Monday, March 29, 2021

May we lean in together...

Since last April, our group of Presbyterian mission co-workers serving in Africa has been meeting every Monday morning at 11am Eastern Time via Zoom for a time of devotions and prayer. This weekly gathering has transformed us from a cohort of colleagues who all gather together every four years into a veritable family. It has been one of many gifts we have received during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In January, one of our colleagues suggested that during Lent this year we go through a daily devotional called Lent of Liberation: Confronting the Legacy of American Slavery by Cheri L. Mills.  In this devotional book, Mills recounts forty true stories of men, women, and children who escaped from slavery by means of the Underground Railroad.  She ties their stories to the biblical account of a God who desires justice and mercy.  We all agreed that this devotional book would be helpful for this season of Lent, and our African American colleagues offered to lead us in the devotions each week.

These six weeks have been transformative as our African American colleagues have shared important insights from this devotional book, helpful ways of seeing scripture, and most poignantly their own personal experiences of racialized trauma. In our devotional book, we have read stories of suffering and physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse from the period of American Slavery.  The documented stories of slaves seeking freedom recounted by Mills are also marked by courage and resilience in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  Great sadness lies in the fact that so many families were torn apart by American Slavery.  We have also read about the continued racialized violence against African Descendants of Slavery during post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and into the present day. We have read scripture and heard scripture read, connecting the injustices of our history with the God of the Bible who stands with the marginalized, the enslaved, and the oppressed. Lastly and most significantly, our siblings of color have courageously shared with us their own personal experiences of pain, testimonies marked by prejudice, discrimination, and racism. Some of our colleagues have described incidents with the police which could easily have led to bodily harm and even death.

One colleague, a pastor and a friend, described the trauma of being pulled out from his family's home on Christmas Eve at gun point by a police officer. Ten squad cars arrived at his home within minutes as the rotor blades of a helicopter churned overhead. Our friend, a valedictorian and a selfless Christian who has worked with his church to help troubled youth and who has worked for reconciliation in Africa, kept asking himself the question, “Is all this for me?” My impression is that he was asking himself, “Is this the payment I get for all the good work I have done?”  Though our friend was innocent, and his innocence was quickly established in the driveway of his family's home, the police insisted on taking him in for questioning…on Christmas Eve. They eventually released our friend and never apologized for the way the officer acted alone in entering the home, a breach in police protocol.  Moreover, this officer was not reprimanded for this violation nor was the violation documented in his official record.  It is unbelievable to me that the Police Commander defended the raising of the firearm by the 'lone acting' officer in the family home, even though our friend had been accused by a stranger (falsely) with no corroborating evidence.  Only after persistent requests by our friend did the police issue a statement of innocence, though the authorities not only misspelled our friend's name but they did not detail most of what was done during this misguided episode for which our friend would have liked an apology.  Lastly, the officer in charge never followed up on his promise to exonerate our friend in "the court of public opinion” by speaking with the Homeowners Association, making it clear the police had made a terrible mistake. It feels as if it did not matter in the minds of the police that our friend was innocent; to them, he was just another black man that needed to be ‘kept in check’.

These six weeks have been emotionally heavy. These devotions led by our siblings of color are difficult but necessary. We have been invited into a new way of seeing the world.  We have been confronted, in love, by the trauma of racism, the very pathos of our African American colleagues who are generously sharing their stories with us.  Our friend adroitly intuits that White Christians do not sympathize with black pain because we do not understand the realities African Americans daily face.  We choose not to look.  We choose not to engage.  Thus, we do not understand and we do not act.  We fail to seek and promote a more just and equitable world.  We stand outside the circle of Jesus' greatest concern, to love our neighbor.  Author Cheri L. Mills describes how the greatest cause of atheism among Black Americans is White Christianity (Mills, 2021). 

