Wednesday, December 12, 2018

We made it to graduation!

“Today the playground is transformed,” said Honorable Rebecca Joshua, government Minister of Roads and Bridges, “adorned with flowers and the presence of many dignitaries.” It was true – the outdoor basketball stadium in Juba did not look like the same place where we had watched basketball practice the night before. The bold colors of the women’s dresses reflected in the bright sun highlighted an atmosphere of celebration. Families of the graduates brought buckets of home-made sweets from home that they passed out to everyone around them. Government ministers arrived with their security detail and television cameras were poised to broadcast the event. But it was clear throughout the program that the ‘stars’ of the show were the 15 graduates of NTC proudly receiving their diplomas.
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The ceremony opens with a procession of the
graduates and faculty around the stadium

Rev. Santino, principal of NTC, recounted the history of the school in his remarks. Started in Khartoum in 1991, NTC opened a branch in Southern Sudan in 2011 in the city of Malakal. But devastating conflict in 2013 took the lives of 4 students and caused them to temporarily close the school. They reopened in Juba in 2014 with only 5 students, but gradually some who had interrupted their studies and fled the conflict were able to resume their studies. On Monday, the first graduation for NTC in Juba was held, with graduates from ‘batch 11’ (finishing this year) and also ‘batch 10’ (who finished 2 years ago). Of the students in batch 10, 26 started the program in 2011, to be interrupted by the conflict in 2013. Only 5 were able to complete their studies and only 3 were present for graduation. Gideon, one of those three, having moved his family to Ethiopia for security reasons where his wife is currently in school, made the long journey to Juba just for graduation. Several of the graduates have not seen their families in more than a year or even longer, sacrificing and persevering to finish their studies.
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(Left to right) Rev. Santino, Principal, Honorable Rebecca Joshua, Rev. James Par Tap,
Chair of College Council, Gen. Taban Deng Gai, First Vice President of South Sudan, with Gideon

With the low rates of education in South Sudan and the struggle that it takes to complete school, graduation is truly something to celebrate at any level. Relatives, church members, and friends all came to join in acknowledging the rare distinction of completing a bachelors-level program. The culture of graduation in Juba is to adorn the graduate with a ‘wreath’ of tinsel when they receive their diploma, along with sometimes spraying with powder, wrapping a traditional embroidered sheet around the graduate to wear, or giving them flowers. Rev. Philip Obang, the Emcee for the event, was careful to instruct the families where to stand to receive their graduates in order to minimize the confusion of people coming from all directions.
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Family members line up along the side to receive their graduates

Rev. Michael Aban, NTC Registrar, read the names and a short bio of each of the graduates as they came forward to receive their diploma and congratulations from the leadership of NTC and the government representatives. Each graduate even had their picture taken with the First Vice President of South Sudan, General Taban Deng Gai. As they returned to their seats, fanfare and jubilation erupted from their families and friends waiting on the side. Each one was joyfully wreathed with tinsel, sometimes piled so high that the graduate could not even see. Cheers and ululations broke out, along with jostling for hugs and selfies with the graduate.
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Prominent church leaders, including the moderators of both the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS) and the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC) exhorted the graduates in continuing the ministry that God is calling them into. Gen. Taban Deng Gai appreciated the long history of the Presbyterian Churches in Sudan and South Sudan, and the emphasis on providing education that will promote peace and stability in South Sudan. Bishop Isaiah, General Overseer of the Pentecostal Church of Sudan, offered a challenge and a charge to go and make disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit and the assurance that Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18-20).

Friday, November 30, 2018

A Vision for CHE

“Sure, I can help you cross the river.” Omot said to Albino, and encouraged Albino to climb on his back. Pretending to navigate the ‘river’ by stepping on boulders, Omot reached an island in the middle of the river. He realized that Albino was too heavy to continue to carry across the river, so he slid him off his back and left him there on the island. A woman, Peace, came to the same river, but was stuck because she did not know how to cross. Elijah came and offered to show her how to cross. One step at a time, he pointed out the places to step, held her hand, and encouraged her as they crossed over together.

