Thursday, June 7, 2018

Proud Teacher

A proud teacher, like a proud parent, marvels and rejoices in the success of his or her students.  Last week I was thrilled with my students on the final examination day.  For my two classes, Contextual Theology and Church History, I had grouped students together to present for our class, to share with us and teach us what they have learned.  For my Contextual Theology class I asked my students to create a local or contextual theology, a lived theology which speaks to the realities and concerns of the South Sudanese people.   For my Church History class I assigned each of the eight groups a question to respond to, each question covering a significant historical issue and/or person of which we have studied together.  For each of the two classes and their final group presentations, I was "tickled pink" to see my students use their imagination, their creativity, their gifts and their hard work in sharing with us and helping us learn together as a community.

Students perform a sketch on Martin of Tours,
a bishop of the fourth century who transformed
the idea of "bishop" by his simple life of poverty and service

For my Contextual Theology class, Rev. Paul Ruot and Dak Badeng Gai introduced us to a song sung by a clan of the Nuer, a song composed by the women of the clan over one hundred years ago.  The song chronicles the history of one of two warring clans that fled into exile for having killed a prominent leader from the other clan. In exile the people suffered terribly from disease and their displacement.  Finally, after many years, the men who were so weakened by their diseased condition came to the end of themselves.  Into this sad predicament the women stepped forward, creating this song of repentance and intercession, naming the wrong committed and interceding to God through the known local spirit.  Rev. Paul, the elder statesman and wise sage of our class, sang this song for us.  He and Dak then connected the prominent role of women of this historical event with a South Sudanese woman who recently broke down and publicly wept during the failed peace talks in Addis Ababa.  The students shared how the leaders, exclusively men, do not realize the full extent of the problem and the suffering they are currently causing in South Sudan.  However, this woman’s public lament challenged the men while it also challenges all of us.  According to my students, her cry indicates that women love peace more than men.  Her cry is a prophetic call to a new reality, just as the song sung more than one hundred years ago was a cry for a new reality, recognizing wrong and asking God for help.  Rev. Paul and Dak also connected this traditional Nuer ballad to the song which Miriam, Moses and Aaron’s sister, sang when the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea (Exodus 15: 20ff).  Rev. Paul and Dak conclude that although women in Nuer culture and South Sudanese society are perceived as weak, they are in fact known for their commitment and emotional strength, particularly in regard to their ability to peacefully restore broken relationships.  Moreover, Rev. Paul and Dak contend that the role of women and their significance is best embodied in the salvation which came through a woman in the birth of Jesus Christ.

Rev. Paul Ruot sings a traditional Nuer ballad,
a song of lament, repentance and a plea for divine help

In my Church History class, students tackled big questions such as, “What was the impact of Constantine on Christianity?”  “What central element of the Christian faith was Athanasius seeking to protect against Arianism?”  “How did Augustine understand theological ideas like goodness, evil and free will?”  “What difference do you see between the Christian view towards war and violence in the first two centuries compared to the eleventh, twelfth and thirteen centuries?”  This last question raises a lot of emotion and thoughtfulness from my students who, along with their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, have lived under the shadow of Islam and Islamist policies for at least a century and a half.  The video below depicts the skit one group produced, representing well the Christian theological stance of peace and humility and willingness to suffer as modeled by Jesus, but also displaying the ambivalence and uncertainty which grew towards this pacifistic view over the centuries, and even how this view was altered and unabashedly compromised in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries as Popes called for a series of Crusades, Christian leaders calling Christians to acts of violence and war against the Infidels (Muslims), Jews and pagans, a sad and pitiable part of our Christian heritage which continues to compromise our Christian witness.  

Again, I am immensely proud of my students!  One thing I have learned this semester is that working in groups and having presentations plays to the strengths of my South Sudanese students whereby orality and communalism, working together in groups, are central values in contradistinction to western values of individualism and written learning and testing.  I look forward to our next semester together! 


