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

Friday, June 29, 2018

Taking a break

We had been craving nature and a chance to get away. Uganda was exactly what we needed – refreshing time with friends and colleagues in Western Uganda (including their three energetic young kids), and then a week of real relaxation inside Murchison Falls National Park.

Elephant group drinking wide 2

   Female and young waterbucks A male hartbeast hippo charging

Seeing the majesty of these big animals in their natural habitat never gets old. The elephants, in particular, are so interesting to watch in their family groups. I read a book last year called Beyond Words: What animals think and feel about the complex social systems and emotional intelligence of a few animals, such as elephants, which makes me appreciate even more the expressive nature of these amazing creatures.

Plunging 40 meters down through a chasm 6 meters wide...  The Uhuru falls (left) and Murchison falls (right). Uhuru was created during a flood in 1962!

We took a boat ride up the Nile river towards Murchison Falls, and then hiked a couple of miles to get to the top of the falls. The river plunges through a gorge just 6 meters wide at these falls, and it is a dramatic show of the power that water has. Seeing the beauty and feeling the spray of these falls was exhilerating.

Red-throated bee eater  Pied kingfishers - we saw lots of these, and it was fun to watch them fish! Saddle-billed stork

     Crowned crane - the national bird of Uganda  A goliath heron 

We are growing into an appreciation of birds, and enjoy trying to see and identify them. The red-throated bee-eater was a new one for us. From the veranda of the lodge we could watch them swoop down from their perch to snag an insect and then loop back to their perch. The pied kingfishers were another fun one to watch, as they hovered stationary high above the water, beating their wings vigorously, and then would dive straight down to grab a fish in the water without going under. The beauty and the unique character that God created in each bird species is truly incredible!

DSC_0578 A colobus monkey DSC_0577

We also spent two days in the Budongo forest, where we found butterflies in such abundance that we said ‘it is snowing butterflies!” We watched monkeys (like the colubus above) leap through the tops of trees, and mused on the barking of the babboons. We spotted a few birds, but realized that in a dense forest seeing them is a real challenge!

Plane in arua with Kristi

Our flight from Aruba to Juba was on a small 12-seater plane. It was a rare experience for us to be on a plane where we could see out the FRONT window as well as the sides! Just as the plane revved up its engines and started down the dirt airstrip in Arua for takeoff, the pilot slammed on the brakes. We could see a few cows ambling across the runway in front of us. Fortunately, we did stop in time, and simply had to turn around and start the takeoff over again. But it was a reminder to be grateful for safe travel, especially in a place where we are reminded that you never know what to expect!

We are very grateful for this opportunity to get away and enjoy some of the natural beauty in this region. After this wonderful vacation, though, we were eager to get home to Juba, and grateful for our community and the ministries of the church here that make it a welcoming place to return to.


Thursday, June 7, 2018

Proud Teacher

A proud teacher, like a proud parent, marvels and rejoices in the success of his or her students.  Last week I was thrilled with my students on the final examination day.  For my two classes, Contextual Theology and Church History, I had grouped students together to present for our class, to share with us and teach us what they have learned.  For my Contextual Theology class I asked my students to create a local or contextual theology, a lived theology which speaks to the realities and concerns of the South Sudanese people.   For my Church History class I assigned each of the eight groups a question to respond to, each question covering a significant historical issue and/or person of which we have studied together.  For each of the two classes and their final group presentations, I was "tickled pink" to see my students use their imagination, their creativity, their gifts and their hard work in sharing with us and helping us learn together as a community.

Students perform a sketch on Martin of Tours,
a bishop of the fourth century who transformed
the idea of "bishop" by his simple life of poverty and service

For my Contextual Theology class, Rev. Paul Ruot and Dak Badeng Gai introduced us to a song sung by a clan of the Nuer, a song composed by the women of the clan over one hundred years ago.  The song chronicles the history of one of two warring clans that fled into exile for having killed a prominent leader from the other clan. In exile the people suffered terribly from disease and their displacement.  Finally, after many years, the men who were so weakened by their diseased condition came to the end of themselves.  Into this sad predicament the women stepped forward, creating this song of repentance and intercession, naming the wrong committed and interceding to God through the known local spirit.  Rev. Paul, the elder statesman and wise sage of our class, sang this song for us.  He and Dak then connected the prominent role of women of this historical event with a South Sudanese woman who recently broke down and publicly wept during the failed peace talks in Addis Ababa.  The students shared how the leaders, exclusively men, do not realize the full extent of the problem and the suffering they are currently causing in South Sudan.  However, this woman’s public lament challenged the men while it also challenges all of us.  According to my students, her cry indicates that women love peace more than men.  Her cry is a prophetic call to a new reality, just as the song sung more than one hundred years ago was a cry for a new reality, recognizing wrong and asking God for help.  Rev. Paul and Dak also connected this traditional Nuer ballad to the song which Miriam, Moses and Aaron’s sister, sang when the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea (Exodus 15: 20ff).  Rev. Paul and Dak conclude that although women in Nuer culture and South Sudanese society are perceived as weak, they are in fact known for their commitment and emotional strength, particularly in regard to their ability to peacefully restore broken relationships.  Moreover, Rev. Paul and Dak contend that the role of women and their significance is best embodied in the salvation which came through a woman in the birth of Jesus Christ.

