Thursday, April 12, 2018

Getting around town

How do we get around in Juba? Many different ways! We live right on the corner of a busy intersection, very convenient for getting public transport going in various directions. We do not own/drive a car, which means we do not have to worry about parking, or the car being broken into, or getting stopped by police, or repairs, or the endless fuel shortage, or even the perpetual washing of the car because of the dust. This means that we get to move around Juba like most of the population – by bus, rickshaw, boda-boda, or foot.

Whenever possible, we go by bus or rickshaw. There are several ‘routes’ in the city, so we can usually get close to where we are going using one of these means. To get to work, both Bob and I have about a 10 minute bus or rickshaw ride (in opposite directions), and then a 10 minute walk. God made that very convenient for us!

Intersection - rickshaws

The intersection we live on – a little chaotic at first glance
with no stoplights, but somehow it works.

A ‘rickshaw’ is something like a three-wheeler with a body and more seating. It carries 3 passengers in the back, and a fourth sqeezed next to the driver. It is convenient also because you can ‘hire’ one to go to a specific location just for you, and it is cheaper than a car-taxi. We take rickshaws often, because with less passengers they do not stop as often as the buses. Today when we neared the road to the church office where I get off, the rickshaw driver looked back at me and grinned, as if to say “I know you’re getting off here!”.

Bus stop - rickshaw and bus

The bus stop just in front of our apartment

Boda-boda’s, or motorcycle taxis are another option. We avoid taking these, because there are too many accidents that happen on them. They park on most corners and are ubiquitous around town. So if there is no other alternative or we are going a short distance, sometimes we give in to the convenience of taking a boda.

boda boda

Motorcycles sometimes carry SEVERAL people here…
there’s always room for one more, as they say!

Finally, we go by foot! We live on busy roads and can easily walk to the store or to the big outdoor market down the street. We walk our neighborhood in the evening, and enjoy getting to know our neighbors. Walking helps us to get to know our neighbors and the ‘pulse’ in the community a little better. And, of course, it is good for our health – as long as it is not too hot out!

And finally, sometimes we go by taxi. If we go out for dinner and are coming home after dark, or are traveling with our laptops or other valuables, or on a big shopping trip and have an armful of stuff, then we take a taxi. We connected with a nice young man from Rwanda named Michael whom we call whenever we need a taxi. And fortunately, in Juba, we can go almost anywhere for less than $10 in a taxi, so we do splurge when safety dictates it.

Taking pictures in public is frowned upon, so we apologize that we do not have pictures of us getting around town. These pictures are taken from our apartment window, looking down at the street. Not the prettiest view, but we get front-row seats when something goes by, like a parade, UN convoy, the presidential motorcade, or the annual marathon.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Profile: Mama Sarah

Mama Sarah stood and spoke before the large group of mostly men, those being trained at Nile Theological College to serve as pastors and community leaders.  While women are unheralded and not valued in this culture, Mama Sarah quickly and easily gained the rapt attention of everyone in the room, sharing her own story in the context of our teaching on forgiveness… 

Mama Sarah, teaching on forgiveness...

One of the great joys in life is the people we meet.  Last month Kristi traveled to Rwanda for a training in healing and reconciliation with three South Sudanese colleagues.  One of these colleagues is the inimitable, irrepressible, and unforgettable Mama Sarah.

Mama Sarah is a widow in her late forties; her husband died almost twenty five years ago.  Mama Sarah has raised four children on her own.  She has also taken in children not her own from other clans and tribes, an unheard-of reality here in South Sudan.  Mama Sarah is a grandmother and she relishes her role as “matriarch,” calling others sons and daughters and cherishing her well-deserved title and status as “Mama Sarah” (Mother Sarah).

Kristi and Mama Sarah at the National Genocide Memorial,
Kigali, Rwanda

Like so many here in South Sudan, Mama Sarah’s life story is one of hardship and pain.  When she was less than one year old, her mother was taken from her and her father by relatives who found a better husband who could pay a larger dowry.  Later, Mama Sarah's father was killed by members of a rival tribe, the Nuer.  Such loss and pain could easily derail one’s life, leaving in its wake crushing bitterness and pain.  Thankfully, that is not the script of the life of Mama Sarah.  Mama Sarah exudes joy, love, humor, grace and humility.  To be around her one feels the weight of greatness.