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Shopping exertion

I want to share a little story that reflects daily life here, and how we continue to learn and adjust to the way of life in a new place. A few months ago, (February, maybe?) I was feeling the urge to get a few new things to wear. I had come to Juba with a suitcase of clothes a year ago, but only some of those were suited to the climate and the culture, so it was starting to feel like I was always wearing the same things. I thought, “I just need a few more shirts to wear with the skirts I have, and that will give me variety.” But, how to get some shirts? I tried to be content and patient and wait for the right opportunity to come up.

Sometime in March, after thinking about this for awhile, I set out for Konyokonyo market (that is, an African-style outdoor market with little stalls that sell housewares, clothes, shoes, spices, and basically anything that you might want to buy here). I browsed through the clothing stalls, where shirts or other clothes are hung up on the walls of the small stall. Most of these clothes are the surplus (that wouldn’t sell) from department stores or clothing companies--some used, some not. I finally found a shirt that fit what I was looking for, but was told it was 2500 SSP (about $10 then). That seemed too high for a shirt that was not new, and defnintely high for Juba. I wondered “Where do most people in Juba shop?? How can they afford this?”

I came home and talked to Mary and Susan, who clean in our apartment building. I described my experience of going to the market (good Arabic practice!), and my suprise at the prices. They affirmed that those were indeed the normal prices at Konyo-konyo market (especially for the ‘nice’ clothes that are hung up on the walls of the stall). They advised that if I wanted cheaper clothes, I needed to go to Custom market, and look for the place where there were piles of clothese on the ground. If you pick through the piles, you can find something that fits (trying it on over your other clothes). Those clothes are cheap – only about 500 SSP, they said!

Finding time to make this special trip to Custom market was not easy, and it was a little intimidating since I did not know where the clothes section was. I waited, hoping for an opportunity to come up when someone could go with me. But that never came. I’m an American adult – surely I can figure out how to buy a shirt, right? So one day in mid-April I set out on the bus to Custom Market, and wandered around through the stalls I saw near the bus park– but all the stalls seemed to have ‘high-end’ things (like fancy jeans and sports shoes), and I realized maybe I was not in the main market. Finally, I asked a woman for help, and she pointed the direction to the entrance to the big Custom market, which was across the street and hidden behind a wall. I walked in that direction, but saw that there was a very narrow opening congested with people trying to get in and out. I got nervous, knowing theft is a high risk in Juba, and not wanting to get stuck in a crowd when I did not know my way around. “Maybe it is crowded because it is a school holiday?”, I thought. I came home empty-handed again, and went back to Mary and Susan.

“What is the good time to go the market?” I asked them. “And is there another entrance that is better than that small one?” Mary told me how to get to the back entrance that is less crowded, and assured me that Custom market is always crowded. I waited a few more weeks, looking for time to return for another try. Finally, last week (mid-May now!), the opportunity came. I had to drop something off for Nyakuma, one of the women who I have worked with to facilitate the heaing and reconciliation workshops. Of course, with extravegant African hospitality, “dropping something off” turned into having tea with Nyakuma and her husband, and even trying a new food called “wal-wal”, which is a little like polenta, but with more of a consistency like small pasta, somehow. When I left her house, she insisted on getting me a motorcycle taxi, and explained to the driver exactly where to take me at Custom Market. Exactly what I needed, and didn’t realize it!

I entered the market, and began to wander through the narrow paths. The stalls seemed to be haphazard – those selling shoes, or hardware, or spices, or housewares, were all mixed together rather than having categorized ‘sections’ like at other markets. The narrow paths and rows of stalls seemed to go on and on, and it felt a little like a maze in Alice in Wonderland. Finally, I stumbled upon some piles of children clothes. “I must be getting close,” I thought. I asked someone about shirts for women, and he helpfully guided me to the next aisle and showed me some of the stalls with women’s clothes. Big piles of clothes were laid out on tarps, with some of the best ones hung up on the walls. I browsed, dug through piles, and tried on shirts over my clothes, enjoying the camaradie with the other shoppers and the sellers. These clothes were definitely the ‘leftovers’ or surplus from thrift stores in the U.S., but they were cheap, just as Mary promised! As I was digging through a pile in one stall, I overheard two tailors talking, and recognized the language of Burundi. I greeted them in Kirundi, and they were floored to find a foreigner in Juba who knew their language. A fun connection! After finding four or five rather ‘unique’ shirts that fit my criteria and spending a grand total of about $10, I was grateful for the advice of many people that helped me finally accomplish this small goal! But I had to be willing to ask directions again to get out of the market! A woman heard me asking and graciously offerred to lead me to the bus park, as she was going there anyway. Whew! One more step in feeling at home here, and learning to depend on the people around us and be grateful for their help and hospitality!

