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