Rev. Paul Ruot sings a traditional Nuer ballad,
a song of lament, repentance and a plea for divine help

In my Church History class, students tackled big questions such as, “What was the impact of Constantine on Christianity?”  “What central element of the Christian faith was Athanasius seeking to protect against Arianism?”  “How did Augustine understand theological ideas like goodness, evil and free will?”  “What difference do you see between the Christian view towards war and violence in the first two centuries compared to the eleventh, twelfth and thirteen centuries?”  This last question raises a lot of emotion and thoughtfulness from my students who, along with their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, have lived under the shadow of Islam and Islamist policies for at least a century and a half.  The video below depicts the skit one group produced, representing well the Christian theological stance of peace and humility and willingness to suffer as modeled by Jesus, but also displaying the ambivalence and uncertainty which grew towards this pacifistic view over the centuries, and even how this view was altered and unabashedly compromised in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries as Popes called for a series of Crusades, Christian leaders calling Christians to acts of violence and war against the Infidels (Muslims), Jews and pagans, a sad and pitiable part of our Christian heritage which continues to compromise our Christian witness.  

Again, I am immensely proud of my students!  One thing I have learned this semester is that working in groups and having presentations plays to the strengths of my South Sudanese students whereby orality and communalism, working together in groups, are central values in contradistinction to western values of individualism and written learning and testing.  I look forward to our next semester together! 


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Shopping exertion

I want to share a little story that reflects daily life here, and how we continue to learn and adjust to the way of life in a new place. A few months ago, (February, maybe?) I was feeling the urge to get a few new things to wear. I had come to Juba with a suitcase of clothes a year ago, but only some of those were suited to the climate and the culture, so it was starting to feel like I was always wearing the same things. I thought, “I just need a few more shirts to wear with the skirts I have, and that will give me variety.” But, how to get some shirts? I tried to be content and patient and wait for the right opportunity to come up.

Sometime in March, after thinking about this for awhile, I set out for Konyokonyo market (that is, an African-style outdoor market with little stalls that sell housewares, clothes, shoes, spices, and basically anything that you might want to buy here). I browsed through the clothing stalls, where shirts or other clothes are hung up on the walls of the small stall. Most of these clothes are the surplus (that wouldn’t sell) from department stores or clothing companies--some used, some not. I finally found a shirt that fit what I was looking for, but was told it was 2500 SSP (about $10 then). That seemed too high for a shirt that was not new, and defnintely high for Juba. I wondered “Where do most people in Juba shop?? How can they afford this?”

I came home and talked to Mary and Susan, who clean in our apartment building. I described my experience of going to the market (good Arabic practice!), and my suprise at the prices. They affirmed that those were indeed the normal prices at Konyo-konyo market (especially for the ‘nice’ clothes that are hung up on the walls of the stall). They advised that if I wanted cheaper clothes, I needed to go to Custom market, and look for the place where there were piles of clothese on the ground. If you pick through the piles, you can find something that fits (trying it on over your other clothes). Those clothes are cheap – only about 500 SSP, they said!

Finding time to make this special trip to Custom market was not easy, and it was a little intimidating since I did not know where the clothes section was. I waited, hoping for an opportunity to come up when someone could go with me. But that never came. I’m an American adult – surely I can figure out how to buy a shirt, right? So one day in mid-April I set out on the bus to Custom Market, and wandered around through the stalls I saw near the bus park– but all the stalls seemed to have ‘high-end’ things (like fancy jeans and sports shoes), and I realized maybe I was not in the main market. Finally, I asked a woman for help, and she pointed the direction to the entrance to the big Custom market, which was across the street and hidden behind a wall. I walked in that direction, but saw that there was a very narrow opening congested with people trying to get in and out. I got nervous, knowing theft is a high risk in Juba, and not wanting to get stuck in a crowd when I did not know my way around. “Maybe it is crowded because it is a school holiday?”, I thought. I came home empty-handed again, and went back to Mary and Susan.

