Saturday, November 18, 2017

Visit to the Lologo church in Juba

Since Juba residents come from all of the 64 tribes of South Sudan, there are worship services held in many of the major languages. We have enjoyed the various styles of singing and liturgy that each tribe and language embraces. A few weeks ago we visited an Anyuwaa congregation for the second time with our colleague, Rev. Philip Obang – this time I (Kristi) gave the message and Bob participated in serving communion and the baptism of several children and adults. We made a short (less than 2 minutes) video of some of the pictures from both visits, with one of their songs in the background. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

God’s providence and sovereignty in the midst of turbulent times

A few weeks ago Rev. Chris Ferguson, the General Secretary of the World Council of Reformed Churches (WCRC), with Rev. Debbie Braaksma, the Africa Officer Director for Presbyterian Church (USA) World Mission, along with Lynn and Sharon Kandel and myself, Presbyterian (USA) Mission Co-workers serving in South Sudan and the Horn of Africa Region, spent time at Nile Theological College (NTC) where I teach, located here in the capital city of Juba.  We met with the leadership of the college which includes:  Rev. Santino Odong (Principal), Rev. John Tong Pak (Academic Dean), Rev. Michael Obang (Lecturer and Registrar), along with the librarian and accountant.  We also had an informal lunch with students which allowed us to learn more about the life of the institution and the lives of the students.  The conversation with both leadership and students was animated - it was difficult to stop sharing ideas back and forth before heading off to the next meeting!

Rev. Santino, principal of NTC , shares some of
the history  and vision for the future

Rev. Debbie Braaksma shares words of
wisdom and encouragement

Sitting with students at lunch and hearing their stories -
this student lives in an IDP camp on the outskirts of Juba

After South Sudan became an independent nation in 2011, in addition to the campus in Khartoum in Sudan, a second NTC campus was established in Malakal, South Sudan.  It was a labor of love to establish this new campus, but the new leadership was determined to inaugurate the work of NTC in the world’s youngest nation.  To the surprise and consternation of all, civil war broke out in December of 2013, affecting the entire nation of South Sudan, leaving no one unaffected.  Malakal, being strategically located on the Nile River, was a contested city, much of it being destroyed including the young college.  Miraculously, 80% of the books of the institution were spared and housed by a local politician until Rev. Santino, the Principal, was able to arrange transport of the books to the college’s new location in Juba, the capital.  

Rev. John Tong Pak describes some of the realities
faced by faculty and students alike 

Since moving from Malakal to Juba in 2014, NTC has grown from five students to more than seventy.  Roughly ten of these students live in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps and a majority of the students have been displaced from all over the country.  Due to the compromised security situation and challenges with education in South Sudan, wives and children of the leadership of the NTC live in surrounding countries such as Egypt, Sudan and Uganda.  As we discussed the issue of displacement, Rev. Ferguson drew our attention to reformers such as John Calvin and John Knox who were themselves displaced from their homes of origin (France, Scotland) due to the political and religious upheaval of their times.  Thus, much of our reformed thought and thinking germinated during a period of great national and international political and religious turmoil.  John Calvin even insisted to the City Council of Geneva that they set a precedent for being a place which would welcome refugees.  The theme stressed by Rev. Ferguson in this discussion, God’s providence and sovereignty in the midst of turbulent times, felt like not only an important theological insight, but served a means of pastoral care  for these South Sudanese leaders who persevere in their service in the face of the multitudinous challenges in this war torn nation. 

Rev. Ferguson makes the connection between the reformers of the 16th century
and the realities of displacement faced today in South Sudan

Rev. Michael Obang of NTC and Rev. Ferguson
enjoy a light moment of fellowship 

As we finished our time together, Rev. Ferguson also made known to the leadership of NTC a few important opportunities for connecting more deeply to the worldwide communion of faith and ways to empower South Sudanese leaders.  PC(USA) Mission Co-worker Sharon Kandel describes NTC as “a place of joy and hope.”  Indeed, in the midst of the turbulence which has been endemic to this region for generations, NTC shines as a brilliant light to the goodness, faithfulness and glory of God.  For the leadership of NTC and for those of us connected to this institution, it is always a welcome reminder to know that we belong to a worldwide community of faith who upholds us in prayer and encourages us as we press forward in faith.  To God be the glory!       

Sharon Kandel, her husband Lynn, and Rev. Ferguson
bless brother Santino!  

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Introduction to the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church

This week Rev. Chris Fergusen from the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) and Rev. Debbie Braaksma (Africa Area Director for Presbyterian World Mission), visited Juba and met with several church partners here. I accompanied them on their visit to the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC), the partner that I am working with here. The visit was an introduction for Rev. Ferguson to this church and also an introduction for SSPEC to the work of the WCRC and an invitation to explore membership in this global communion. I thought I would share a summary of the visit as a way to introduce you to the church partner and some of the colleagues that I will be working with.

