Friday, October 19, 2018

Finding the Good Shepherd

This week I took a two-day personal retreat at the Good Shepherd Peace Center a few miles outside of Juba. Getting there was a bit of an adventure (of course!) as I tried traveling by public bus on a route we have not used before.  But as soon as I arrived, I felt myself relax and let out a big sigh, eager to leave behind the hustle, noise, and dust of the city for a few days. I spent long stretches of unstructured time praying, reading, watching nature, taking slow walks, and thinking. I felt like I was experiencing the verse in Psalm 63 that says “my soul is satisfied as with the richest of foods” as I reconnected with God, refocused, and was refreshed.

Leaving for retreat

On my way to catch the bus…

Here are a few of the mental images that stood out to me during this brief retreat:

  • The iridescent blue of the swallows as they swoop by me.
  • Sinking knee-deep in mud when I tried to wade in the river
  • The silhouette of an owl at dusk, perched at the top of a nearby tree
  • A mourning dove’s call, like the purring of a contented cat
  • Sitting alone in the chapel, enjoying the sense of God’s love and presence as I prayed.
  • The amazing variety of patterns and sizes of the butterflies, dancing around the flowers.

    Butterfly 5        Butterfly 6

  • The greeting of the hunter I encountered on my morning walk, carrying a bow and arrow as big as he was.
  • An inspiring conversation with a Catholic sister about her experiences in South Sudan, who declared “God sent you here! I’m so excited to meet you!”

Good Shepherd Chapel

The chapel at the Good Shepherd Center

I returned to Juba refreshed, refocused, and reminded that depending on God and focusing on Him is what will accomplish more than any effort I put in on my own. Does taking a retreat sound like something you need too? If so, I hope that you can find the time and space, in whatever way it looks like for you, to step back, disconnect from the demands and routine, and reconnect to the Source.

“…In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)

Friday, October 12, 2018

Lord, in Your Mercy

Brief Caution:  Some of the content of this blog post may be disturbing.  Please be prayerful if/when you read, in a good state of mind.  

Standing in the hall 48 hours later, just behind the one-inch-diameter-hole with jagged rays emanating out from it in the large vertical pane of glass, felt a bit eerie and surreal.  I wondered what the tall, slight young man in the white shirt thought that morning when he woke up.  Surely, he did not say to himself, “Today is the last day of my life; I will be sure to make the most of this day.” 

Standing behind the window on the first floor
two days later; seeing my own reflection feels a bit eerie...

Friday afternoon around 3:30pm I was taking a short nap after a long day at the college.  I was looking forward to getting up shortly so that Kristi and I could go visit Mary, Galdino and other friends at the “mahel shayi” (tea shop) located in the “suk” (local market) across the busy Konyokonyo Road which separates our four story building from the market and the Malakia Police Station.  At first one might be tempted to think that the sound was the harmless popping of firecrackers, but quickly it was clear that these pops were something altogether different, something altogether ominous.  At least twenty gun shots went off in rapid succession in less than one minute in the vicinity of the neighboring police station.  Reacting, I did what most people unthinkingly do in such a situation.  I went to take a look.  I found myself in our hallway, observing the scene from three flights above.  Traffic had come to a standstill as people were either running, ducking for cover, or frozen in shock.   