Mama Sarah is from the Dinka tribe, but one does not quickly guess that reality due to her larger than life persona.  Moreover, beyond her mother tongue, she also speaks the languages of other tribes such as Nuer and Shilluk.  Moreover, Mama Sarah has spent some time in the Nuba Mountains and she identifies with the people of that terribly repressed region.  Mama Sarah is fluent in Arabic, and her English is an interesting jumble of words and expressions tenderly spoken and expressed which somehow, by God’s grace, can be understood.  Not too long after her father was killed, Mama Sarah took in a child of the Nuer tribe, the very people who killed her father.  When a sister came calling, this sister refused to receive tea or anything else in Mama Sarah’s home because of Mama Sarah’s willingness to take in this Nuer child.  Most of us do not forgive easily or quickly – not so for Mama Sarah.  She took this child in because the child lost its parents and needed someone to care for her. 

With Mama Sarah and team at end of Healing the Wounds
of Ethnic Conflict (HWEC) workshop we conducted in Juba

Our lives are shaped by those we encounter; in a very short amount of time I already consider my life unalterably changed, challenged and blessed by Mama Sarah.  Her ready smile, her encouraging words, and her wonderful wit bless Kristi and I to no end.  Her life and witness to the Risen Lord and our need to forgive one another will chart the course for a new South Sudan.  Mama Sarah, lead us on… 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Standing in the Gap

I just returned from an incredible three weeks of training about “Healing the Wounds of Ethnic Conflict”. During the first week, we went through the workshop ourselves, and then the second week we were trained in how to facilitate the workshop for others, and finally in the third week we did a practicum where we actually went out and DID it – facilitated workshops in the community, along with a coach to evaluate and help us. As we went through the workshop ourselves the first week, I felt like every day I was crying or on the brink of tears as we reflected on pain that we have experienced, and heard testimonies of incredible forgiveness. It is hard to encapsulate the essence of this signficant experience in a few sentences, but essentially the workshop looks at the roots of ethnic conflict within ourselves, and helps people find healing and forgiveness through Christ that hopefully enables that person to forgive others and pursue the unity and healing that God desires of people.

One of the final and particularly emotional sessions is called Standing in the Gap – where individuals are invited to acknowledge and repent on behalf of a group of people that they identify with, for wrongs done by themselves or their group to another group of people. One of the facilitators from the U.K. started the session by acknowledging and repenting of the harmful and derogatory actions of the U.K. towards Africa in the last few hundred years – including dividing countries according to their own terms, colonizing people, facilitating the slave trade, exploiting natural resources, fostering dependency rather than empowering people….the list could go on. Other people who identify with those who have been wounded are then invited to offer forgiveness. As you can imagine, it is deeply moving to speak out these wounds that are hard to talk about – it is much easier to justify them, or say “but it wasn’t ME who did that…” Several participants in our group followed, acknowledging wrongs done by their country or tribe to another group, or by the church, or by men towards women, or by parents to their children. When a person or group of people has been wounded, the consequences often are felt through generations, and the bitter roots of resentment, prejudice, and anger are hard to get free of (see Hebrews 12:15). Standing in the gap is one part of helping people to find freedom from those bitter roots as we understand more deeply the depth of our sin and the forgivenss that Jesus gives us through the cross.

After the workshop, we visited the genocide memorial museum in Kigali. After immersing ourselves in the horrific history, pictures, and stories of the Rwanda genocide for a few hours, we gathered outside to hear the testimony of two men, Elia and Gaston. Elia is a Hutu who learned as a child from his grandmother’s stories to resent the Tutsi for demeaning the Hutu. When a faction within the government promoted anti-Tutsi propoganda and incited fear, Elia believed he needed to protect his own. When the genocide started, Elia did what he was told, hunting out the Tutsi and brutally killing many people in his community. After the genocide was over, Elia was put in prison for these murders. After serving about 10 years in prison, he confessed his participation in the genocide and was granted early release. He was ashamed of what he had done, knew it was wrong, and lacked peace. He attended one of these Healing the Wounds of Ethnic Conflict workshops in 2003, and recognized the ugly prejudice that had led to his destructive crime. During the standing in the gap session, he publicly confessed his wrong and asked forgiveness. Gaston was also in that workshop, and knew that Elia himself had killed nine members of his wife’s family. But Gaston was the first to offer forgiveness to Elia as a result of himself finding forgiveness and healing through Christ. Gaston and Elia both found peace and freedom through that act of forgiveness, and they worked hard to help others forgive and find peace.