“What is the good time to go the market?” I asked them. “And is there another entrance that is better than that small one?” Mary told me how to get to the back entrance that is less crowded, and assured me that Custom market is always crowded. I waited a few more weeks, looking for time to return for another try. Finally, last week (mid-May now!), the opportunity came. I had to drop something off for Nyakuma, one of the women who I have worked with to facilitate the heaing and reconciliation workshops. Of course, with extravegant African hospitality, “dropping something off” turned into having tea with Nyakuma and her husband, and even trying a new food called “wal-wal”, which is a little like polenta, but with more of a consistency like small pasta, somehow. When I left her house, she insisted on getting me a motorcycle taxi, and explained to the driver exactly where to take me at Custom Market. Exactly what I needed, and didn’t realize it!

I entered the market, and began to wander through the narrow paths. The stalls seemed to be haphazard – those selling shoes, or hardware, or spices, or housewares, were all mixed together rather than having categorized ‘sections’ like at other markets. The narrow paths and rows of stalls seemed to go on and on, and it felt a little like a maze in Alice in Wonderland. Finally, I stumbled upon some piles of children clothes. “I must be getting close,” I thought. I asked someone about shirts for women, and he helpfully guided me to the next aisle and showed me some of the stalls with women’s clothes. Big piles of clothes were laid out on tarps, with some of the best ones hung up on the walls. I browsed, dug through piles, and tried on shirts over my clothes, enjoying the camaradie with the other shoppers and the sellers. These clothes were definitely the ‘leftovers’ or surplus from thrift stores in the U.S., but they were cheap, just as Mary promised! As I was digging through a pile in one stall, I overheard two tailors talking, and recognized the language of Burundi. I greeted them in Kirundi, and they were floored to find a foreigner in Juba who knew their language. A fun connection! After finding four or five rather ‘unique’ shirts that fit my criteria and spending a grand total of about $10, I was grateful for the advice of many people that helped me finally accomplish this small goal! But I had to be willing to ask directions again to get out of the market! A woman heard me asking and graciously offerred to lead me to the bus park, as she was going there anyway. Whew! One more step in feeling at home here, and learning to depend on the people around us and be grateful for their help and hospitality!

Kristi in new white shirt

One of my new shirts from the market!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Daughters of Africa Arise

When Reverend Awadiya Bulen laughs it is a full body affair.  Her white teeth flair and exude joy against the backdrop of weathered, ebony skin.  While her hair is simply pulled back, her posture does not hesitate to lean in.  Her spoken Arabic is “tamaam” (perfect), her English is quite good, and of course she speaks her mother tongue, Bari.  She can also read both in Arabic and English, a feat not accomplished by many men in her own culture.  She is a member of the second graduating class of the Arabic track at Nile Theological College (NTC) in Khartoum.   She pastors a growing church in Juba and helps with the Women’s Desk of the presbytery.  This last Monday I invited Rev. Awadiya to share with my Contextual Theology class, asking her four questions – What is it like to be a woman in your culture?  How do you see God?  Who is Jesus to you?  What does it mean that Jesus saves?  

Rev. Awadiya shares winsomely with our class!

Before sharing some of Awadiya’s story and response, let me first frame my purpose in inviting her.  As we have been studying Contextual Theology, in these final weeks I have narrowed the focus to help us look at theologies which can help my students craft a contextual and local theology for South Sudan, the subject of our final project.  Thus, we have been looking at theologies “from below,” namely from marginalized and exploited groups in places of conflict and pain.  We have taken time to study Liberation Theology, birthed from the poor and oppressed masses of war torn countries in South America.  Germane to Monday’s gathering, we looked at Africa Women’s Theology, studying a book by the same name by Mercy Amba Oduyoye (Oduyoye:  2001). 

In her book Mercy helps her reader get a fuller picture of what life is like for the African woman.  She describes her context in Africa as one of struggle and injustice.  She describes how women are taken for granted, marginalized, given secondary roles, blamed for what does not go right, forced to implement decisions they did not make, and how they struggle to have their humanity recognized as such (30).  African women are programmed to live for others (e.g. children, family) and they live to please men.  She cites the proverb “There is no woman as beautiful as the obedient one.”  While their world has been shaped by men, women have learned compassion and solidarity.  They are at the center of self-giving on behalf of others; they hurt with those who hurt and rejoice with those who rejoice (30).  When the child is in pain, he or she first runs to the mother.  Betty, one of the women Oduyoye interviews, uses such words as “subjugation,” “powerlessness,” and “subservience” to describe the plight of African women, realities which, from an anthropological and cultural level and even from a message implicitly communicated by Western churches, prevent women from “fully apprehending the truly good news that Jesus Christ’s coming has brought especially for women” (56). 

