Thursday, June 18, 2020

Remembering Refugees

The large church building held more than one thousand people, squeezed together on narrow wooden benches. There were five large choirs, and each sang enthusiastically, with impressive cohesion and choreography. There were also several pastors, as this congregation formed when several smaller congregations merged when they found themselves transplanted into the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp. We remember that first visit well – it was electrifying and moving to have so many people packed into the church building and also to know that despite their joyful worship, each of them had experienced significant trauma and upheaval. After the service, the church leaders led the way, weaving through the maze of white tents, to the home of pastor James. We sat together with some of the elders and pastors, listening and trying to understand a piece of their life. Deacons brought in large platters with heaping bowls of wal-wal, fish soup, lentils and kisra. We were amazed and humbled – this was the first congregation in Juba to feed us a meal after Sunday worship, and we knew that this hospitality was a sacrificial gift.

Pastor James shared that he is often called to help counsel people who are experiencing trauma or abuse in the camp. With so many people crowded into small spaces without good sanitation facilities or land for them to cultivate, over the course of years health, relationships, and work ethic begin to decline. The church is an important source of hope, connection, and strength, and perhaps this is one reason that the worship and prayers feel especially powerful in the camp. Many of the current residents fled to this camp near Juba in 2016 during a horrific period of attacks on the Nuer people. The situation in the city has improved, and many people leave the camp during the day for work or school, but do not yet feel safe enough to live outside the camp. The trauma and fear that they have experienced is significant, and we know that several conditions will have to be met for most of the people to be able to return to normal lives outside the camp. The years that this drags on, however, means that children are growing up inside the camp, and some of our colleagues have lamented that this means they are not learning the skills such as farming, building houses, or caring for cattle that they would be learning in their villages – which of course adds another set of challenges for the country in navigating a new way forward.

World Refugee Day is June 20. We encourage you to remember with us the incredible challenge of refugees around the world. South Sudan is a country with the largest refugee crisis in Africa, with more than 1.5 million people displaced from their homes within South Sudan and more than 2 million living temporarily in camps in neighboring countries. Most of these refugees have been in camps or displaced for nearly five years. Last year nearly 200,000 voluntarily returned home as prospects for peace in their regions improved. However, attempts to implement a new unity government in 2020 have been mired in controversy and led to further instability. In May and June of this year, inter-tribal violence broke out in several places over cattle raiding and revenge killing. The Presbyterian Church of South Sudan is organizing a group of trained mediators to assist in resolving the conflicts. This year also brings the added threat of the Coronavirus – some initial random tests have confirmed the presence of Covid-19 in the IDP camps near Juba, so we pray that the spread is contained.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has several resources to use in worship or to learn more about the situation of refugees around the world. Specifically, here is a PDF that has two prayers for refugees and a lament for South Sudan written by one of Bob’s students. We look to God, who says repeatedly that he looks out for those who are oppressed and suffering, and that he cares for their welfare. We pray that God will continue to sustain them, that in His mercy they will feel safe to return home, and that the praises and prayers from Nuer United Presbyterian Church will continue to bless God and the community around them and remind them of the hope that they have in our God who came and suffered with us and for us.

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.  Dueteronomy 10:18-19

Friday, June 5, 2020

A New Language

The Sunday evening rally was organized by the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a local organization called “Not in My Town,” an organization committed to anti-bigotry and anti-bullying.  Within twenty four hours, the planners were able to organize this rally for justice and one thousand concerned citizens showed up at the promenade outside the Law and Justice Center in downtown Bloomington, Illinois. 

When we arrived a few minutes before 5pm, people were standing and sitting and many were holding signs and placards with messages such as “White Silence is Violence” and “We Remember George Floyd” and “Black Lives Matter.”  Even upon arrival, one could viscerally feel the emotion, the pathos, the pain.  We felt compelled to come and show solidarity and concern, but being at any type of rally felt strange and new for us.  We were at the back of the crowd, where it was often difficult to hear the speaker.  A person would speak for a short time and then chants would cascade across the promenade, the crowd shouting “No justice, no peace” or “I can’t breathe” or “Say his name…George Floyd” or “Black Lives Matter.”  For me to say “I can’t breathe” out loud with the group helped me to enter into the moment and the pain.  To be honest, it was mildly difficult for me to voice those words.  While I struggled to utter and internalize the unutterable words of a man killed within the last week, I felt like I needed to verbalize and internalize these words.  I needed to enter into the pain of George Floyd and the others gathered to promote justice on this Pentecost Sunday. 