Peering curiously down into the scene below I was suddenly jolted by the extremely loud gunshot which seemingly shook our entire building.  Hitting the deck, I began crawling on my stomach back to our apartment, now 20 feet away.  What was first a curiosity now turned into what felt like a war zone.  Halfway back, the tall, slight young man with the white shirt came ambling as fast as his wounded body would allow him, rounding the corner from our second floor stairwell.  My mind took a moment to register what my eyes were seeing.  The tall, slight young South Sudanese man was half bent over and his white shirt was soaked with blood.  His body, now not able to direct itself, careened into the wall just in front of our apartment as his head then slammed into the base of the wall, near our door jam, the pall of death glazing over his face as his eyes communicated complete consternation.  His writhing and semi-inert body blocked my return to our apartment. Kristi, hearing the commotion in the hall and my exclamation, wisely locked the door, not having seen what I had seen and not knowing what was going on outside.  Terrified, she locked the door, sat near it to welcome me in, and prayed.  I turned on my belly and crawled in the other direction where I found another young man who had been behind me, this young man holding a pistol, scouring the streets below with his trained eye for would-be assailants.  Thankfully he did not mind me as I continued crawling, now knocking at the base of the door of Leisa, our neighbor, colleague and friend.  Uncertain herself what was going on and what to do, having heard everything and seeing the man in the hall with the gun, thankfully she quickly opened her door after I calmly explained my situation.  We found sanctuary in her back bedroom where we phoned Kristi, our colleagues and friends upstairs, and the apartment manager.  We prayed, waited, and kept calm as our bodies and spirits trembled in fear and uncertainty.

Our hallway, the second door on left is ours; I crawled the hall
on all fours when I saw the man turn the corner and then come and fall in front of our door

Later we would learn that the tall, slight young man with the white shirt died from his gunshot wound shortly after I saw him.  What happened?  Who shot him?  Him being curious like many of us, he had been down at the window in the first floor hallway where he was struck by a stray bullet which came whistling up from the police station below.  We learned that the young man is a relative of the family who temporarily lives in the large apartment at the end of our hall; the young man patrolling our hall with the pistol is a bodyguard to a high-ranking military official who is currently renting that apartment.  That afternoon two other bullets struck our building, one in the ground floor showroom and the other on the fourth floor, the police shooting bullets in the air in seeming indiscriminate fashion.  The whole affair began when a man came to the police station with multiple grenades, ready to use them due to a domestic dispute involving his wife and possibly someone from the station.  He was shot by the police but not killed.   

The police station across the street from the first floor of our building;
three bullets hit our building from across the street

As for Kristi and I and our three colleagues/friends who live together in the same building, we are still in shock and we are still recovering.  Weekly, we hear stories of gun violence, robberies in the neighborhoods at the edge of the city, and killings across the city and country.  Within the last few months, Susan, a dear woman who cleans our building, lost her sixteen year old son, senselessly shot and killed while attending a neighbor’s birthday party.  A week ago Wednesday the home of Terenzo Lako, the new guard of our building, was attacked by robbers in the night.  Stories we have heard from friends and daily news reports have now became a close-up, lived and witnessed reality for us.  

Saturday morning Kristi and I went down to the quiet serenity of the Nile River to find a healing calm.  We read from Psalm 91, words which now possess new and special meaning at a moment when it felt like one of us could have suffered the same fate as our young South Sudanese neighbor.  We appreciate your prayers as we heal and recover from the trauma, as we seek to not live in fear, and as we seek wisdom for such situations and how we can best be equipped to serve in this needy land.  We invite you to pray with us for the family of the young man who died a rather senseless death.  Pray for wisdom in how we can show our neighbors love and solidarity.  Lord, in Your Mercy.       


Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Celebrating milestones

Just in case you noticed that there has not been a post for awhile….we have been on vacation, and then recovering from a terrible cold that hit us after the long travel. So, now we are able to reminisce and be grateful for the days that we had away, exploring new places and savoring some time to catch up with family. But the main reason for this special vacation was the fiftieth wedding anniversary of Bob’s parents. Definitely a milestone worth celebrating. So, please indulge us as we share a few pictures of the beauty that we found in Spain.

17-DSC_0725 20-DSC_0728 lions, each unique 
Bob at Washington Irving door Alhambra, early evening
Some pictures from the Alhambra, where we were amazed by the architecture, the intricate, detailed designs, and the history and stories from several centuries ago.

55-DSCF1374 56-DSCF1376 57-DSCF1382
  IMG_4590  IMG_4328 (2) 

Most of the time we relaxed together in Marbella, playing games, eating lots of good food, enjoying the pool and the view of the Mediterranean, and doing a little exploring of the area. And taking every opportunity to get ice cream, of course!