DSC_0200Elia (left), and Gaston (right), with Rhiannon, one of the facilitators of our workshop

Gaston and Elia, who still live in the same community, continue to work together to help others in Rwanda to find healing through Christ from the internal wounds of the genocide. They helped to organize the workshop in their community where I and others did the ‘practicum’ portion of our training. Gaston invited his wife’s sister, Jeanette to the workshop, who still could not bring herself to forgive Elia for taking the lives of so many of her relatives. In the workshop she reviewed again God’s desire for unity and love amongst humanity, the many ways that sin divides us and wounds us, God’s love for us even in the midst of our suffering, and that Jesus came to bear our sin and also our pain and to give us forgiveness and freedom. During this final session of Standing in the Gap, Elia again confessed his participation in the genocide, particularly these people in Jeanette’s family he had killed. This time, Jeanette was able to forgive, even requesting that Elia come to her house so that she could forgive in the presence of her family. Can you imagine losing several members of your familyin a brutal war, and then, even 20 years later, forgiving the murderer? We celebrate that with God this kind of radical forgiveness can and does happen, and that these little acts of forgiveness are what can bring healing to the many places ravaged by war and confict.

Bugesera Standing in the gap Elia

Jeanette hugs Elia as a sign of her forgiveness

Next week we are facilitating this workshop on Healing the Wounds of Ethnic Conflict here in Juba, with the students at Nile Theological College. The conflict in South Sudan has been going for decades, and most people have experienced loss, death, displacement, and worse at some stage. Please pray that God would bring healing, and that we would experience afresh the power of the cross and the forgiveness that Christ gives. Pray that God would raise up people to stand in the gap, acknowledge the pain of others, and confess on behalf of those who did wrong.

Elia and Gaston walkingElia and Gaston, after they shared their testimony with us.
They have forged an unlikely partnership and true friendship.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Come…to South Sudan

In the Church History class I am teaching we recently studied “The Symbol of the Faith,” an early creed and precursor to the Apostles Creed.  The second question is very significant, which reads –

Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Ghost and of Mary the Virgin, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose again at the third day, living from among the dead, and ascended unto heaven and sat at the right of the Father, and will come to judge the quick and the dead? 

There are many important theological truths embedded into this question, a question which required a positive response from the catechumenates applying for baptism during the first few centuries.  One of the most significant truths is the affirmation that Jesus was indeed born of Mary, crucified under a historic figure, Pontius Pilate, and that he died.  During those first centuries the heretical teachers of Gnosticism and Marcionism were falsely claiming that Jesus somehow came as an apparition, a phantom who just showed up.  They could not affirm, like those applying for baptism, that Jesus was born, suffered and died as a full-fledged living and breathing human being.  They could not affirm the goodness of God’s creation, and that Jesus joined us in person, in the flesh, in that good creation. 

While Resurrection serves as a foundational belief for Christian life and witness, the Incarnation of Christ is equally important.  Moreover, as followers of Christ, we are also called to incarnate the goodness and mercy of God, living fully in this world as Christ’s ambassadors.  When nine others and I first visited the country of Rwanda in July 2000, one comment we heard several times from our hosts was, “Thank you for coming!  Your presence means everything to us.  Your presence reminds us that God has not forgotten us.”  The 1994 Genocide was only six years fresh, and Rwandans still felt the pangs of being abandoned by the watching world during those one hundred days of horror which can never be forgotten.  Our presence, our arrival, our willingness to go and sit with them and be with them mattered.

Recently I learned through a South Sudanese friend about a group that was planning to travel here to Juba from the United States this year.  To our chagrin, they decided to cancel.  From the reports they were receiving, they just felt that South Sudan was not safe.  Of course, it is unfair for me to judge anyone for making a decision such as this one.  We live in a troublesome world and it is wise and prudent to gauge the safety of any given place when one decides what to do.  However, I will also be honest, I lament with my friend the decision that was taken by this group of sisters and brothers living in the comforts of the United States of America.  Their arrival and visit here in Juba would have given a boon of confidence and hope to the South Sudanese with whom they would have worshipped, fellowshipped and served.   Their arrival and visit would have reminded the South Sudanese that they are not alone.  Their arrival and visit would have strengthened the partnership that exists between them and their Christian sisters and brothers here.  These friends would now know the faces of those whom they pray for.  With their arrival and visit, they would have been incarnating the love and goodness of Jesus Christ, the author of our faith, who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, scorning its shame (Hebrews 12: 2).  It is one thing to write an email or send a check.  It is another thing altogether to show up in person. 

