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!).              

Friday, August 3, 2018

Visit to the camp

It was only seven-thirty in the morning as our motorcycle taxis navigated the puddles on the muddy road that led to the big camp at the edge of town. As we came over the hill, the expanse of white tents came into view, which stretched as far as we could see. Later, one of the pastors would ask, half-joking, “Do you see our white city? This is our Jerusalem!” This was POC3 (Protection of Civilians Camp 3), for South Sudanese people displaced from their homes. We had come on this Sunday morning to join them for church.

The strong voices of the youth belted out their song in such an arresting way, and made me wish I could understand the Nuer language that they were singing. The pastor whispered to us that they were singing about their suffering, and asking whether it was because of their sin, or the sin of Adam or their ancestors that the suffering had come. Another youth choir followed, singing a song of lament about the suffering in South Sudan. “We are all scattered;” they sang, “we listen for sounds of peace, but there are none.” A third choir of youth sang later, about Jesus being our light in the midst of the darkness. It was evident that all of the congregation enjoyed the choirs and resonated with their songs. One woman, in particular, danced up and down the aisles during the songs, while holding high a small wooden cross.

A short clip of the first youth choir - an impressive group!

Bob preached from Lamentations 5, which describes the suffering of Israel as they are in exile. This chapter describes several specific aspects of Israel’s suffering that are true for the South Sudanese, thousands of years later. Homes being taken by foreigners, women raped, even going to gather firewood for cooking at the risk of their lives, This, of course, is why the Bible speaks to us today – because just as the suffering is the same, God’s power and promises are also the same today. Bob reminded us of reasons for hope that we find in the midst of the suffering described in Lamentations: That God invites us to express our laments, and He hears us; that God grieves with us in our suffering; and that God has the final word (and not any of the governments or leaders that appear to hold people’s fate in their hands). As Bob finished his sermon, one woman sitting near the pupit solemnly came to shake Bob’s hand. Several others followed, wanting to express appreciation, even as the service continued.

Bob preaching
Bob preaching while Pastor Peter translates into Nuer

After the service, we followed Pastor Peter and several elders, winding our way through the narrow paths between tents to reach the pastor’s tent. Pastor Peter built the home himself, using sticks for a frame that is covered with the UN-issued white tarp. They brought in several bowls of food, meat broth, fish, kisra (a thin dough/bread like Ethiopian injira), and kop (a small grain a little like rice). It felt like an extravagant gift of food, especially as we discussed the challenges that many of these people have endured. We learned that the pastor’s wife left him in the midst of her trauma of losing a child in childbirth. An older woman, who is an elder in the church, has no family because all of her children and close family have died in the conflict.
Pastor Peter in his home
Pastor Peter, sitting on the bed in his home in the camp;
a woman elder of the church is to his left.

Yet, in the midst of the long period of dispalcement and suffering, these faithful people persevere. The church hosts Good Shepherd Primary School in its building – 2000 students study in clusters around the large sanctuary, without any barriers to block the noise or teaching of the class next to them. Several of the members serve as voluntary teachers, wanting their children to get some education. Pastor Peter has lobbied to try to get a separate building for the school, but has not yet found the funds and permissions.

women sitting in church
The women’s section of the church – you can see a blackboard
on the wall that is used for the primary school.

As we prepared to leave, Pastor Peter expressed his appreciation to us for coming to worship with them. He said that our presence is a tangible reminder that they are not forgotten. We know that many of you far away are interceding for South Sudan, advocating for peace, and even contributing to efforts like education in the midst of the displacement. It is our privilege, in being present in South Sudan, to represent and communicate the concern and prayers of many of you. So, of course, we felt that Pastor Peter deserved our appreciation even more, for inspiring us with the faith and perseverance of these Christians, who gather to worship and seek God together in the midst of suffering.

Monday, July 23, 2018


We just had to introduce Derek to our friend Mary!  Having just finished lunch at a local South Sudanese restaurant, we ambled through the “suk” (market) where we were suddenly and happily detained by a parade of friends whom we have gotten to know over the past year.  First there was the stately Santo, then there was Wanny with his incorrigible stutter, then the young and omnipresent Simon who lives on the streets, and then of course we also stopped to see the market vendors whom we have grown to know and love  – Kapeeta, Amiina, Saiida, and Alima.  After the hoopla of shaking hands, exchanging greetings and pleasantries as we introduced Derek, we made our way to our destination, Mary’s Tea Shop.  Though being the hottest time of day, we sat and ordered coffee and tea.  Familiar faces and other patrons soon filled the joint as we enjoyed lively conversations in this small container building with chairs closely facing each other, forcing conversation and community!  We told Derek when he arrived to South Sudan that Mary’s Tea Shop has become to us like the 80’s hit TV show “Cheers!” – a place where everyone knows your name, a place where everyone is always glad you came.  Derek was in seventh heaven, exclaiming when we got home, “This is what everyone wants!  We just don’t know how to get it.” 