CHE river drama 2  CHE river drama 1

(Left) Omot drops Albino at the island in the middle of the river.
(Right) Elijah helps peace learn how to cross the river

Our large circle of forty people then discussed the contrast between the ways that Omot and Elijah offered help to the people who needed it. Everyone recognized that ‘showing’ the way and walking with the person had a better result than trying to ‘do it for them’ (by carrying them) but then leaving them stranded in the middle of the river. This is an example of how the Community Health Evangelism (CHE) strategy works. The focus from the beginning is on empowering local leadership and volunteers to own their approach to improving holistic well-being in their communities. They might get training or technical assistance in some aspects, but they have to do the work themselves and invest their own resources. That way, when they begin to see transformation, they know they have done it themselves, and are empowered and motivated to tackle more challenges.

CHE group discussion 1

There was good participation in group discussions

Our Vision Seminar last week focused on introducing the strategy of CHE to church leaders in Juba. Three people who have been using CHE for several years came from Gambella, Ethiopia, to present the principles and vision for CHE. Grasping the roles of community committees, trainers, and volunteers can be rather challenging, so I was happy to host people who could explain it from their own experience. I rejoiced to hear them share about the transformation they have seen in the villages around Gambella – a context with similar challenges to South Sudan. About seven of SSPEC’s congregations in Juba were represented at our Vision Seminar, along with a couple other denominations. During group discussions, it was evident that many people recognized the value of this strategy, and were interested in further training.

CHE facilitators (3)

(Left to right) Ariet, Rachel, and Matthew came from
Gambella to facilitate our seminar

As our colleague Rachel (one of the facilitators) shared afterwards, organizing this Vision Seminar was one of the easiest parts of starting to use CHE. Now we get down to the nitty-gritty of equipping people, mobilizing communities, and promoting holistic health. We are still learning how to cross the river! One challenge is discerning the next steps and figuring out how this strategy designed for rural settings can work in the city of Juba. Please pray with us for the right people to be chosen for further training, and for God to guide this process and provide the right people alongside to walk with us and point the way.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Putting It into Practice!


“You are people of God…come and pray for my child” the woman near the Al Sabaa Hospital for Children said to four of my students as they were departing.  The group immediately stopped and went over to her and Isaac began conversing with the woman in the Dinka language.  The group quickly learned that the woman’s child is partially paralyzed.  They also learned that this woman and her husband are baptized believers but are no longer part of a worshiping community.  With quiet confidence, Isaac and the others prayed for the woman’s child to be healed as a tangible sign of God’s love and care.  Before leaving them, Kerbino, the group leader, suggested that the woman take Isaac’s phone number and call him with an update of the child’s health in a couple of days.  Lo and behold, two days later the woman called Isaac and exclaimed that her child was able to push his cart forward and use parts of his body formerly paralyzed, a miraculous intervention demonstrating, indeed, God’s mercy and grace.   Our whole class praised God when we heard this awesome story during practicum presentations the following Wednesday.  We recognized also, through this testimony and others, the power and value of diversity in each of the groups sent out.     

For the last fourteen weeks students in my Evangelism class and I have been discussing questions such as – What is the Gospel?  What is the Kingdom of God?  What is conversion?  Who did Jesus minister to and spend most of his time with and why?  Who were the “sinners” during the days of Jesus?  Who are the “sinners” today here in Juba?  What “bleeding points” or points of need is God calling us out towards?  We have had wonderful discussions with an eye towards understanding the Kingdom of God and whom Jesus was most concerned about.  Thus, our course culminated with a risk.  I wanted my students to go out and to minister in the way of Jesus, to select a marginalized group and go spend the day listening to that group and then sharing the hope and love of Jesus with them.  Thus, their final examination was a practicum, practicing the very things we have been discussing together since the first week of August.  They would be evaluated on several factors:  the role of prayer in their work, going to a marginalized group, doing evangelism in a holistic way that is concerned with the whole person (body, mind, spirit), evangelism marked by servant and inclusive love, and sharing verbally the Good News of Jesus Christ through testimony and a short message.  

Three groups went to hospitals and prayed for the sick.  One group collected money out of their own meager means and gave out soap to all of the patients to whom they ministered and also to several nurses who are forced to work with dead bodies.  Another group brought devotional booklets in Arabic and English to the mothers of children in the hospital.  Four groups spent time with street people, both young children and young adults.  One of those groups spent the morning at the rubbish pile with these kids, slowly gaining their trust and confidence.  Another group was warmly welcomed by street children who found space where they could meet and promptly began cleaning it to host their guests.  My students asked each of these homeless groups how it came to be that they were on the streets, receiving a range of different answers, all heart-breaking.  They then offered them messages and testimonies of hope, feeding their starving hearts and starving bellies.   