A joyful welcome form the Women's Choir of a large church
in the Protection of Civilians (POC3) camp
on the outskirts of Juba

Kristi and I have been living here now for ten months.  Yes, there are many problems in this land, but people still live here, life still goes on, children go to school and women go to the market.  Most days in Juba are peaceful and anxiety free.  Some people live here because they must; others live here because they choose to, they choose to identify with the pains and the hopes of the South Sudanese people.  That would be the case for my friend, someone who could choose to live with his wife and children in the comforts of a neighboring country, but who has chosen to live here amongst his people, sharing their joys and pains, seeking to make a difference.  That would also be the case for Kristi and I.  We feel called to love and serve the people of South Sudan, come hell or high water, come peace or continued war.  Our lives are not of great concern; we simply trust in the goodness and mercy of God.

Walking with young boy to church...

Friend and reader, on the off chance you have prayed about coming to South Sudan and feel God nudging you, please do not hesitate, come.  This land is not Disneyland; it is a place that bleeds and needs the help of those willing to be here for such a time as this.  Your stay can be short, or it can be long.  Only come…come, to South Sudan.     

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Gratefully Sharing

Last week our church partner, the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC), was busy distributing food through all of their congregations. When Pastor Philip opened the the shipping container and I saw the long rows of 10 kg sacks, I was truly amazed. How would they distribute all of these? Three different congregations came that morning, two with a rented truck, another with a small utility vehicle. I could see joy on their faces in the midst of the sweat as they loaded the heavy sacks. Sacks of corn flour and lentils were carefully counted, with more than a hundred sacks going to each congregation.

SSPEC food dist Pastors Philip and Lado at containerThe shipping container at the church headquarters
that was filled with sacks of flour and lentils.

In Juba, SSPEC bought more than a thousand sacks of corn flour and several hundred sacks of lentils. Funds were also sent to around twelve different locations around South Sudan where there are groups of congregations that will also purchase and distribute food.

SSPEC food dist Trucks loading at office

Loading trucks to take to the congregations

On Sunday, I worshipped at the Lologo congregation, and got to witness their distribution to the congregation. After the service, people waited patiently until their name was called and they were given their distribution. Bags of lentils were divided between families by joyful mothers. Neighbors around the church and those in the community known to be particularly poor were also called to receive a portion. Even young people who attend the church without their parents were given a full portion for their families.

SSPEC food dist Lologo giving out foodThe Lologo congregation distributing sacks of corn flour to members

SSPEC food dist Lologo dividing lentils

Dividing lentils into portions for each family

I talked to two women as the collected their food. Christina Odiel, 40, is a widow with five children. She used to have a job, but said that now she is not working. I asked how she survives, and she said that she depends on help from others to eat. Later, on the way home I asked Pastor Philip how someone could survive like that. “Allah kariim” (God is generous) – he said. “You will find that a lot of people survive like that in South Sudan – they survive by “Allah kariim”. Somehow God provides. The other woman, Rosalyn, has seven children, the youngest of whom is 8 years old. Her husband is alive, but he married a second wife and left her on her own. She said that many times she and her children go the whole day without eating anything. She makes crafts with beads and sells them, but often she does not sell enough to buy food. She said that this flour and lentils will last her family a few weeks because they will make it stretch by not eating it every day. Both women expressed their appreciation for those who sent the support for this food. They pray that God would increase the help and resources to those generous people, so that they would continue to help others.

SSPEC food dist Lologo two women with food

Christina and Rosalyn with their food allotment

We grieve over the man-made famine in this fertile country and the suffering that results from the insecurity in the country. So many people are displaced from their homes because of fighting, and have had to leave their fields or work. Others are in their homes but rebels or raiders have plundered their fields. Millions are living in UN camps within South Sudan or near its borders. They are given food, but usually it is not enough to feed their families for the whole month and people still go hungry. A recent UN report says that more than half the population are currently “extremely food insecure”. The general population is really suffering from the ongoing conflict and insecurity in South Sudan.

But in the midst of the suffering, I have heard so many expressions of thanks from South Sudanese for the people that generously help them and care about them in their suffering. Shenango Presbytery in Pennsylvania is one of SSPEC’s partners who seeks to connect in meaningful ways and share together in the work of God’s Kingdom. The congregations of Shenango gave generously and collectively to the effort of providing food relief in South Sudan, as a way of showing their sympathy with the suffering of their brothers and sisters in a distant land.

SSPEC food dist Lologo boy sitting on sacks

A young boy waits for his mom to return for their food allocatio

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Face of Suffering

Here we are, into the third week of the semester and it is going well.  What a gift and a pleasure it is to get to know my students and fellow faculty members.  Most of the students, and even faculty, have been displaced multiple times over the last three to four decades.  The fact that our students are still persevering in their studies and now preparing to more fully serve their congregations, denominations and communities is a marvel.  Sometimes I feel like I need to take off my shoes before them, for their lives are truly holy ground. 