 A common reaction for those of us who are white is to quickly deflect, justify, defend, or turn away. We invite you, reader, to join us and lean into the discomfort of these uncomfortable truths and to see how God can change us and our attitudes. We live in a racialized culture which requires a different lens for seeing the world, the lens God provides as God stands firmly in the circle of the marginalized and the oppressed. Yahweh hears the cry of the afflicted, delivering the children of Israel from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. Jesus, God incarnate, stands as a victimized Jew in the concrete particularities of the first century dominated by Roman occupation and oppression.  Jesus eschews all forms of power, wealth, and worldly success. May we who call on Christ no longer fool ourselves.  Jesus does not share the ‘American dream’ defined by the white dominant culture.  Rather, Jesus and his followers dream of a kingdom or a "kin-dom" where persons of all tribes and nations and colors are one, equal at the foot of the cross and who live in fellowship with one another.  As we peer deeper into the scriptures, may our imagination be drawn up into this Jesus, this Jesus who dreams of justice, mercy, repair, reparation, and reconciliation.  The journey towards healing is long but not impossible.  As we approach Holy Week, I invite you to join us, to lean into the discomfort and the pain of our broken world and to lean into the shameful history of American Slavery so that we can find ultimate healing and transformation, together, as God's people.  May we lean in together…

“…the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others. ” (Belhar Confession)

Sunday, March 7, 2021

From pain to forgiveness to celebration

 I could hear the excitement in Nyakuma’s voice as she shared over the phone about the workshop. “The time of repentance during Standing in the Gap was really powerful!” she said. Standing in the Gap is when people are invited to confess wrongs done by their people that harmed people of another group who are represented in the workshop. A man who comes from the Nuer tribe in Akobo confessed before the group the ways that people of the Anywaa tribe had been mistreated and attacked in his region. The Anywaa participants in the workshop were moved and grateful for his confession and were able to offer forgiveness.

Standing in the gap - a confession of wrongs done in Akobo

Another session talks about wounds we might receive in our families from a failure to communicate love. One man shared how his father had falsely accused him of something and then had been mistreating other members of the family in anger of the event. This man shared that he was finally able to forgive his father for this mistreatment and feel free of the bitterness against him.

James shares his testimony of forgiveness

The South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC) had invited a few members from several different congregations in Juba. Even though it was a small group, they represented a diversity of tribes and ages, male and female. The diversity meant they could meaningfully hear pain experienced by different groups and appreciate different perspectives. Nyakuma described the joy that people felt during the “Celebration of the Holy Nation” at the end of the workshop. “We could not contain ourselves! Everyone started dancing and singing,” she said as she laughed. She was proud of how beautifully she had set up the snacks and drinks for that celebration, even spelling out the word “LOVE” with the soda bottles.

Nyakuma with the tables she prepared for the celebration

Each tribe demonstrates their style of dancing
during the Celebration of the Holy Nation

Nyakuma joyfully shared about the feedback that they received at the end. One person was there who comes from the Nuba Mountains region. He said that his people desperately need this workshop to help them find healing. Some other participants said that if the workshop could be given to some of the leaders in the government, the situation in South Sudan would improve. “Everyone needs this workshop,” she said, excited.

People take their pain (symbolized by papers with their source
of pain or hurt written on them) and nail it to the cross

I was especially grateful for this workshop because it was an opportunity for a few people who were trained last year at the School of Reconciliation in Rwanda to participate in the teaching and facilitation. Nyakuma affirmed that they did a great job, and we are excited to have more people in the ‘pool’ of people who can facilitate so that more workshops can happen.

On a separate but related note, we pray for God’s protection on people in South Sudan from an increase of cases of Covid-19. Large gatherings and travel are not possible yet, but we look forward to continuing this significant reconciliation work soon.

Friday, February 26, 2021

The Dissertation Journey

The three of us sat together in the Catalyst lounge at Fuller Theological Seminary. It was September 2009, and I was just wrapping up my thesis for my Master of Arts degree in Intercultural Studies. Dr. Shelley Trebesch, my supervisor, casually asked me, “So Bob, have you considered doing doctoral work someday?” No, I had not considered it. Birgit Herppish, a PhD student from Germany and a friend, leaned in saying, “Oh Bob, I know you could do it.” Since that conversation, I have considered the idea, but it was not until five years ago that I gave voice to the dissertation dream. Last July I submitted my Research Proposal to the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. The following month they accepted my proposal. I am now enrolled as a PhD candidate. As I continue with my teaching role at Nile Theological College, I will do my research and work on my dissertation as we continue to live in Juba, South Sudan. For your interest, below is the title of my proposal and the “abstract” which describes the direction of my work. I appreciate your prayers for me in this dissertation journey!