Kristi in new white shirt

One of my new shirts from the market!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Daughters of Africa Arise

When Reverend Awadiya Bulen laughs it is a full body affair.  Her white teeth flair and exude joy against the backdrop of weathered, ebony skin.  While her hair is simply pulled back, her posture does not hesitate to lean in.  Her spoken Arabic is “tamaam” (perfect), her English is quite good, and of course she speaks her mother tongue, Bari.  She can also read both in Arabic and English, a feat not accomplished by many men in her own culture.  She is a member of the second graduating class of the Arabic track at Nile Theological College (NTC) in Khartoum.   She pastors a growing church in Juba and helps with the Women’s Desk of the presbytery.  This last Monday I invited Rev. Awadiya to share with my Contextual Theology class, asking her four questions – What is it like to be a woman in your culture?  How do you see God?  Who is Jesus to you?  What does it mean that Jesus saves?  

Rev. Awadiya shares winsomely with our class!

Before sharing some of Awadiya’s story and response, let me first frame my purpose in inviting her.  As we have been studying Contextual Theology, in these final weeks I have narrowed the focus to help us look at theologies which can help my students craft a contextual and local theology for South Sudan, the subject of our final project.  Thus, we have been looking at theologies “from below,” namely from marginalized and exploited groups in places of conflict and pain.  We have taken time to study Liberation Theology, birthed from the poor and oppressed masses of war torn countries in South America.  Germane to Monday’s gathering, we looked at Africa Women’s Theology, studying a book by the same name by Mercy Amba Oduyoye (Oduyoye:  2001). 

In her book Mercy helps her reader get a fuller picture of what life is like for the African woman.  She describes her context in Africa as one of struggle and injustice.  She describes how women are taken for granted, marginalized, given secondary roles, blamed for what does not go right, forced to implement decisions they did not make, and how they struggle to have their humanity recognized as such (30).  African women are programmed to live for others (e.g. children, family) and they live to please men.  She cites the proverb “There is no woman as beautiful as the obedient one.”  While their world has been shaped by men, women have learned compassion and solidarity.  They are at the center of self-giving on behalf of others; they hurt with those who hurt and rejoice with those who rejoice (30).  When the child is in pain, he or she first runs to the mother.  Betty, one of the women Oduyoye interviews, uses such words as “subjugation,” “powerlessness,” and “subservience” to describe the plight of African women, realities which, from an anthropological and cultural level and even from a message implicitly communicated by Western churches, prevent women from “fully apprehending the truly good news that Jesus Christ’s coming has brought especially for women” (56). 

Rev. Awadiya does not hesitate to echo these macro themes voiced by Oduyoye and to paint them in vivid, living colors.  She described for us how she, like most African women, only eats once all of the men and children have eaten, which usually means that she does not eat (all the food is gone!).  Being the wife of a prominent pastor in Khartoum, their home was always filled with visitors, some of whom would live with them for extended periods of time.  She told us how over the years they probably had fifty people live with them at different times, many from different cultures and tongues.  As the wife and mother, she was obliged to cook and care for everyone staying in their home.  At one point they were hosting four pregnant women, each giving birth in rapid succession as Awadiya looked after them while being pregnant herself; a family member expressed concern that Awadiya would lose her own child!  Awadiya describes working so hard each day that her body would tremble in the night and when her husband suggested she eat, she replied that she was too tired to eat.  

