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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.