Rev. Awadiya does not hesitate to echo these macro themes voiced by Oduyoye and to paint them in vivid, living colors.  She described for us how she, like most African women, only eats once all of the men and children have eaten, which usually means that she does not eat (all the food is gone!).  Being the wife of a prominent pastor in Khartoum, their home was always filled with visitors, some of whom would live with them for extended periods of time.  She told us how over the years they probably had fifty people live with them at different times, many from different cultures and tongues.  As the wife and mother, she was obliged to cook and care for everyone staying in their home.  At one point they were hosting four pregnant women, each giving birth in rapid succession as Awadiya looked after them while being pregnant herself; a family member expressed concern that Awadiya would lose her own child!  Awadiya describes working so hard each day that her body would tremble in the night and when her husband suggested she eat, she replied that she was too tired to eat.  

Students listen, react, and respond with thoughtful,
honest questions and comments

Although this description might feel like caricature, it is often the case that African men will sit under the tree most of the day, talking with visitors, while women bear the brunt of all domestic and child rearing activity.  Awadiya even contrasts how Arab women have it better than the Africans, “They work all day but after 4pm they can relax with the family.”   Rev. Awadiya’s husband died in 2014; she remains a widow.  Though she technically “belongs” to the family of her husband, they have done nothing to look after her needs, in fact, two of the brothers of her deceased husband now look to Awadiya to support them, feeding them and conducting household responsibilities on their behalf.  If there is a death in the family, as there recently was, Awadiya is obliged along with all the women of the family to do all the cooking for the “bika” (wake) and mourning and burial period.  Practically speaking, what that recently meant was she had to miss a workshop and she was not able to prepare herself for visiting our class.  Though Rev. Adawadiya has lost her husband, she flashes an amazing grin and says, “Jesus is my husband!”  She says that some women who still have their husbands are not as lucky as she is.    

One of the significant images we looked at during our time together is Jesus as liberator.  A principal hermeneutical key for African Women’s Christology, according to Oduyoye, is the Magnificat, when the humble teenage Mary describes how God lifts up the lowly and brings down the proud (Luke 1: 46 – 55).  To strengthen this point of God lifting up the lowly, we read a poem by Rachel Etrue Tetteh, describing her faith journey –

I heard of the Good News, now ours
Requiring men and women to hear, read and spread
The Gospel of what Jesus had done for humanity…
His ministry included women freed to make a choice
to follow Christ whose love
includes all men and women…
Daughters of Africa Arise (Tetteh 1990a: 229)

Oduyoye surmises that ‘freed to choose’ serves as the principal factor African women refer to when describing an encounter with the Living Lord, Jesus Christ.  “Jesus,” Oduyoye writes, “is the antidote to [women’s] ascribed positions in church and society, the cultural contexts in which they experience the Christ in their lives” (58).  As one of my students commented, “things won’t change overnight, but there is possibility for change.”  Another student wonders, “How can we find compromise between faith and culture?”  In both cases, whether it is slow change or compromise, African cultures will continue to wrestle with this Jesus, the Liberator, the One who came to free all persons and peoples at all times and in all places, including our dear sisters, the subjugated women of Africa. 

Daughters of Africa Arise.         

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

God’s Provision in the Details

Last week we facilitated another of the Healing the Wounds of Ethnic Conflict (HWEC) workshops for participants from several Juba congregations. It has been a busy season for our team who were trained in Rwanda, but we praise God for the open doors to present this workshop and help people to find heaing and forgiveness. In this particular workshop last week, our team was both teaching and organizing all the logistics – a rather daunting task. Add to that that I am still learning my way around in how to do things, so felt somewhat helpless regarding some of the logistics. Perhaps that motivated me to pray harder though, and God sure provided in many ways beyond our control. I want to share just a few of those ways that God provided just what was needed to make this a meaningful and transformative experience for everyone.

First, God provided an experienced, helpful, joyful group of women to cook lunch for us each day. A few days before the workshop, I was despairing of what we would do about food. The church where the workshop was conducted did not even have pots and pans or plates, so those would all have to be rounded up. But then, just the day before we started, I met with Mama Julia, who agreed to bring her friends to help us, had her own cooking equipment that she brought, helped us come up with a menu that would work with our small budget. A member of our teaching team lent us the plates and cups from his church, and brought the whole lot on a motorcycle taxi. Wow! Everyone raved about the food, it was delicious and made on time, cost even less than I anticipated and it was truly a joy working wtih these women. God is good!