Ogud holds a child and tells the gathering of children and caregivers
at CCC how Jesus welcomed the little children unto him

I was blessed to go with a group to an orphanage where I know the director.  Mama Helen, who runs Confident Children out of Conflict (CCC), first sat with us for half an hour in her office, sharing the history and vision of the program.  She helped us understand the “underside” of her community and gave us the example of some people living on the margins near the stadium who had their shacks bulldozed by the government to get rid of the “eyesore” as they hosted dignitaries from across the continent for the peace celebration.  Mama Helen asked us, “Who is now going to advocate for these families who have lost their homes and have nowhere to go?”  After being served lunch and eating with members of her staff, my students and I led a worship service with around seventy of the children.  We laid hands on the sick and prayed and offered a message and words of encouragement.  After the worship service, one young woman from the Nuba Mountains came forward and shared her heart with one of my students.  Another young girl went to the same student, Stephen Lam Dar, and inquisitively asked, “Are you Nuer?”  Stephen smiled and sat and listened to the story of this young child who comes from the same tribe. 

Stephen ministers to the young women from the
Nuba Mountains (Sudan)
Precious children, mostly orphans or those who have
been separated from their families due to war live at CCC

After Jesus sent out the seventy followers to bless those who would welcome them, to cure the sick and to proclaim the Kingdom of God, the seventy returned to him with the joyful testimony of how even the demons submitted to them!  Jesus rejoiced, in turn, filled with God’s Spirit, thanking His Father for revealing these things to the hidden and humble persons of the world (Luke 10: 1 – 24).  In similar measure, my students returned with joy, a joy which we all shared together.  I am still elated as I think about the wonderful deeds my students did in the strong name of Jesus for their practicum.  I recognize that one day of service is, indeed, only one day of service, but I am tickled pink to see my students effectively put into practice the very concepts we have been discussing together over the last three and a half months.  May God be praised!    

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Celebrating peace

Last Wednesday, October 31, was a big celebration in Juba of the recent peace agreement in South Sudan. Several African presidents came to attend, along with leaders of opposition parties in South Sudan. As the city of Juba was busy preparing for the celebration by painting curbs, picking up trash and sending truck-loads of soldiers to beef up security, we were not sure what to expect. Leaders who had been at war were going to be in the same location. We were advised to stay home and lay low rather than join the crowds at Freedom Field.

Wednesday morning we heard commotion and voices in the street. After the recent shooting incident, I am rather reticent to head to the window when there is a commotion. But when we did, we saw hundreds of people lining up for a parade, with banners proclaiming peace. Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, women dressed in white, men and women in traditional clothes and dancers decked out in their tribal outfits – the lines of people stretched long distances down the street. A truck with big speakers provided some music, and they began their march toward Freedom Square – about a 2 mile hike. It was not an ordinary left-right march, either, but one with a few dance steps thrown in that gave it a real celebratory feel.

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The parade lines up. One of the banners near the front reads “Welcome peace to every hut and heart”.

We listened on the radio as other presidents arrived at the Juba airport, and then to the speeches and proceedings at the parade grounds. We were impressed with the conciliatory words spoken by many parties and by their acknowledgement that the people of South Sudan want real peace and an end to the suffering the conflict has caused. What struck us most about that day, however, was what we heard from others in Juba afterwards.

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Dancers in traditional costumes join the parade

On Friday, Bob talked to Abraham, a fellow teacher at NTC. Abraham had arrived around 6AM to the celebration, and STOOD in the packed crowd of people for 12 hours. No food, no water. But he said he enjoyed seeing the dances of various tribal groups who performed, and was thrilled to be there to witness the historic event. He also saw many friends and familiar faces and described it as a “reunion,” a mixed group with all tribes together. A young woman who cleans in our building had to work the day of the celebration, but she went to the parade grounds in the evening and joined in the dancing and celebrating all night long. When we visited our friend Mary at her tea stall, she excitedly related how her kids could not sleep the whole night before the big celebration, because of all the commotion and rejoicing in the street. “Peace has really come,” she said, “But there is still a lot of work to do to help people to forgive and learn to live together.”

