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.
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!
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.
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.