The first week of my Church History I (Pre-Reformation) class we discussed how Christianity provided a salve to so many living under the tyranny and impersonal realities of empire during the first few centuries, so many uprooted from their home regions, losing touch with their families, their roots, and their worshiping communities.  The displaced masses were spiritually hungry for a faith that would give them “self-respect,” which Christianity provided.  One of my goals in teaching this course and other courses is connecting the “Big Story” of the subject with the individual and collective stories of my students.  As we discussed the issue of displacement and slavery in the first century during that first week, one of my students, Paulino, shared with us how his grandmother was stolen from her village and taken into slavery.  This testimony served as a stark reality check for me, hearing from one of my students how his family had suffered so egregiously.    

The eminent St Josephine Bakhita is the patron saint of victims of slavery
Image: CNS (Catholic News Service)

The following Monday, as we were about to begin our Contextual Theology class, Rev. John*, one my students, pulled me aside to share some terrible news.  Rev. John pastors a congregation across town where I have visited a few times and preached.  He shared with me how within the last week or two people from his home region had greatly suffered due to the ongoing civil war.  The village and church center of his birth were attacked and twenty two people were killed and sixty three were injured. Among those slaughtered was his mentor in the Christian faith.  Moreover, he told the story of a young mother who went to the river to hide from the soldiers.  In the process of hiding she lost her twin babies to the swift current.  Beside herself, she went and hung herself.  Pastor John then told me how on Sunday, during worship, people could not pray for peace because their hearts were so burdened and filled with pain.  This morbid report is the news I received minutes before teaching…can you imagine? 

The Face of Suffering
photo from World Vision

Last Sunday I went to visit another church where I was invited to preach, a congregation filled with members of the tribal group on the other side of the current breach from that of Rev. John.  In my message I tried to help the congregation acknowledge their pain and to publicly acknowledge that they have really suffered; their deplorable situation was described to me before visiting.  To a person, almost everyone in this congregation has been displaced from their home region, their land occupied by a warring faction and all their cows taken.  My friend, Rev. Abe, with whom I teach at NTC, told me that he himself had lost one hundred cows.  For two of the tribes in South Sudan, the Dinka and the Nuer, cows are central to life.  Cows serve as dowry and are like a bank account.  To lose one’s cows and to be removed from one’s land is to lose everything. 

The face of suffering we see and hear about on an almost everyday basis is almost too terrible to bear.  Sometimes it just feels like too much.  Lord, have mercy on Your people here in South Sudan.     

*Rev. John is a pseudonym to protect the identity of the person whom I cite. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Nairobi Fun

We just returned from one week in Nairobi – a little R&R before Bob jumps into teaching on Monday. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, with a range of relaxing outings, meaningful conversation, and just fun things.  Here are a few pictures:

Enjoying the grounds of the Amani Gardens guest house –
wonderful place for reading and being refreshed by green grass and trees.

Delightful salad of rare treats – lettuce, blue cheese, and macadamia nuts!

Shopping at the Amani ya Juu sewing cooperative. So many beautiful things
made by wonderful women – it was hard to resist buying too much!

Stuff purchased in Nairobi

Some of the things we bought in Nairobi to bring home to Juba –
granola bars, vitamins, lots of nuts (for salads), and other helpful things.


And this is the weather that we returned to in Juba. Welcome to hot season!

We are so grateful for a few days of refreshment. Now, back to work in Juba!

Monday, January 29, 2018

Lament for South Sudan

God most High, who designed this earth in fine detail,
You blessed this fertile land and formed the peoples who call it home.
We see them laugh, embracing life, teeth gleaming white against night-dark skin.
Ornate beadwork and bright flowing robes distinctly mark their tribe.
They are always eager to welcome a stranger with a meal.
Tall, strong people, their courage proved by the deep cuts of the knife in their youth that leave the scars across their forehead.
Some tilled fertile land to abundant harvest or plied the web of rivers rich with fish.
Others raised their boys to follow the cows – perhaps hundreds, kept without fences because they were affectionately known and cared for.
Lord, we celebrate these beautiful and diverse peoples in the land of South Sudan,
Surely you blessed them by giving them this land.