Students listen, react, and respond with thoughtful,
honest questions and comments

For those who know something about African culture, you will know that the men sit under the tree most of the day, talking with visitors while women bear the brunt of all domestic activity.  Awadiya even contrasts how Arab women have it better than the Africans, “They work all day but after 4pm they can relax with the family.”   Rev. Awadiya’s husband died in 2014; she remains a widow.  Though she technically “belongs” to the family of her husband, they have done nothing to look after her needs, in fact, two of the brothers of her deceased husband now look to Awadiya to support them, feeding them and conducting household responsibilities on their behalf.  If there is a death in the family, as there recently was, Awadiya is obliged along with all the women of the family to do all the cooking for the “bika” (wake) and mourning and burial period.  Practically speaking, what that recently meant was she had to miss a workshop and she was not able to prepare herself for visiting our class.  Though Rev. Adawadiya has lost her husband, she flashes an amazing grin and says, “Jesus is my husband!”  She says that some women who still have their husbands are not as lucky as she is.    

One of the significant images we looked at during our time together is Jesus as liberator.  A principal hermeneutical key for African Women’s Christology, according to Oduyoye, is the Magnificat, when the humble teenage Mary describes how God lifts up the lowly and brings down the proud (Luke 1: 46 – 55).  To strengthen this point of God lifting up the lowly, we read a poem by Rachel Etrue Tetteh, describing her faith journey –

I heard of the Good News, now ours
Requiring men and women to hear, read and spread
The Gospel of what Jesus had done for humanity…
His ministry included women freed to make a choice
to follow Christ whose love
includes all men and women…
Daughters of Africa Arise (Tetteh 1990a: 229)

Oduyoye surmises that ‘freed to choose’ serves as the principal factor African women refer to when describing an encounter with the Living Lord, Jesus Christ.  “Jesus,” Oduyoye writes, “is the antidote to [women’s] ascribed positions in church and society, the cultural contexts in which they experience the Christ in their lives” (58).  As one of my students commented, “things won’t change overnight, but there is possibility for change.”  Another student wonders, “How can we find compromise between faith and culture?”  In both cases, whether it is slow change or compromise, African cultures will continue to wrestle with this Jesus, the Liberator, the One who came to free all persons and peoples at all times and in all places, including our dear sisters, the subjugated women of Africa. 

Daughters of Africa Arise.         

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

God’s Provision in the Details

Last week we facilitated another of the Healing the Wounds of Ethnic Conflict (HWEC) workshops for participants from several Juba congregations. It has been a busy season for our team who were trained in Rwanda, but we praise God for the open doors to present this workshop and help people to find heaing and forgiveness. In this particular workshop last week, our team was both teaching and organizing all the logistics – a rather daunting task. Add to that that I am still learning my way around in how to do things, so felt somewhat helpless regarding some of the logistics. Perhaps that motivated me to pray harder though, and God sure provided in many ways beyond our control. I want to share just a few of those ways that God provided just what was needed to make this a meaningful and transformative experience for everyone.

First, God provided an experienced, helpful, joyful group of women to cook lunch for us each day. A few days before the workshop, I was despairing of what we would do about food. The church where the workshop was conducted did not even have pots and pans or plates, so those would all have to be rounded up. But then, just the day before we started, I met with Mama Julia, who agreed to bring her friends to help us, had her own cooking equipment that she brought, helped us come up with a menu that would work with our small budget. A member of our teaching team lent us the plates and cups from his church, and brought the whole lot on a motorcycle taxi. Wow! Everyone raved about the food, it was delicious and made on time, cost even less than I anticipated and it was truly a joy working wtih these women. God is good!


Two of our cooks, making “kisra”, a thin dough something like Ethiopian injera.

Then, God provided people to help with the logistics. As we got ready for the workshop, I had lots of questions running through my head, “Who is going to start the generator? And go get fuel when it runs out? And where or how do we get all the water we will need for cooking and washing?” (no electricity or running water here, which makes things much more complicated. And who can lead us in some worship? Finding songs that everyone knows and someone with a gift for leading them was certainly beyond my control. It was as the workshop was starting on the first day that I realized how God had provided in all of these areas. The guard for the church ran the generator and helpfullly resupplied the water and fuel (and the church had graciously left us a full tank of both that we could just resupply at the end). And then the talented youth of the congregation came to help us at the workshop, both participating and happily leading everyone in joyful worship at several points in the day. Such a gift!