And then, of course, we enjoyed some time of marking the milestone of our parents’ anniversary, followed by our anniversary (although we are many years behind them!)

68-DSCF1396 IMG_4285 (2)

DSCF1404 (2)

Now back to work in Juba, with happy memories to look back on.

“How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me?” Psalm 116:12

Monday, August 27, 2018

Getting to the root of the problem

For every problem that a community faces, there is a solution. And to really solve the problem you need to deal with the roots of it. We used a tree to symbolize the problem – the trunk is the core problem, with roots being the causes of the problem, branches being behaviors that result from the problem, and the fruit as the consequences. For example, civil war in Sudan is a problem in our communities. The consequences that we see are displacement, destruction, insecurity, and death. The root causes include politics, inadequate resources, a culture of revenge, tribalism, etc. Unfortunately, many organizations that come to provide relief in South Sudan only deal with the consequences – the UN provides shelter for the displaced, others provide healing for the wounded, or support to rebuild what was destroyed. But how can we deal with the roots?

CHE training - tree exercise

Elijah identifies parts of the tree as we talk about the tree as a symbol for our problems
(and yes, it was COLD in Nairobi!)

Last week I attended a training in Kenya on Community Health Evangelism (CHE), along with Elijah, one of the elders in an SSPEC congregation. CHE is a strategy for empowering communities to take ownership of addressing problems and improving their physical, social, and spiritual health. Real lasting transformation happens in the health of communities when the truth of the gospel is integrated with truths about physical health. But too often, community leaders are not taught how to work together to resolve their problems—they just wait for solutions to be brought to them from the outside. Those of us coming to help need to be careful that we are not imposing solutions that disempower people or prove harmful long-term.

CHE training - identifying priorities

One way to ‘vote’ on the priorities among all the problems in a community.

In our example of the ‘problem tree’ of civil war mentioned in the beginning, the corresponding ‘solution tree’ would be peace and stability. Peace comes from the roots of unity, equality, forgiveness, etc. Those roots are truths that we must understand and experienced in order to realize peace and stability. In the struggle with civil war, too often the lies at the root (tribalism, corrupt politics, revenge, etc.) are what flourishes in our societies and what we believe. This is a key part of CHE’s approach: integration of spiritual and physical truths to address the beliefs that contribute to problems in our societies. When we recognize Jesus as Lord and look to him as the source of truth, then we can see and deal with the lies at the roots of our problems.

CHE training - Margaret

We were pleased to meet a few other people from South Sudan at the training.
This is Margaret, president of the women for the Africa Inland Church.

For example, one lie common in African societies is the men are more important than women. Some behaviors and consequences of this belief are girls being left behind in education, a culture of accepting men beating their wives, and women not having a voice in their society. Today in South Sudan, girls are encouraged to go to school with money to support their school fees…but does that change the root belief? How can this problem really be resolved?

CHE training - presenting seed project

Presenting our plan for a ‘seed project’ to the group.

An illustration about a community that lived at the top of a mountain brings home the principles of Community Health Evangelism (CHE).  According to this illustration, the people living atop the mountain would go down the mountain to trade and work in surrounding villages. Many times, people fell on their way down the mountain and were seriously injured. One visitor to the community noticed this problem and generously provided an ambulance. The ambulance was parked at the bottom of the mountain, ready to take wounded people to the clinic 10 km away when they fell. The community was happy, and many people were healed. But after awhile the ambulance broke down. The community leaders went to the donor, and he agreed to fix the ambulance. But when it happened again, he got frustrated, and said he had no more money to give. Then a church leader came to visit, and said that the diocese would build a clinic at the bottom of the mountain. They built the clinic, provided staff, and treated many people, including those that fell on their way down the mountain. But after awhile the resources ran thin, and the church closed the clinic. The community is now back to the same place they started, with people continuing to hurt themselves and die as they try to go down the mountain. They did not know what to do, because they did not have the resources to run the clinic or repair the ambulance. Finally, the leaders came together to discuss what could be done. One wise man suggested that they could build a fence along the path down the moutain using some trees and rope. Everyone agreed, and they worked together to cut the trees and build the fence. They raised a little money for cement so that the poles could be secured in the ground. Now, people could safely go down the mountain. After a few years, some of the poles rotted and needed to be replaced. But the community knew that this was their fence, and it was not too difficult to work together to replace the rotted poles with new ones.