The tribes together endured the long years of war with their northern neighbor,
oppressed and forgotten as power changed hands.
They cried out to you, God, earnest prayers of united hope,
While working and fighting for years on end.
You answered their prayers, rescued them.
Independence at last, and freedom from oppressor.
“We praise and glorify you for your grace on South Sudan”,
declare the opening words of the national anthem.
You answered prayers – surely peace had finally come.

Lord, we cry to you – we trust in you;
You alone are our salvation, you alone are our hope.

Lord, did you turn away just as South Sudan rejoiced?
‘Uphold us united in peace and harmony’, people sang at national events;
But inner turmoil quickly soured the barely tasted peace.
Cattle raiding, revenge killing, child abductions, ethnic cleansing;
People are fleeing, weeping, hiding, dying.
Forced from home, waiting in camps for elusive peace;
New enemies now– hunger, cholera, poverty, despair.
A fresh agreement signed by factions, but hopes dashed when hostility resumes.
Lord, where are you now?

Lord, we cry to you – we trust in you;
You alone are our salvation, you alone are our hope.

Lord, do you see your children here?
Susan, a widow, scrubs floors and washes clothes,
But does not earn enough for her son to go to school.
We watch boys wearily pick up their cardboard mats in the early morning,
building a fire out of trash to warm themselves. They left their families – because of hunger? Or war?
Or pushed out when poverty weighed down and parents needed someone to blame.
Eager young children want to go to school –the future of South Sudan, people say.
But long months without pay make teachers desperate –
they refuse to teach, or withhold the reports that allow students to start a new year.
Prices climb higher, but salaries don’t, as the currency slides.
Now the sack of flour that feeds ten days takes the whole month’s lot.
Even the soil heaves a sigh and shudders from the struggle,
Farmers too afraid to plant because of raiders lurking near.
Lord, we know that you see the suffering, you care for the poor.
Why do you let this continue? Will there never be relief??

Lord, we cry to you – we trust in you;
You alone are our salvation, you alone are our hope.

God, you created this mosaic of peoples, you called them good.
You gave them faith that perseveres, that continues to call out to you.
In spite of the greed or power or disregard from their leaders,
The people low in the world continue to hold up this land;
As they gather to worship and pray for peace
They are the hope for South Sudan.

Lord, we cry to you – we trust in you;
You alone are our salvation, you alone are our hope.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Contextual Theology

When Pope John Paul VI spoke to a Pan-African gathering of African Catholic Bishops in 1969, he affirmed their cultural roots with his memorable statement “You may, and you must, have an African Christianity.”  He shared with them how expressions of the Christian faith are manifold and should be suited to the tongue, style and culture of those who profess the faith.  Moreover, a richness that is genuinely African would add itself to the faith (Shorter, 1977). 

Next month, one of the classes I will teach is called Contextual Theology.  In “Classical Theology” we find two major tenets, scripture and tradition.  From these two tenets we often assume a universalistic notion of theology, sequestered almost exclusively to the domain of academia and dominated by eminent and quotable theologians both past and present.  In this classicist notion, ideas about Jesus and the Godhead are understood as static, less concerned with how peoples of host cultures receive and ingest their newfound faith according to their own worldview, their own culture, and their own philosophical system of meanings. 

Contextual Theology, or “local theologies,” on the other hand, adds a third tenet to the equation:  experience.  Contextual theologians argue persuasively, and I would add accurately, that static notions of universal theological understanding transcending ages and cultures does not adequately reflect reality.  While God indeed transcends ages and cultures, how we perceive God varies. Proponents of contextual theology are not arguing for an “anything goes” understanding of God, or an understanding which is highly subjective, rather they contend that this stool we call theology needs three legs, not two, those legs being scripture, tradition, and experience, experience birthed from specific cultural, communal and personal milieus.  After all, was it not Moses, the Hebrew child of promise, who experienced God speaking to him uniquely and personally from a burning bush, a bush which was not consumed?  Did not Jesus, Son of the Living God, hear a voice from Heaven saying, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased”?  When the Apostle Paul (formerly Saul) was struck down by a blinding light on his way to Damascus did he and his companions not hear a voice say to him “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 

In later centuries Francis of Assis heard a voice telling him, “Francis, repair my church.”  The Belhar Confession, drafted by South African Christians and recently adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA), brought to light the oppressive policy of Apartheid towards Blacks, Coloreds (mixed race) and Indians in South Africa.  Karl Barth and others of the Confessing Church wrote The Theological Declaration of Barmen in response to Hitler and the German Christians who had lifted allegiance to the Third Reich over allegiance to God Almighty.  The whole notion of Liberation Theology, birthed in Latin America, was the Church’s response to nation states’ abuse and oppression of the poor.  This list of examples could go on and on, pointing to the central tenant of Contextual Theology – our experience of reality and our experience of God stand on par with both scripture and Church tradition.