Nyakak (left), Mama Sarah, and Charles Peter leading worship

Finally, an important piece is translation. In Juba, many educated people know English, but others spent years in Khartoum and communicate better in Arabic, and the less educated get by in Juba Arabic or their tribal language. Three of the four of us on the teaching team are more comfortable in English than Arabic, so we decided everything would be in both English and Arabic. But finding the right person to translate proved a challenge. I thought of our language teacher, Charles Peter, but couldn’t get a hold of him. We wanted someone who would understand easily the principles we were teaching, and could tranlate into either Arabic or English. Finally, the night before the workshop started, I reached Charles Peter by phone and he agreed to come. He translated tirelessly, and also filled in on the worship team or as photographer, as needed. Thanks be to God for providing exactly what was needed.

Holy Nation drama

Charles Peter (left) translates for Omot (middle), while
Mama Sarah displays a coat representing the “Holy Nation”

And what about the actual content of the workshop? If you have not heard us talk about the HWEC workshop much, you can read more in our current newsletter. God is opening doors to present these teachings, and we pray that many continue to find healing and forgiveness. Please pray for peace in South Sudan, as the tensions and attacks in some regions are ongoing. Organizing a workshop is not always easy, as I hope this post reflects, but we are grateful that God answers prayers, even for details like water, meals, and translation.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Glory of Relationship

In John chapter seventeen verse ten, the Apostle chronicles Jesus’ prayer to the Father, saying, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them [in the disciples].” In this passage, John begins by telling us how Jesus makes the Father’s name and character known to the disciples (verse 6); Jesus prays that his followers be sanctified, made perfect in truth (verse 19). But what does it mean for Jesus to make the Father’s name and character known? And what does it mean for Jesus’ followers to be made perfect in truth? And how is Jesus glorified in his disciples?

During Holy Week this year my wife Kristi and I and a few South Sudanese colleagues conducted the Healing the Wounds of Ethnic Conflict (HWEC) workshop at the institution where I teach, Nile Theological College, a diverse setting where many of the tribes of South Sudan are represented. The opening teaching of this workshop is entitled, “God’s Original Intention for Relationships.” In this first lesson we examine the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Together with the students we described the nature of this relationship, how within the Trinity we find three separate and distinct Persons, separate, yet working perfectly together in mutuality, love, trust, affection, confidence, support and respect. Within the Trinitarian Godhead there is no competition, no power struggle, and no jealousy. No one feels threatened. Moreover, because of God’s love, God decided to create humanity so that we also can enjoy this fellowship and quality of relationship. Yet, as we know all too well, our forefather Adam and our foremother Eve lost sight of the beauty and quality of God’s original intention and went their own way. Now, we as humanity are plagued by that fateful decision as we inherently follow that tortuous path.

In the HWEC workshop we utilize creative expression and drama. In this first and significant teaching, as the facilitator I selected three volunteers to come forward, the three creating a circle holding hands. Each volunteer, coming from different tribes, stands before their colleagues and the faculty members, representing the three persons of the Godhead, quite the responsibility! As together we discuss the quality of relationships of the Godhead, we marvel at the quality of this relationship, particularly in contrast with the soured relationships we find in the world. In the midst of our marveling, I then asked the students and faculty if they would like to come and join this quality of relationship, breaking open the circle and inviting anyone to come join this extraordinary fellowship. Slowly, one by one, students and faculty catch a glimpse of the glory of this possibility and join us. 

The glory of relationship!  

After the workshop one of my students wrote his reflection paper with terrific enthusiasm and excitement for what this teaching means for South Sudan, how God is calling us to makes His glory known through the quality of our relationships, how we are made perfect in this union with the Godhead, and how Jesus is glorified in us as we follow the model God has given us. This mutuality and love, despite differences of tribe and region, is the glory of relationship which God intends.  May it be so in South Sudan!