Jim, your new book, Divine Collision, recounts an unforgettable legal case you worked on in Uganda. This case changed a boy’s life, your family’s future, and helped improve the criminal justice system in Uganda. Has your life always been this exciting?
I have been blessed at many stages of my career with challenging and rewarding opportunities to travel and to serve. I clerked for a prominent federal court of appeals judge in Houston, Texas after graduating from law school, worked on cases pending before the US Supreme Court and other courts around the country for one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the world, and taught three different semesters at Pepperdine’s London campus as part of my full-time law teaching job in Malibu, California. But none of these experiences can compare with the opportunity I have been given to partner with the leaders of Uganda to assist them in delivering justice to their people.
Bob Goff, an attorney, humanitarian, and author, is the founder of Restore International. How did Bob’s speech at a Christian Legal Society conference set you on a collision course for Uganda?
Bob is the craziest and most inspiring person I have ever met – he would have to be in order to shake me out of my comfort zone. In fact, Bob absolutely destroyed the life I once knew and I tell him that regularly. In 2007, he came to Pepperdine to speak to our students about using their God-given abilities and legal training to serve those around the world. A few weeks later, two of our students hopped on a plane to Uganda with Bob and came back with a plan for our students to serve as interns for Ugandan judges. The frenetic pace of my job as dean of students and professor at Pepperdine, and my commitment to my young family, however, had convinced me that I had no room in my life to join my students in these efforts. I was content in my role was as cheerleader – encouraging others to go and do. But in 2009, God used Bob’s “Love Does” speech at the CLS National Conference to jolt me from my complacency, and knock me to my knees. It was time for me to say yes to the call I now believe I had been avoiding my entire life to join in the ongoing efforts in Uganda. A couple months later, I met Henry in a juvenile prison.
You write that you went to Uganda hoping to “throw some starfish back in the ocean.” Tell us what you hoped to accomplish.
The team we assembled to go to Uganda included two other Pepperdine Law graduates – Ray Boucher and David Barrett. On a layover in Nairobi, Kenya, David told me “The Starfish Story” for the first time. Distilled, the story involves a young boy throwing starfish stranded on the shore back into the ocean one at a time so they can thrive and flourish. An older man heckles the boy, telling him there are stranded starfish as far as the eye can see – “how can you possibly make a difference.” The boy picks up a starfish, throws it back into the ocean, and defiantly says, “I made a difference for that one, didn’t I.” That story penetrated me to the core. The problems facing Africa were so overwhelming, I had previously questioned how we could make any sort of measurable impact. But after hearing that story, I had my answer – one starfish at a time. When we landed in Uganda, I went looking for my starfish. And after I met Henry and his younger brother Joseph, I was determined to do whatever I could to throw them back into the ocean so they could thrive and flourish once again. It was only later than I fully understood The Starfish Story.
One of the first boys you met when your team reached the juvenile detention facility was Henry. Tell us your first impression of him, and how he came to be accused of two murders.
Before heading out to the Masindi Remand Home, our team met with the local magistrate judge at the courthouse. There, he provided us with a list of the twenty-one inmates and their charges. I immediately noticed that one boy named Henry had been charged with two separate counts of murder – one in 2008 and the other in 2009. I made a mental note to avoid this kid. We hadn’t thought to bring interpreters with us, foolishly assuming that everyone spoke English. When we arrived at the Remand Home, we discovered that only two of the juveniles spoke English. They would have to be our interpreters. The warden introduced them to us as brothers – Henry and Joseph. Soon thereafter, the boy I had planned to avoid became my interpreter. Over the course of that day, I learned that Henry and Joseph, along with their father, had been charged with murder eighteen months earlier in conjunction with the mob killing of a herdsman who had stolen their family’s entire savings. I also learned that undisputed evidence showed that Henry and Joseph had been in school at the time of the killing. During Henry’s time at the Remand Home, he had risen to the position of Katikkiro in the internal prison government, which meant he was prime minister of the prison. It was in that capacity that he was charged with a second murder, alongside a prison official who served as the matron over the juveniles, in conjunction with the death of another prisoner who died while attempting to escape, just one month before I arrived.
Now that Henry is free, and in medical school as he always dreamed, how do you view that story of the boy tossing back the starfish?
For much of my life, I was the man in The Starfish Story – perplexed and crippled into inaction when faced with the enormity of the problems around the world, not doing anything because I couldn’t do everything. When I finally surrendered control of my life and took a step in faith, I began to identify with the boy – looking to throw the starfish one at a time back in the safety and security of the ocean. But now, as I look back on this story and reflect more carefully upon its characters, I realize that I am not the boy in the story after all. I am the starfish. I was stranded on the shores of inaction, baking in the sun of indifference – just waiting for someone to throw me into the ocean of obedience and service. Come on in – the water is great!