We are excited to consider how the church can holistically minister to the community through the CHE approach. Please pray with us for this new initiative, and for God to make the way clear as we continue to explore and lay groundwork in the next few months.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

South Sudanese Hospitality

While in Uganda for vacation and R&R a couple of months ago, I stumbled upon an article in a travel magazine about Levison Wood, a British adventurer who walked almost the entire length of the Nile, a 4,000 mile journey along the longest river in the world beginning at the mouth in Rwanda and ending in the Mediterranean in Egypt (YouTube short video here).  While Levison’s journey was filled with misadventures, challenges and joys, one detail stands out to me.  Levison mentions the incredible hospitality and care he received in both South Sudan and Sudan.  In South Sudan, due to war, he was advised by the government military to divert his journey for his own safety.  In Sudan, a man walked forty miles with him and helped care for his camel.  Of all the countries he passed through, he spoke most highly of the hospitality in this corner of the world where we now live.      

Photo:  Levison Wood
Courtesy:  Associated Press/Ilya Gridneff at this linked article 

Hospitality is a core value in African cultures, a key feature which has drawn us back, time and time again.  While both visiting and living in Rwanda, I was so blessed by the care given to us during our visits and the efforts taken to see us off when we left.  While living in Rwanda, I was treated like one who truly belonged, like family.  In Congo, Kristi and I ate in countless homes and were treated like royalty.  We were welcomed with open arms by our wonderful host community.  Here in South Sudan, we have been blessed in similar fashion and always enjoy being in the homes of colleagues, friends and acquaintances. 

Making the journey out to the home of a student -
the last part by foot and it was quite muddy after a huge rain!  

Today was a special day for us in the home of a student and his family.  As our friend, Rev. Paul Hensley, wraps up his time here after teaching a three week intensive at Nile Theological College (NTC), a celebration to honor him was hosted by Rev. Santino Odong, the principal, and other faculty, staff and students this last week.  During that splendid affair with speeches, songs and food, Joseph Tubo Apar, one of our students, approached me and invited Paul, Kristi and I for a special gathering on Saturday featuring the local food of their Chollo (Shilluk) tribe.  The inspiration for this idea came when a couple of the students, Joseph and John Ohdong Mayik, learned that Paul would be leaving; they said to themselves, “Ah, we must do something!  We don’t have much here, and we cannot treat them as we would in our home region of Upper Nile, but we must host them and bless them before Paul leaves.”  Thus the impetus for a grand afternoon together, eating Akelo which is a staple for their people, a greens dish called Lōm, and fish.  This sumptuous meal was topped off by sliced guava and tea with ginger.  

John Ohdong Mayik serves us the famous Akelo -
a staple of the Chollo (Shilluk) people

All three students shared kind words of appreciation with us and we were introduced to each member of the family.  Before leaving, we expressed our gratitude and Paul prayed a blessing over the family and the home; we then snapped some photos together outside.  In good African fashion, they escorted us to the bus park and said goodbye as our bus took off, having already that day paid some of our bus fares and asking us to be sure to call them to let them know we had arrived home safely. 

Students John and Daniel (left, back) with members of John's family
also a close friend to John, pictured with Paul and Kristi 

Ahhhh, what a wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon!  We are grateful for South Sudanese hospitality and the opportunity to enter into the homes and lives of our students here, students who are becoming so very dear to us.  May God bless Joseph, John, Daniel, and John’s family for their invitation and their gracious welcome and care for us.  “Allah kwes kalis!”  (God is so very good!).