Rev Madut shares history of SSPEC

Rev. Madut Tong shares the history of the church

Rev. Madut Tong, Deputy General Secretary of SSPEC, shared that SSPEC was formed as an extension of the Presbyterian Church in Northern Sudan, based in Khartoum. When South Sudan became an independent country in 2011, many Southerners were pushed out of Khartoum. Those from the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church who were displaced into the new country of South Sudan regrouped and began planting their own churches. When support from the leadership in Khartoum was cut off, they formed their own denomination, the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC). Currently, the young church has about 30 congregations, but because of the ongoing conflict many of those congregations are in IDP camps or comprised of people displaced from their home regions. Because of the instability and crisis in the country, the focus has been on planting churches and getting a basic building to worship in. Pastors and church leaders are bi-vocational – all of them have taken on jobs outside the church to support their families. Rev. Ferguson shared experiences from some other churches in regions of conflict, and encouraged the SSPEC leaders that sometimes conflict and crisis give us a chance to re-evaluate systems and make changes.

SSPEC leadership meeting

Meeting with the Executive Committee of SSPEC at their offices

The church has a vision to create a Bible school that would provide education at a primary-school level and training in the Bible and church ministry to adults who feel called to ministry but are not qualified or able to enter university. South Sudan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, currently at 27%. Rev. Philip Akway, General Secretary for SSPEC, also said that their vision for the Bible school is to combine education with vocational skills, to further build people’s capacity and ability to thrive in ministry. Rev. Ferguson encouraged the church with this vision, and said that sometimes the church is a person’s only opportunity for education, and that the training provided can increase the capacity of the community as a whole.


Achol Majok, chairwoman of the women’s desk

“Women have been included as a key organ in the church,” shared Madam Achol Majok, chairwoman of the Women’s desk for SSPEC. Women are active in the church, but because of the current crisis in the country their activities are currently focused on promoting peace. Women of several congregations gather in monthly prayer gatherings and hold marches to promote peace. Several members have been trained in trauma healing and reconciliation, and workshops have been held to promote healing. Achol is keen on women being involved in the process when the church’s constitution is reviewed and translated from Arabic into English.

Jebel Market church with pastor, members, and Lynn

The Jebel Market church, including pastor (left), members,
and mission co-worker Lynn Kandel (middle)

The delegation visited the Jebel Market congregation, whose members were proud to show off their newly constructed building with shiny red iron roof sheets and fresh-caked mud walls. Support for the roof sheets was given from the Presbyterian Church (USA). The church, established in 2006, had been worshipping under tarps for 3 years since their temporary building collapsed in 2015. Most of the members live in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp at the edge of town, and often are not able to make it to church because of lack of transport. The congregation worships in the Nuer language, one of several languages used in SSPEC congregations.

The SSPEC leadership hosted a dinner for the visitors at a hotel in Juba to show their appreciation for the visit. Rev. James Partap, moderator of SSPEC, acknowledged that one of the church’s biggest challenges is the reality of being displaced – congregations that were established have dissolved when whole communities fled because of war. Pastors and leaders of SSPEC are still scattered across the region, including Kenya, Uganda Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. Current congregations are comprised of people who are displaced from their home regions and are therefore transient. On a positive note, the church has also seized the opportunity that displacement presented by establishing new churches in places where their people take refuge when they have been displaced.

SSPEC - sharing with leaders over dinner 2

Rev. Chris Fergusen discussing with SSPEC leaders over dinner, including
Rev. Philip Akway (far left) and Rev. James Partap (right).

The leadership of SSPEC was encouraged to hear about examples of ecumenical efforts that WCRC has facilitated, such as a partnership between a church in Taiwan with a church in Colombia to train pastors in advocacy and community organizing. Rev. Ferguson emphasized that the strength of the WCRC is leveraging the experience and skills of churches to partner together to benefit each other. SSPEC is interested to explore membership in WCRC and to benefit from the experiences and connections with other churches in areas of conflict, crisis, and displacement.

Presenting gift to Philip Akway, SSPECPresenting the SSPEC leaders with a gift

Now you know a little of the history, vision, and challenges of this church partner. I look forward to joining them as together we seek to make the gospel known and raise up disciples in the midst of the challenges of displacement, instablity, and conflict.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Have Mercy, LORD

It happened so quickly.  There I was on the side of the road, talking with Abdullah.  The bag hung over my right shoulder, non-street side.  Abdullah and I had exchanged greetings and I was describing to him in Arabic where I was headed.  Suddenly and inexplicably, Abdullah leaned in, embracing me as the motorcycle whizzed by on my right side.  Before I could gasp or say a word, we stood there shell-shocked as the thieves absconded with all of my bag save one of the two straps.  We had heard of this happening to others, now I was the victim.  Abdullah saw that I was okay, except for a minor abrasion where the canvas bag had been ripped away from the grip of my arm.  Others standing in the vicinity came over to offer solace. 