Rally for Justice in Bloomington, Illinois
Photo Credit:  Ryan Denham, WGLT

The following day Kristi and I participated with over one hundred staff of the Presbyterian Mission Agency to process and lament together.  Laurie Krauss, the director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), co-facilitated our shared time.  She framed our time by sharing how when the tongues of fire came down at Pentecost, people responded in one of two ways to the new languages they heard spoken.  Some were open to what God was doing while others dismissed the disciples as being drunk on wine.  Laurie suggested that the protests and riots happening in our country could be seen as a new language.  We can be open to the protests and the pain and ask, “Even though I don't understand what is going on, what message does God have for me and for us at this time?  Or, we choose to disengage from the messengers because we don’t understand or agree with the method. 

Kristi and I feel like we have been on a journey of learning the language of pain and protest from the African American community for several years now, though we often feel like new kids on the block.  With a group of fellow mission co-workers, we are currently reading a book called White Fragility:  Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo  (link here).  We are also listening to black and brown voices share their pain and their hope for a better world.  One recent poignant interview was with Dr. Dwight Radcliff of Fuller Theological Seminary (podcast link here).  We are on a journey, trying to learn a new language, the language of pain and protest.  We will keep listening, keep reading, keep asking questions and keep showing up until we see a new heaven and a new earth rise up like a phoenix out of the broken ashes of our world, a world where division and poverty and racism hold sway.  We will keep holding court with Jesus in prayer and we will continue entering spaces which are not comfortable, forcing us to listen to “voices long silenced” and to narratives not our own.    

Friend, where are you on this journey?  What steps are you taking to understand the language of pain and protest?  We invite you to join us on this journey, a journey we believe to be transformative and healing. 

Monday, May 25, 2020

Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn

We are hearing good news and difficult news from our colleagues in South Sudan. We wanted to share, so that you can rejoice with us and also pray.

1. PRAISE: A few new church buildings are going up - both in Juba and also in remote rural areas. One is a church plant near the edge of Juba, supported by a larger SSPEC congregation in Juba. Another is in the western town of Aweil, where a church elder from Juba visited and was inspired to give a significant contribution to help the church get their own land.

2.  In Pochalla, in the remote eastern region of South Sudan, the church has begun planting their cooperative farm for the second year. This is a significant opportunity for church members to work together to increase the food security and economic security of their community. Some farmers in that area have been killed recently, so please pray for protection as people work in the remote fields.

3. We grieve to hear of more than 200 people killed when youth of the Murle tribe attacked several villages of the Nuer tribe. Cattle were taken and several people abducted in the attack. These tribes have been in conflict for some time, and it appears this was a revenge attack. Inter-communal attacks have also happened in the Rumbek region, where I visited in early March. We continue to pray for peace and an end to these attacks! For more about this news and what the Presbyterian Church in South Sudan is doing to try to help, see this article.

4. Covid-19 is increasing quickly, with 655 confirmed cases as of May 25. We have heard from friends and the news that there seems to be an increase of people dying of suspicious causes, although not confirmed cases of Covid-19. Pray for the health system to keep up with the testing and treatment needed and for wisdom in the decisions made to contain the disease. Our colleague Rev. Philip Obang also laments the increase in hunger as many people are not able to work and activities are limited.

We are grateful that in Christ we are one body with our brothers and sisters in different parts of the world, and that we join together in rejoicing, grieving, and praying.

“Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:16

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Continuing Studies

Two weeks after arriving in Rwanda in March 2002, Antoine Rutayisire, my host, asked me, “So Bob, what made you decide to come and live and serve with us here in Rwanda?” I replied to Antoine, telling him that I came not only to serve but to learn more about the Rwandan story and the African experience. I felt that our two-week visits to Rwanda had merely skimmed the surface of the many issues I found interesting and concerning. Over the next two and half years, I would so learn much about the realities of Rwandans living in a post-Genocide context. I would participate with them in their healing, their challenges, their joys, and their sorrows.

In January 2005, I began a dual degree at Fuller Theological Seminary. On top of my Master of Divinity degree, I began a Master of Arts in Intercultural Studies (MAICS) degree, feeling a continued sense of call to cross-cultural ministry. A huge draw for the MAICS degree was the final writing project, or thesis, whereby I would continue critical reflection upon my mission experience. My final paper, entitled “Banana Tree Leaders,” focused upon how Rwandan church leaders are developed according to the Bible, the church, and their culture. The whole research process, which included a three-week trip to Rwanda, was highly informative. As I met with my research advisor and a friend, together they asked me, “Have you considered doctoral studies?”