We rejoice at this significant step forward in the quest for peace in South Sudan. We continue to pray, to work, and to look forward to seeing lasting peace come this land. We know that the wounds are deep and the healing will be hard, and only Christ can carry the pain and transform lives. Please join us in praying for true peace, for effective implementation by the government of this peace agreement, and for the Church who has a great responsibility to model reconciliation and forgiveness that is beyond our human ability.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Giving What We Have Received

When Rev. Santino, principal of NTC, sensed that my strength was returning in the midst of a long recovery from the Epstein Barr Virus, he asked if I would be willing to resurrect the NTC newsletter. It did not take long for me to respond affirmatively. However, from the get-go, I took the decision that this new responsibility was also an opportunity. I began to think and pray about what students I could invite to join me in this initiative. I also asked experienced faculty members whom they thought would be capable of helping me in this capacity. In late August I began approaching a few reliable, capable and creative students and staff to join me in this journey. Almost every Friday over the last six weeks we have met and worked faithfully on this project. We have confidence that we will achieve our goal in the time frame we had planned for, producing and distributing the newsletter by the middle of this month, “Inshaala” (God willing).  There is an African proverb that says, "If you wan to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together."  While in some ways getting the job done might be quicker or easier doing it myself, I hope that together we can take this project much further than it would go with just me.  Actually sharing the burden and working as a team, dividing up the work, has been a real joy.  We have accomplished much in a short time.  A year from now the students will need to create the newsletter without me as we will be in the US for several months, so I am preparing them now for my absence.     



As I have learned over the years, we cannot give what we have not received, and Christianity is more often “caught” than “taught.” When Jesus walked the dusty roads of Galilee with his disciples, when he sat and had countless meals with the twelve and other followers, the simple act of him being with them was as important as His teaching and preaching the Kingdom of God. In my role at Nile Theological College (NTC), my title is “Ustaz” (teacher), or sometimes people use bigger titles like lecturer, professor, or even “Ustaz Kebiir” (Great Teacher). While I cannot exactly reject these titles because they befit my official role, I also see myself as a brother, friend and mentor to my students. When I am able, I choose to eat with students which sometimes raises questions and at times means that I do not eat the same quality of food as the faculty, though on most days we all eat the same thing, beans and bread.[1]


Our NTC Newsletter Team (our first meeting!)  

As important as it is to physically produce the newsletter to share with partners both here and abroad, I view this new responsibility as a meaningful opportunity to connect more deeply and meaningfully with several students and one staff member. My hope is to not only share and model important skills regarding leadership and planning, but also to simply enjoy the gift of fellowship and connection with them. At the end of the semester we will take some time to evaluate our work and then go enjoy a meal together. 


Peter Ayul, NTC librarian, is a faithful ministry partner and member of our Newsletter Team
(pictured together in our home, October 2017)

Through the course of my Christian walk, I feel that God has blessed me with many mentors who have invested in me, taking time to not only include me in their ministry but also to include me in their personal lives, sharing their joys and their vulnerabilities. People like Rev. Marty Loberg, my college pastor who nurtured my embryonic faith in college and who introduced me to movies like Chariots of Fire, Revs. Ben and Christy Pierce who not only helped me discern a path into ordained ministry and a future of service in Africa, but who simply became committed friends who constantly encouraged me and genuinely cared about me, Antoine Rutayisire in Rwanda who not only modeled strong yet humble leadership and the art of preaching, but also invited me to live in his home with he and his family for an entire year. Several others also come to mind who have literally shaped me and helped me to become who I am today. 

 Yes, I am “Ustaz,” I teach Contextual Theology, Church History, Evangelism, Spiritual Formation and other courses. Yet, I am also brother, friend and mentor. If I do not take the time to get to know my students, to show them loving care and concern, to be open with the about my life, professionally and personally, sharing both joys and vulnerabilities, modeling what has been faithfully modeled to me, also spending extra time with them on projects like our newsletter or helping them learn new songs to make chapel more lively (albeit I am a terrible singer!), I am not sure what legacy I will leave.  Mentoring and friendship, giving what I have received, doing life together knowing that faith is more often “caught” than “taught,” these are principles and values I associate with God’s calling on my life. I covet your prayers for deeper connection and relationships with students, also strong relationships with fellow faculty members and staff.

[1] As may know, African cultures are intensely hierarchical, meaning that there are strong distinctions between different sets and categories of persons which usually enforce rigid boundaries, dictating behavior. I have noticed how jarring this cultural reality is for Americans who, like myself, value equality and egalitarianism. While I have to some degree begun breaking some of the norms/cultural rules, the rules which are worth breaking(!), I appreciate that the staff and faculty at NTC has not censured me and supports me eating with students. And the students, well of course they are enamored and enthralled to have “Ustaz Kebiir” come sit and eat with them.