Rev. Derek Macleod, pastor of St. Andrews-Covenant Presbyterian Church
in Wilmington, NC, treats us to dinner on the Nile!  

Paul knocked at our door late Sunday afternoon.  “I just need someone to talk to and pray with.  It will only take five minutes.”  Paul quickly shared how the reality of South Sudan had suddenly struck him square.  He need to talk, to pray, to cry.  We sat and listened and prayed with our brother.  He had been reading the book of our friend, Rev. John Chol Daau, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who was displaced from his village when he was fourteen, his people attacked from the army and the government in the North.  John would spend at least thirteen years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, separated from family, surviving by faith and the grace of God.  His story, the story of his people, the story of his land and the story of his young country struck a bull’s eye on our friend’s heart, leaving a forever impression.       

Rev. Paul Hensley, second from left, is a close friend from Fuller Theological Seminary-
he is an Anglican priest and has come to teach an intensive course
at Nile Theological College where I (Bob) teach

Revs. Derek Macleod and Paul Hensley have braved the ominous and foreboding travel admonitions to South Sudan provided by the US State Department.  They have found ways to mollify the fears expressed by family, friends and church members.  They have come to see us in South Sudan with a determined and courageous spirit, a willingness to fully engage with us, our neighborhood, our church partners, our students, and our friends.  They have encouraged us.  They have given us new eyes to see our life here in a new light.  They have spoken prophetic words of hope.  They have represented well not only their churches but also the Risen Christ.  Their coming has put “wind into our sails!”  They have reminded us that we are not alone.   

Visitors!  What would we do without them?  One of the many proverbs we learned in Congo says, “Nzubu kayi ne benyi, neafue,” or in English, “A home that does not have visitors will die.”  You can bet your bottom dollar that we are grateful for Paul and Derek.  May the Lord bless them for sharing with us the joys and challenges of life here in South Sudan.      

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Happy Independence Day?

Last week we saw pictures on Facebook of fireworks, picnics, and parades in the U.S., celebrating the fourth of July. South Sudan’s independence day is July 9, just a few days later. This year is seven years since they became a country in 2011– still the youngest country in the world. However, most people were not celebrating.

The newspaper announced that there would be no public celebrations of independence. A government minister explained that there was no need to celebrate the day when most of the citizens were in refugee and IDP camps. The government also urged that people not shoot guns in celebration (as many people are traumatized from violence and living in fear already). Conflict and killings erupted in 2016 around Independence day, so since then many people are wary. Some organizations urged their staff to stay home on that day (rather than risk insecurity in the streets). Overall, it was a rather depressing day.

In the afternoon I went across the street to buy a few things in the market. I stopped to chat with our friend Mary in her tea stall. I expressed surprise that she was working on Independence Day, when all the stores were closed. “If you have money, it is nice to be able to stay home on the holiday,” she responded, “But if I stay home, where does the money come from to eat tomorrow?” So, she sat at her tea stall, even though patrons were few because most had stayed home for the holiday.

In contrast to the sobering reality of ongoing conflict, economic crisis, and suffering in South Sudan, I experienced dramatic faith, hope, and courage yesterday in a monthly women’s prayer gathering. Since 2013, women from various churches have been gathering to pray together every month. Because of schedule conflicts, this week was the first time that I have been able to attend.

The women often march together from a designated location to the church where the prayer meeting is held. Joining the march on my first time to participate felt intimidating, so I arranged with some women I knew to meet them when they arrived at the church. I waited with some other women at the church until one woman brought word that they were getting close, and we should all go out to welcome and join them. We walked down the street, in a very busy part of town near a bus park. I saw women carring a banner describing the gathering of women to pray for peace as they led the procession.

women's march with banner

The procession stopped, and all the women kneeled down in the street. One woman prayed over the loudspeaker for God to bring peace, healing, and restoration in South Sudan. Kneeling there with them in the street, I was moved by this public and bold cry to God for peace. I learned that they stop several times during the march, and each time someone from a different church leads the prayer on a different topic. Episcopal, Presbyterian, Pentacostal, Catholic and African Independent Churches were all represented. What an impressive show of unity in our fragmented church and society!