This is the primary text I will be using
for this course

This course, Contextual Theology, interests me greatly, and I hope that my passion for this subject will be caught by my students. One of the challenges here in Africa is that over the last one hundred and fifty years missionaries came from the West, namely Europe and North America, doing boatloads of good, but they also brought with them a Christianity shaped by their alien culture which largely answered questions Christians from the West had been asking – questions related primarily to individual salvation and morality.  

While those questions are valid and appropriate, and answers are both needed and provided by the Christian faith, African peoples and cultures, being more collective in nature, had a host of other questions that, in most cases, remained unanswered.  For instance, they would have asked, “How do we now think about our ancestors with whom we continue to fellowship?”  “With this new faith, what role will our elders continue to have in giving shape to our community?”  “What do I do with my other wives now that I am being told to chase them away so that I can participate in communion and church leadership?  Is it not understood that they will be left to beg or become prostitutes?”  “What about witchcraft?  Is it really superstition as I am now being told, or are there indeed powers at work that I need to be aware of?”

In this course, Contextual Theology, we will study together a host of examples that will help us see the necessity of experience as we seek to understand how we understand God. Moreover, quoting from the course description which I have been given, “A goal is to let the Word of God speak in a specific way into the African, particularly the [South] Sudanese context.” 

Lord, I humbly and passionately pray that the Gospel of peace can be experienced in the deepest recesses, in the core person and communities of our dear sisters and brothers here in South Sudan.  


Saturday, January 13, 2018

Afternoon tea

Come along with us back to our neighborhood tea stall. It is late Tuesday afternoon, when the heat is just starting to lessen but still 95 degrees in the shade. We pick our way over the ruts and trash in the dirt alleyway of the market to where there are some chairs set up in the shade along a wall. This spot is the afternoon location for Mary’s ‘mahel shayi’, or tea stall. In the midst of greeting Mary, I hear someone yell “Kristi!” and see a shape come flying towards me. Mary’s daughter Fonfon, about age 9, runs around the corner and wraps her arms around me in an exuberant hug. She is with her sister and cousin, and we exchange greetings and congratulate her on the recent award she won for being the top student in her class.

Then we go and greet each of the three men sitting in the chairs, sitting down ourselves at the end of the row. We exchange greetings with Mary, asking about her other children and family. We order our tea – Bob, hibiscus with ginger, and me, green tea. Mary teases, asking if I drink green tea because I am on a diet as she turns and goes to make our tea. Perhaps it is the Arabic culture and Sudan to the North who have passed to the South Sudanese the habit of drinking hot tea even on a hot day. People in Juba can drink tea all day long, and it is one of the most common small businesses for women.

We notice Bushara, another regular at the tea stall, standing a few paces away at his table, set up in the alley where he is repairing electronic devices like cameras and printers. Bushara is a basketball coach, and we have seen him a few times at the basketball stadium with his team as we pass by on our walks in the neighborhood. Bushara likes to talk to Bob about NBA basketball; he is a fan of the Chicago Bulls, but concedes that they aren’t very good. Somehow we start talking about his time in Khartoum many years ago. He tells us how while in the army, when they issued him an ID card, they marked his religion as ‘Muslim’ because of his name. When he told them he was a Christian, they mocked him and started making life difficult. One of the reasons many Southerners left Khartoum was because they were persecuted there for being Christians. But then Bushara also tells us about a girls basketball team in the North who prayed and worshipped together and had great faith. “They won,” he said, “because of their great faith.” As Bushara animatedly tells his story, we struggle a bit to follow his Khartoum sounding Arabic, able however to get at least the sense of the story. “People used to have faith here, Bushara continues “but then with the war and the economic crisis, it is no longer like that. People just want money.” Like so many others, he laments the current struggle in South Sudan.

As we talk with Bushara, Santino, a stately older gentelmen who is another regular, walks up with another man. They greet everyone and find chairs in the middle of our row along the wall. His friend asked our names and how long we have been in Juba. “About seven months”, Bob replies in Arabic. “No, seven years!” he adamantly replies. “No, seven months,” Bob says again. “Not possible.” the man insists. “You can not speak Arabic like that in seven months.” We laugh, and ask Santino to vouch for us that we indeed came to Juba just last year. Before leaving, we learn that the man is actually Santino’s younger brother, which means that he is of the same tribe as Santino. Bob has intentionally learned some greetings and phrases in some of the local tribal languages and greets him in Bari. “Oh, you speak Bari?” the man replies in Bari. This, of course, is beyond what we know in that language, and we are befuddled. But Bob, always eager to learn, has him repeat the phrase until he can write it down and repeat it.