I continued my short trek down to the store to buy a few things, still feeling a bit jarred.  On my way back, there was Abdullah, where I had met him.  He has tracked down the remainder of our bag which the thieves had discarded when they realized there was nothing inside.  The sturdy bag that has served us well for many years and elicited many compliments was tattered and torn, but looked like it could be re-stitched.  I was so grateful to Abdullah for going to find the rest of the bag, a very thoughtful and kind gesture. 

At that very spot, in front of the mosque, sat Ismael, a neighbor.  I shared with him and others there what had happened.  They were sympathetic.  “Allah kariim,” God is generous, we all noted, giving thanks that the situation had not been any worse and giving thanks to God for His provision.  I went home and explained what happened to the guards where we live.  They also were kind and concerned.  I told the whole story to Kristi in our apartment as she attended to my wounded arm and spirit.  Shortly thereafter Lynn and Sharon Kandel, our Regional Liaisons, came down to encourage me, having heard about the traumatic event.  The following day at the market, two women whom we frequently buy things from, Kapeeta and Amina, noticed my wound and expressed sympathy.  The following day Emmanuel, the manager of our building, came down just to see how I was doing after having heard of the affair.  In short, I felt a lot of care and concern and sympathy from our community here.

Another conversation during that time stands out.  Susan, one of the women who cleans our building, explained how there are many people here who are hungry and are driven by their hunger to steal.  I had thought of this reality, which gave me some compassion towards the two men who had stalked me.  I cannot say that their actions are justifiable, but I do see their actions as reflective of the social challenges faced by so many here in South Sudan.  Soldiers, police and teachers haven’t been paid in six months.  The ongoing civil war has displaced millions.  Children are without parents and scavenge for food on the streets alongside dogs.  There are so many sad realities here that simply break one’s heart time and time again. 

This episode serves as a good reminder not only to be vigilant when walking in Juba, but also of the desperation felt by so many.  Lord, I forgive these two men and I pray that You would provide for their needs so they do not feel the need to steal.  May you soften their hearts and change their circumstances, and may You hear the cries of the many who are struggling.  Have mercy, LORD, on this distressed land.   


Friday, September 22, 2017

Home visit

We have really enjoyed getting to know our Arabic teacher, Elder Charles Peter during our lessons. We hear about his family, his neighborhood, and his work as a missionary, showing the Jesus film and preaching in various parts of town. In Africa you don’t need to wait for an invitation, so one day we told him that we wanted to visit his home. “Wonderful!” He replied in Arabic, “My wife will make kudra for you. It is delicious!”

Last week the big day came. We took two different buses out to Gudele, a district near the edge of town. We met him on a busy street corner, and then took a rickshaw (a three-wheeled covered contraption that holds 4 people) down a dirt road until we reached his neighborhood. Then, a short walk, where we were thrilled to see grass and flowers along the sides of the road and streams that bisect the road (and swell to make them impassable when it rains). In the middle of town where we live in a 4-story building, we are a little starved for nature, so it felt very refreshing to be reminded of what a more typical neighborhood looks like.

Bob and Charles on the road in Gudele - Enjoying the green!
When we reached the house, we met his wife, son, nephew, and a few neighbors. We were ushered into the
house, and we enjoyed the chance to finally talk with his wife who we had heard so much about. We looked through pictures from their wedding and early years together. We heard more of their experience in Malakal in 2013, when war erupted and they were forced to flee, leaving all of their household possessions to be looted by the invading soldiers. They lived in a UN camp for a few weeks, sleeping under only a tarp, until a friend helped to evacuate them to Uganda. They returned to South Sudan because of a commitment to God’s work here, and their persevering hope and sacrifice to make the gospel known is humbling. Most of our conversation was in Arabic, which meant that sentences had to be repeated sometimes or new words clarified, but still a victory to be able to connect meaningfully in our new language!
Then, lunch was served and the awaited kudra was brought in. Kudra are leaves that are ground and cooked to make a thick green soupy mixture, often with chunks of meat included in it. In Juba kudra is eaten with a starch like kisra (similar to Ethiopian injira) or asiida (like ugali in East Africa). Charles Peter was right—it really was delicious, and Mama Wigdan was vigilant to make sure that our plates were never empty until we were stuffed and protesting that we couldn’t possibly eat any more.

Eating kudra for the first time – a favorite dish in South Sudan
After that great meal, we realized clouds were gathering and we should start the journey home. Charles accompaied us back to the main road, rode the first bus with us and even paid our fare on the second bus back to our part of town. With Bob’s energy still low because of the virus, big outings like this feel very special and appreciated. We felt so grateful for wonderful people like Charles Peter and Wigdan who exemplify to us the warm hospitality of the South Sudanese people.

With Charles Peter and Wigdan, at their home