Women praying in street

The women finally reached the church, entering the building singing and dancing jubilantly. They continued with worship and prayers for specific topics such as the economy, church and government leaders, and for an end to random killings and robberies. The worship was energetic and exuberant – impressive for women who have just walked and prayed outside for an hour in the hot sun! To me it showed the power of their faith that God does hear our prayers, and delights when we join together to seek His grace and healing for those who are suffering.

Women marching

The pastor preached a message on their theme verse, Isaiah 43:18-19, “Forger the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” This message seems so poignant and applicable to South Sudan – a promise of hope when all the circumstances indicate despair. I left this joyful gathering renewed in hope and faith for what God is doing in South Sudan.

women's prayer t-shirt 2

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

“If the Lord Does Not Come”

As I nestled into the large outdoor couch overlooking the majestic African valley deep in Murchison Falls National Park during the early evening hours, I took out our iPad and quickly glanced at a few personal emails.  One message grabbed my immediate attention and kept it.  News had come from Khartoum that morning, Wednesday, June 13th, that Rev. John Tong Puk, a close colleague and friend, a leader in the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC) and Dean of Studies at Nile Theological College (NTC), where I teach, had died that morning.  I read the message over and over in disbelief.  I had just been with him and greeted him before his journey to Khartoum to see family.  Could it be?  It was like a dream.  For the next twenty four hours I kept saying to myself, “John Tong Puk is dead,” a statement of sheer disbelief and quiet quandary. 

This last Saturday SSPEC leaders hosted a memorial service for Rev. John Tong Puk here in Juba; he had been buried in Khartoum the week previous.  The Saturday memorial was a significant event, well attended by family, friends, colleagues, students, church leaders, politicians, and even the first vice-president of the country.  It began at 1pm and we didn’t find our way home until after 6pm.  A heavy storm with rain threatened to disrupt our holy gathering; Kristi and I were impressed in the way everyone "made do" as heavy water leaked between the tent tops and as people squeezed closer in as sheets of rain invaded our gathering.  I was particularly impressed with Rev. Phillip Obang Akway, General Secretary of SSPEC, for his quiet leadership and powerful preaching.  I was also impressed by the engagement of Rev. Michael Aban, a colleague and friend at NTC, who spoke well of our late brother and stayed engaged throughout, listening closely to each speaker until the very end.  For this momentous occasion a white bull had been slaughtered beforehand and the hundreds of attendees were well fed.

Short Video of Memorial Service for 
the late Rev. John Tong Puk

Three significant memories come to mind when I remember our late brother, the Rev. John Tong Puk.  The first memory is his “watchful spirit.”  On most occasions when conversing with him, he would always conclude our time together saying, “[We will do such and such and see each other again] if the Lord does not come.”  Rev. Puk was ever mindful of the reality that Jesus’ coming again is imminent, that we should watch and pray and always be ready.    

The second significant memory lies in the humility of our late brother.  In my final conversation with him, I gently confronted him about calling me “kawaja” (white person) a few times over the previous few weeks.  Trying to be as gracious and loving as possible in a culture which usually shies away from direct conflict, I took his hand and shared with him how as a Christian brother, colleague and friend, I would appreciate if he would call me by name rather than using this general term that often carries a negative connotation.  His response?  He humbly and graciously apologized and asked my forgiveness.  Turning to leave, he looked back and said, “Thank you for telling me.” 

The third memory lies in his interaction with students.  Rev. John Tong Puk, the Dean of Studies, was one of two faculty members to consistently attend the early morning devotions with students before class each day.  As we would leave the place of worship to form a line to greet one another, he would come along and look us each square in the face, grip our hand firmly and lovingly, and say “Shining,” a massive grin written across his round face.  He also often greeted me personally saying “Haddim El Rop,” a classical Arabic expression essentially meaning “You are a Servant of the Lord.”  

Rev. John Tong Puk was a humble servant of the Lord.  He was watchful and ready.  If one paid attention to all the things that were said about him and considered his distinguished career of service, one would come to the conclusion that this life was one singularly committed to the Lord and to others. The Lord has come for our brother; may he rest in peace, may he rejoice in glory, worshiping and serving our Lord for all eternity.  I look forward to seeing him again, looking full into his bright, round face, and hearing him say, “Shining,” “Haddim El Rop.”

Rev. John Tong Puk, 1956 - 2018