Finally, after an hour of talking and drinking tea, we get up to leave. We are grateful for these familiar and friendly people who help us feel connected in the community and who help us as we practice and learn Arabic. We wish that we could show you a picture of this wonderful place of hospitality, but we do not take pictures in public in Juba because it often makes people angry. So, you wil lhave to imagine from our word picture, and give thanks to God with us for these inspiring and helpful people that we drink tea with in the shade. 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Abiding in Christ, Resting in the Lord

While living in Rwanda several years back, Antoine RUTAYISIRE, then team leader of African Evangelistic Enterprise (AEE) Rwanda, and I would spend a week in prayer and fasting as we began the New Year.  We enjoyed being refreshed together by God’s presence, earnestly crying out to the Lord about life and ministry issues which lay deep in our hearts.  While in seminary at Fuller, each year I would take a few days of retreat at St. Andrew’s Abbey up in the High Desert of Southern California where I would reflect over the past year while seeking God’s presence and will for the year to come.  Those were incredibly meaningful times of prayer and silence and enjoying the beauty of God’s creation. 

The majestic and famed Nile River

The day after Christmas Kristi and I spent several days doing a prayer retreat on the shores of the Nile River here in Juba, South Sudan.  It was an enjoyable, restful, and relaxing time of reflection, enjoying nature, and praying over 2018.  We spent many hours just sitting alongside the giant river, watching the methodical current flow northward.  Sitting by the river and simply being still has a calming, healing effect.  I believe that God inspired our minds and our prayers during our time there. 

Gazing at the glorious sunrise on the horizon

In reflecting on 2017, Kristi and I realized that this last year has been one of “surrender” and “giving up control.”  Major decisions were made last year greatly affecting us over which we had no control.  We simply had to submit to these decisions as God’s will.  Moreover, we also came to a place of surrender – realizing that we had to hand over to the Lord significant  hopes and dreams, knowing that there was nothing in our strength or power we could do to make them happen.  To surrender and not have control are humbling realities which refine our character and build our faith.  During our time of reflection, we gave thanks for the many wonderful things that happened over this last year.  We could see God’s hand of blessing, grace and goodness in our lives regarding new and old friendships, memorable experiences, and a good transition to South Sudan. 

The Oasis Camp, a local guesthouse, was the picture
of warmth, hospitality and peace 

In looking forward to 2018, we each chose a word and a scripture verse as thematic for hopes in this upcoming year.  As Kristi took time to pray, the word that came to mind for her was “abide,” from Jesus’ words to his disciples in John chapter fifteen.  She considered concrete ways that she can abide in Christ, such as finding new and creative ways for prayer, being present to others, and cultivating our home as a place of sanctuary and freedom.  For me, the word that came to mind was “rest,” inspired by the words of the prophet Isaiah, “This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel says, ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength…’” (Is 30: 15).  In being afflicted by the Epstein - Barr Virus (EBV) for almost eight months now, rest has been a constant theme; it is from the place of rest where I gain strength and freedom and even ‘salvation’ from the worries of a harried world.  This unwelcomed guest, EBV, has taught me to slow down, to see people and issues more clearly and more deeply.  Richard Rohr, the Franciscan monk and priest, says that mystics of ages past use the verb “rest” more than any other verb.  On that note, as we enter the gravitas of a New Year, I feel the need and the desire to “rest in the Lord” moment by moment, day by day, week by week, month by month. 

Perhaps difficult to see, but two Giant Kingfishers sit
a few balconies down, gracing our environs each morning

Some hopes and prayer for the New Year include:  physical healing for me, greater clarity for Kristi in her ministry role, wisdom for me in my teaching coupled with a love for my students, continued progress and comfort with Juba Arabic, finding a rhythm of life that works for us, having restorative times away (R&R, vacation), finding a church community to regularly worship and connect with, wisdom regarding opportunities to collaborate with other ministries, finding ways to be more organized, staying connected with family and friends back home.  We invite you to pray with us regarding these hopes for 2018. 

We also invite you to consider a word and scripture that would be an anchor for you in this New Year.  We invite you to join us in this journey of abiding in Christ and resting in the Lord.  Grace and peace to you, today and always!