Reconciling Worlds - A Critical Examination of the Social Interface of the Lifeworld of the Nilotic Peoples of Upper Nile, South Sudan, with the Lifeworld of White Euro-American Christianity


The Chollo people[1] of South Sudan describe God as like the wind or the air. God is ever present. God’s ongoing providential care finds expression in all of life. As an African mother would carry her child on her back, nurturing and cherishing that child, the Kiga people of Uganda describe God as Biheko, meaning “He carries everyone on his back” (Mbiti 1989).

While missionaries from Europe and North America made extraordinary sacrifices and accomplishments in Africa over the last two centuries, one African Christian scholar posits that “Missionaries came to Africa with the wrong diagnostics.”[2] Despite Black Africans being “notoriously religious,”[3] White Euro-American missionaries failed to meaningfully connect the rich cultural and religious history of African peoples with the Christian faith. Problematic was the idea that White European and North American “civilization” was inextricably linked with the Gospel; to become a Christian implied conformity to White Euro-American cultural values. As missionaries sought to “replicate” themselves in African converts, missionaries did not grasp the deep religious insights of African peoples (Bediako 1999: 234; Mbiti 1989: 56). Thus, this White Euro-American ethnocentrism led to a misguided theology of mission, a theology of mission which failed to perceive how God has manifested God’s Self in unique and specific ways to African peoples. As most White Euro-American missionaries failed to understand the universality of God’s presence among the peoples of the world, White Euro-American ethnocentrism is a significant factor in the story of Christianity in Africa (Bediako 1999: 236).

Seeking a path forward, Kwame Bediako and scores of concerned voices herald their conviction that for Christianity to be deeply rooted and intrinsic to African peoples, we must name this tragic legacy of mission and then meaningfully engage with the thought processes, religious histories, lived experience, and contemporary challenges of African peoples. We must foster deep and meaningful dialogue between African Religion and experience with the Christian faith. This research will assume a posture of listening and learning as we sit at the feet of South Sudanese sisters and brothers. Giving voice to the ‘theological memory’ and life experience of the Nilotic peoples of Upper Nile, South Sudan, this research will strengthen our understanding of the contextualization process by means of connecting theory with empirical data. Adopting a creation-centered theology,[4] this project seeks to understand how the Nilotic peoples of Upper Nile, South Sudan, connect their traditional religion and lived experience with the Gospel message and the Christian tradition. This research will utilize the Sociological-Anthropological Approach championed by Justin S. Ukpong, combining a sociological understanding of culture with anthropological factors, honoring the unity of African thought, that all of life is bound up together. Moreover, this research project will follow trails blazed by Justin Ukpong, Emmanuel Katongole, and others concerned with not only the personal, but also the communal, the social, and the political ramifications of life in God in Jesus Christ.

[1] Chollo is the true name of the tribe otherwise called “Shillyukh,” this corrupted name taken from the Arabic word “shiyuuk” which means “scars”

[2] Quotation from lunch conversation with Dr. Elisée Musemakweli, Vice Chancellor of the Protestant Institute of Arts and Social Sciences (PIASS) in Huye, Rwanda, in February 2019.

[3] A well-known quote from theologian John S. Mbiti (Mbiti 1989: 1)

[4] A creation-centered theology sees the world as sacramental, a place where God reveals God’s Self, assuming continuity between human experience and existence with the divine. This orientation stands in contradistinction to a “redemption-centered theology” which assumes culture and human experience need either complete transformation or total replacement…that the world is not a vehicle for the presence of God but that reality and creation distorts God’s reality and is in complete rebellion against it (Bevans 2002).

Monday, February 15, 2021

Bearing each other's burdens

A few months ago we posted about severe flooding in South Sudan that happened in several regions. With that flooding, increased economic crisis, and Covid-19, it was a year of many challenges in South Sudan. We are grateful to report that several partners helped the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC) and other churches in South Sudan to provide emergency food relief. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, presbytery partners in Pennsylvania, and some individuals in the U.S. and in South Sudan all joined in the effort. We are grateful that we can bear each other's burdens as the body of Christ.

