport into town.
Typically, if a traffic cop in Uganda pulls you over, they either take your license or impound your car, or both, to ensure you will pay your traffic fine.
Once the fine is paid you can get your license and/or car back. I imagine this is what my wife means. I hop in our other car and head up the road to go and get them.
When Your Son Goes to Jail
About 15 minutes later, I receive another call from Leah. Through tears, she says, “They are going to put Bo in jail.”
She repeats, “They are going to put Bo in jail.”
I tell her I will be there soon, and start accelerating through the traffic.
I pull up to the police station, enter and see my wife seated in a chair in front of a desk, crying. Bo is surrounded by 4 or 5 police officers.
I start asking questions:
“What did my son do wrong?”
“Why do you need to detain him?”
“Isn’t this just a traffic violation?”
“Who is in charge?”
All of these questions go unanswered. I then look to a man who is writing a report and ask him if we could work something out.
He gives me the phone number of the head of traffic in Kampala and says this is the man I must deal with. I immediately call him. He answers the phone right away.
“My name is Brent Phillips and you are holding my son Bo Phillips…”
He cuts me off, “His actions were a breach of national security and I cannot allow it to stand. He interrupted a convoy of his Excellency, the President of Uganda and your secretary.” Click.
This can’t be happening.
Does he think Bo is a “breach of security?” Is he looking at my 18-year-old son and my crying wife, thinking they have planned an attack that he has now foiled and Bo will have to pay the price?
The Pleading Begins
I start pleading with the officers in the station.
“Can I stay in jail in his place?”
A response: “No, you are not the offender.”
“Can I stay in there with him?”
“No, you did not commit a crime.”
They go on to explain to me that he will go to court tomorrow and he will be prosecuted then. Prosecuted?!?
The men start pushing Bo toward the cell. Leah’s cries get louder. Bo looks at me with fear in his eyes.
I am pleading with God asking what I should do. I tell the men, “I need to see the cell before you put my boy in there.”
It is a dark empty room with no one in it. There is a light bulb hanging from a wire coming out of the ceiling, but it doesn’t work. There is a window with bars on it and a locked steel door that leads to the outside. The steel door has a rusty hole in the bottom.
“I am not leaving this place”
The officers ask Bo to take off his shoes, his belt and empty his pockets. They put him in the room and shut the door.
I will never forget the look on my son’s face as the door closed.
I immediately run around the building call out Bo’s name, kneeling down to the rusty hole in the door. He is already kneeling there.
Up to this point Bo had been so full of courage and strength, even comforting Leah in the lobby. But now, I am looking into the eyes of my son and he isn’t 18 anymore. He looks like he is 10.
We start praying through that rusty hole, asking God for strength, courage and freedom.
After Amen, Bo looks deep into my soul and says, “Dad, don’t leave me.”
“Bo, I am not leaving this place. I will be sleeping in front of this door or the other door until you are out of here.”
I find Leah. “Babe, can you get some food at that little market right there?”
She heads off to the market and I step back into the police station. By now all of the officers have left except for one, named Nelson.
“Nelson, can I stay here all night, sleeping in front of this door?”
“Yes, you can. And when your madam returns I can let your son out into the lobby here and you can all eat together.”
“Thank you so much.”
Through the door, I tell Bo the plan up to this point and let him know I am going to make some phone calls. I start calling everyone I can think of that might have some sort of wisdom, experience, or pull in this situation.
Then someone mentions the U.S. Consulate. Great idea! I just so happened to have the US embassy’s emergency phone number in my phone. I’d seen it on a piece of paper at the embassy a few weeks ago when notarizing a document.
“You have reached the US embassy in Kampala, Uganda. We are currently closed. If you are an American citizen and you are having a serious emergency, please press one.”
Of course, I press one.
I wait anxiously for someone to pick up the phone. A very nice gentleman picks up the phone and asks me what my emergency is. I explain the situation and he promptly channels me to another gentleman.
“Special Ops. Agent ________. How can I help you?”
I explain the situation again. He reassures me this is not right and ends the conversation with, “I will call you right back… and we will get your son out tonight.”
The Angel in the Dark
As I hang up the phone, I start to worry. Why hasn’t Leah shown up yet?
Leah later told me she was crying in the store while gathering food. As she went to pay, a customer in line straight up asked her if she could pray for her.
Leah told her briefly what was happening and the clerk shared that the same thing happened to her father: wrongly accused, thrown in jail. After a month her dad was released and everything was fine now.
A month? Leah thought. I could barely handle a night. Oh God, please release my son.
The customer shared how God had used this situation to bring others in jail to a saving knowledge of Jesus. Then she encouraged Leah that it would be okay. They prayed together outside the store.
My wife was so thankful for this angel who encouraged her in a dark hour.
The Good News
Even if you don’t know my wife, you know the Italian momma stereotype, making sure the people around her have plenty of food. She shows up with fruit, water, chicken, Pringles, bread, and eggs.
The officer then lets Bo out of the cell. We start eating and talking with the officer, who reveals, “I don’t think he should be here. I don’t understand why we are holding him.”
The phone rings and it is the same agent I had spoken to before: “Bo will be released, as will his license and the car. There will be no court tomorrow and this will be finished. The call from Nelson’s superior should come anytime now.” I hang up and share the news with all in the lobby.
Yet time continues to tick on with no call. 10 minutes…20 minutes…30 minutes…
I call him back. “We still haven’t received a call,” I said.
He seems a bit more frustrated now, but assures me what he said will happen, will happen! “In fact I will have Nelson’s superior call you, his name is Major _______. He will explain to you how this will all be finished.” He then asked me where in the states we were from.
“We were in California for about 35 years. I spent the last 8 years in Austin, Texas.”
“Are you a Longhorn?” he asks.
“Yes, in fact I am wearing a burnt orange Texas Longhorn shirt right now.”
“Consider all of this an act of grace”, he says, “I am a graduate of Texas A & M.”
More time passes and hope is rising. There is more laughter than crying and we feel great appreciation for every person involved who desired to help us.
Around 10:00 pm, my son is released from jail.
We head home.
On the way home, we talk of the fear, the worry, and the unknown of the situation as well as the grace, the mercy and the power of God in all of it.
Bo said, “I am not sure all the things we are supposed to learn from this, other than make sure the convoy is all the way finished. But, as soon as the door closed and I was alone in that cell, Paul flashed into my brain. I just thought, if God sustained Paul in much worse conditions than this, He can take care of me too.”
Brent Phillips is CEO and pastor of Cherish Uganda, a faith-based nonprofit that restores life and creates hope for HIV positive children living in Uganda.
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