As we lived and served in Congo, this question would stay with me. Issues regarding church and culture invite continual reflection. I wanted to dig in deeper with these issues and equip others to do the same. In the fall of 2016, I shared the idea of continuing studies with our Presbyterian World Mission leaders. They responded positively. In the spring of 2017 Dave Dawson of Shenango Presbytery connected me with Dr. Retief Müller of Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Retief encouraged me from the start, sharing the same research concerns and appreciation for many of the same scholars, practitioners of mission, and theologians. In Retief I found a kindred spirit. When I fell sick in 2017 with the Epstein Barr Virus, Retief was supportive and patient. His support continued when I reached out to him last year and asked if was still willing to serve as my advisor for a doctoral program. He agreed. I applied.

In late September 2019, I was accepted as a prospective candidate for a PhD program at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. I was “over the moon” with excitement. Last October Kristi and I were able to meet Retief in person for the first time in Grand Rapids, MI, where he has taken the post of Director of The Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity, while being retained by Stellenbosch as a research associate. The leadership and faculty at Nile Theological College, where I teach in Juba, South Sudan, support me in this endeavor, recognizing that advanced studies will strengthen the institution and make me a better teacher. During this current season of being in the U.S., I am writing my Research Proposal for full acceptance as a candidate. Kristi and I plan to continue our service in South Sudan as I continue my doctoral studies part-time from Juba.

The other night we watched an interview of Douglas Gresham, stepson to C.S. Lewis. Gresham was asked to remark on his memories of his stepfather, C.S. Lewis. Gresham recalled that “Jack” (Lewis) encouraged him to examine things, to not take anything at face value. In my continuing studies, I hope and pray to examine church and culture, not taking things at face value. Pray with me that my studies bring glory to God, further His Kingdom, and bless the African Church…

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Life in South Sudan as Covid-19 encroaches

How has life in South Sudan changed during this global pandemic? There is certainly no grocery delivery service, no online school nor zoom meetings that replace in-person meetings. South Sudan started imposing restrictions in March, before there were confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the country, such as closing schools and prohibiting large social gatherings such as weddings and funerals. Restaurants can only sell food for takeout (which is not common in South Sudan), and nonessential businesses are closed. Travel to and from neighboring countries and between the states is now restricted. South Sudan has not ‘locked down’, and movement continues within local areas for people who are able to work.

There has been an aggressive education campaign to let people know the symptoms of the Covid-19 virus and how to prevent the spread of it. In South Sudan people speak 64 different languages, so it has been a big task to translate posters and other materials into these local languages. Our church partners have helped in this effort by volunteering to translate and distribute posters in rural areas. Church congregations have also helped to communicate the importance of hand-washing and social distancing, which is a real challenge in this gregarious and collective culture.
A poster about Coronavirus symptoms and 

prevention in the Anywak language

As the news and threat of Covid-19 increased in March, we had many conversations about the virus with our South Sudanese friends. Some seemed ambivalent – “We have so many other diseases that are here – malaria, typhoid, cholera. Now we have to deal with another one?” Others felt that the daily threat of hunger for many in South Sudan was more of a concern than this unknown and distant virus. Still others acknowledged that the country does not have adequate medical equipment or care, and that if the virus spread it could have devastating and deadly impact.

Sunday worship in March at a Juba congregation - 
fewer people gathered, and wore masks for protection

Several people that we talked to were hopeful – they have plenty of practice being in dire life and death situations, calling out to God as their only hope. We have been touched and humbled by several friends in South Sudan who have expressed their concern at the spread and impact of the virus in the U.S. and are praying for our country. Maybe God is reminding us to put our faith in the One who is Author of Life, and not primarily in our technology, government, or resources. While those things can certainly be helpful, this pandemic is a reminder that our hope and trust is in something that is beyond this life.

There are now five confirmed cases of this Coronavirus in South Sudan. South Sudan has some practice dealing with the threat of Ebola, so a special quarantine hospital was already built and ready to be used to isolate and treat Covid-19 patients. We pray that this does not spread, because there are camps with thousands of Internally Displaced Persons where it could wreak devastating consequences in a short time.
Buckets that are fitted with a spigot for hand-washing

Hunger is the biggest concern that we hear expressed from South Sudan. Just last year, some of our congregations started farm projects to help people start to farm again after a period of displacement. Hopefully that can continue and increase this year. However, a huge locust swarm is wreaking havoc all over East Africa, including in parts of South Sudan. Much of South Sudan’s food is imported from neighboring countries, but the virus crisis has increased prices as supplies and transport gets restricted. Pray with us for God’s provision and protection on people that have already suffered so much. Presbyterian World Mission is in process of sending some support for food relief and Cornavirus awareness which will help significantly. This crisis reminds us how much we need each other and the value of a family of faith that connects us across the distance and the differences that divide us.