Women with their sacks of grain and beans in Bentiu

Women in Abyei ready to distribute food

Several UN agencies released a report recently predicting that food insecurity in South Sudan will reach emergency and crisis levels in 2021 in several regions. Please pray for God's protection and provision for everyone. In good news, several rural SSPEC congregations started cooperative farms in 2019 and 2020, and some of those fields withstood the floods and provided food when other fields were destroyed. We are grateful for the initiative of these members and hopeful that these fields will help feed the hungry again this year. 
A field of peanuts in Malual

The congregation in Kodok also has a farm project -
here they are in a greeting line after worship

Thank you again for your prayers and support for people in South Sudan. We know that there is tremendous suffering around our world right now and pray that we as people of God can continue to bear one another's burdens. If you are interested in giving towards future food relief in South Sudan, you can do so through the account of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church here. Please designate in the comments that it is for 'food relief'.

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. - Galatians 6:2

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Bethel, House of God

When [Jacob] reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord… (Genesis 28: 11 – 13a) 

When God meets us and speaks to us, the world becomes more brilliant. Such was the case for our brother Jacob when he fled the home of his fathers to find his Uncle Laban. In a dream, God reminds Jacob of who God is, extending the promise to Jacob that had been given to his fathers. Jacob’s human pilgrimage shifts.

For years, Kristi and I have been in the habit of “retreating” from the cares of normal life, setting ourselves apart in lonely places where we can think, meditate, walk, write, and pray. Earlier this month, we took several days to do just that. As our favorite retreat center was closed, we chose an inviting Airbnb in a neighboring town called Eureka. Close to our abode was a nice lake, walking trails, and a labyrinth. On our first day, Kristi spent time at the labyrinth, praying that God would help her live a life of faithfulness. She prayed that God would give her a sign in the form of seeing an owl. Later, as this glorious autumnal day was coming to a close, we walked by the lake. “Hoot hoot…Hoot hoot” we heard just overhead. We scanned the trees to no avail. As we turned and looked out over the lake, a large presence flew overhead, wings flapping with equanimity and tremendous force. An owl. 

Eureka Lake, where we enjoyed walks and saw an owl 

Labyrinth on the Eureka College Campus 

Each day I holed myself up in the frigid upstairs of this humble 1920’s era home. I was reading and writing “memories,” a project Kristi and I are working on with a friend, hopefully in time yielding a memoir. I am currently writing experiences from Rwanda. It feels amazing to look back on those years, seeing pieces connect in new ways. For instance, I could see more clearly now how God had orchestrated my time there, namely my choice to stay longer. Yes, it was a choice, but God gave a "light touch" in fashioning my path. It was a joy to re-read these memories, and to write new ones. It made me felt more integrated, more whole. I spent time at the labyrinth where daily I saw a woodpecker as together we enjoyed a wondrous grove of elms. I also spent time reflecting on the life of Nehemiah, how he spent his "social capital" on the needs of the poor and marginalized Israelites dwelling in destroyed Jerusalem. “Oh Lord,” I prayed, “how can I use my 'social capital' to help others, especially the poor and the marginalized?” 

Working upstairs on memories (not much heat!) 

Kristi walked along the shores of the lake on a bright morning, feeling the crunch of the leaves underfoot and the brisk wind on her face. She worshipped and prayed, watching the geese on the water and the juncos in the bushes, allowing the peace and glory of nature to restore her spirit, connecting her with the Lord of creation. Later she meandered through a cemetery, noting names and dates, imagining life from ages past. A large tree stood near the graves, the long roots entangling and pushing up the graves, a reminder of the brevity of life and our need for God’s perspective. 

Canadian Geese

Walking Path, our Journey Continues...  

Jacob called the place where God met with him “Bethel,” meaning “the house of God.” After several days of retreat at our Airbnb, we left Eureka, our earthly loads lighter and our world a bit brighter. We all need a house where we can go and meet with God.