Two of our cooks, making “kisra”, a thin dough something like Ethiopian injera.

Then, God provided people to help with the logistics. As we got ready for the workshop, I had lots of questions running through my head, “Who is going to start the generator? And go get fuel when it runs out? And where or how do we get all the water we will need for cooking and washing?” (no electricity or running water here, which makes things much more complicated. And who can lead us in some worship? Finding songs that everyone knows and someone with a gift for leading them was certainly beyond my control. It was as the workshop was starting on the first day that I realized how God had provided in all of these areas. The guard for the church ran the generator and helpfullly resupplied the water and fuel (and the church had graciously left us a full tank of both that we could just resupply at the end). And then the talented youth of the congregation came to help us at the workshop, both participating and happily leading everyone in joyful worship at several points in the day. Such a gift!


Nyakak (left), Mama Sarah, and Charles Peter leading worship

Finally, an important piece is translation. In Juba, many educated people know English, but others spent years in Khartoum and communicate better in Arabic, and the less educated get by in Juba Arabic or their tribal language. Three of the four of us on the teaching team are more comfortable in English than Arabic, so we decided everything would be in both English and Arabic. But finding the right person to translate proved a challenge. I thought of our language teacher, Charles Peter, but couldn’t get a hold of him. We wanted someone who would understand easily the principles we were teaching, and could tranlate into either Arabic or English. Finally, the night before the workshop started, I reached Charles Peter by phone and he agreed to come. He translated tirelessly, and also filled in on the worship team or as photographer, as needed. Thanks be to God for providing exactly what was needed.

Holy Nation drama

Charles Peter (left) translates for Omot (middle), while
Mama Sarah displays a coat representing the “Holy Nation”

And what about the actual content of the workshop? If you have not heard us talk about the HWEC workshop much, you can read more in our current newsletter. God is opening doors to present these teachings, and we pray that many continue to find healing and forgiveness. Please pray for peace in South Sudan, as the tensions and attacks in some regions are ongoing. Organizing a workshop is not always easy, as I hope this post reflects, but we are grateful that God answers prayers, even for details like water, meals, and translation.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Glory of Relationship

In John chapter seventeen verse ten, the Apostle chronicles Jesus’ prayer to the Father, saying, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them [in the disciples].” In this passage, John begins by telling us how Jesus makes the Father’s name and character known to the disciples (verse 6); Jesus prays that his followers be sanctified, made perfect in truth (verse 19). But what does it mean for Jesus to make the Father’s name and character known? And what does it mean for Jesus’ followers to be made perfect in truth? And how is Jesus glorified in his disciples?

During Holy Week this year my wife Kristi and I and a few South Sudanese colleagues conducted the Healing the Wounds of Ethnic Conflict (HWEC) workshop at the institution where I teach, Nile Theological College, a diverse setting where many of the tribes of South Sudan are represented. The opening teaching of this workshop is entitled, “God’s Original Intention for Relationships.” In this first lesson we examine the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Together with the students we described the nature of this relationship, how within the Trinity we find three separate and distinct Persons, separate, yet working perfectly together in mutuality, love, trust, affection, confidence, support and respect. Within the Trinitarian Godhead there is no competition, no power struggle, and no jealousy. No one feels threatened. Moreover, because of God’s love, God decided to create humanity so that we also can enjoy this fellowship and quality of relationship. Yet, as we know all too well, our forefather Adam and our foremother Eve lost sight of the beauty and quality of God’s original intention and went their own way. Now, we as humanity are plagued by that fateful decision as we inherently follow that tortuous path.

In the HWEC workshop we utilize creative expression and drama. In this first and significant teaching, as the facilitator I selected three volunteers to come forward, the three creating a circle holding hands. Each volunteer, coming from different tribes, stands before their colleagues and the faculty members, representing the three persons of the Godhead, quite the responsibility! As together we discuss the quality of relationships of the Godhead, we marvel at the quality of this relationship, particularly in contrast with the soured relationships we find in the world. In the midst of our marveling, I then asked the students and faculty if they would like to come and join this quality of relationship, breaking open the circle and inviting anyone to come join this extraordinary fellowship. Slowly, one by one, students and faculty catch a glimpse of the glory of this possibility and join us. 

The glory of relationship!  

After the workshop one of my students wrote his reflection paper with terrific enthusiasm and excitement for what this teaching means for South Sudan, how God is calling us to makes His glory known through the quality of our relationships, how we are made perfect in this union with the Godhead, and how Jesus is glorified in us as we follow the model God has given us. This mutuality and love, despite differences of tribe and region, is the glory of relationship which God intends.  May it be so in South Sudan!  

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