"to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faithin me." Acts 26:18

Saturday, December 20, 2014

South Sudanese Refugee Settlement

While we were on vacation, we had the privilege to worship at a Presbyterian church located inside a South Sudanese refugee settlement.  For several years now, Sudan has been torn apart from wars.  First, the Lord’s Resistance army came through, then there was a war that ended in South Sudan becoming its own country, and now there is a civil war in South Sudan over who will ultimately govern this new country.  War brings poverty.  Many people have lost all that they have because of this war and over 32,000 of them have fled to a settlement near Misindi, Uganda, with 20 or more people arriving everyday still.  I didn’t know this before, but a refugee settlement is very different then a refugee camp.  A refugee camp is set up on an emergency basis and hopefully for a short amount of time.  But a settlement is set up when there is the expectation that these people will be here for quite a while.  Every family, big or little, is given a small plot of land to dig, 5 timbers and a tarp (and perhaps other things that I don't know about?) by the government of Uganda and the United Nations in order to make a home away from home.  In addition to that, the United Nations gives rations of food that each family can either consume or sell.  But even with this aid and the aid of other NGOs, life is hard inside a refugee settlement.  The people long for the war to be over and to go home.  In this picture, all the land between where we were and the mountains in back and then stretching out to either side for miles was all refugee land.  It is a lot of land, but the people are not allowed to leave it, except by special permission.

Eric met the pastor of this church in Kampala a couple months ago when he was at a seminar for MINTS coordinators.  MINTS is a world-wide theological training program, set up to aid men in gaining a theological degree no matter where they are or what kind of access they have to internet, books, etc.  Men can gather in groups, large or small, and study the Scriptures and preaching together.  Eric uses some of their courses at Knox Theological College.  The pastor at the South Sudanese Refugee settlement had been studying at Westminster Theological College in Kampala and right around his graduation was when the most recent war broke out.  So instead of returning home, his home was destroyed by soldiers and he and his wife and children ended up in the settlement where he started a church and a MINTS training center.  His church has more than 800 people attending and there are about 39 men training to be pastors.

Even though it was a Wednesday morning when we were able to visit, they still wanted the church to gather and for Eric to bring the Word to them.  The entire church wasn’t able to come, but the choir was there and many others (maybe 200 people?).  Actually, we were driving on the dirt roads into the settlement with the pastor in the van directing us and when we turned a corner, suddenly in front of us was a wall of very tall men with long robes on, drumming and singing, completely blocking the road.  Our first response was, “Um, what do we do now?”  The pastors said, “Oh!  Here is my choir!  They are here to welcome you.  Follow them!”  After they sang one song, they turned and led us, still drumming and singing, a couple kilometers up a path/road to their church.

The Sudanese people are descendants of the Kushite people in the Bible.  The Bible describes them as being very tall people.  We were surprised at the over-all height of the people we met.  Even Katelyn remarked how in Mbale, she is taller than most girls her age, but at the camp she was the short one. (By the way, I was so encouraged when Katelyn went waaay out of her comfort zone to have a lively conversation with all of these girls and let them touch her white skin and hair and hold her hand.  I love seeing my kids start to step out and do things that are hard for them.)

Other impressions we had: we were impressed with how masculine their music and culture is.  In the Mbale area, the churches struggle to get enough men involved.  This church had an overwhelming amount of men and even the choir was predominantly men.  The music was amazing.  It was at times, so loud and deep that it was almost overwhelming.  Yet at the same time it was beautiful and soothing.  At one point Talitha, feeling somewhat overwhelmed by it, left her seat and climbed into my lap and snuggled in and just said, “Mama, the music.”  It was unlike anything we had ever heard.  The style was very different than the tribes around us.  I have often found myself so thankful to hear many different styles of music sung in praise to the Lord.  I’ve heard of too many arguments in American churches about styles of music, what hymnal to use, how to sing and instruments to use or not use, etc.  As I sat listening to my brothers and sisters here, I was overwhelmed by an eager expectation of heaven when we will all worship together in unity and how meaningless our petty arguments in America must seem to God who hears the praise of all tribes and tongues on a daily basis.   This video is a bit long, but it is a taste of what we heard.  The first clip is of their greeting us on the road.  The second and longest portion is of adult choir singing.  The third portion is of the church ladies singing a hymn.  And finally the last portion is the children singing.  When they individually get up and say a few words, they are saying their name and what tribe they are from.  The church we visited is the only church in the settlement that is multi-tribal.  All the other churches (about 30) are either one tribe or another, but never mixed.  The pastor and leaders firmly believe (and rightly so!) that the gospel is the solution to the war between the tribes.  So it is no small thing to hear the children rejoicing that they are all from different tribes, but worshiping the Lord together.

We were also impressed with how well the people listened to Eric’s preaching.  As they sat on the floor (because they don’t have enough chairs and benches) they kept their eyes focused and their ears attentive.  The men didn’t mentally check out.  About 5 people put cell phones on the pulpit to record what Eric was saying.  The ones that could understand English were on top of the translator if he mis-translated a word (often with much laughter involved).  Clearly, they were not just looking for the white man’s physical assistance, but for the encouragement from God’s Word that he would bring. 
It was truly a blessing to visit them.  I’m glad we had the opportunity to. 

Here are some more pictures:

Talitha meeting and greeting...

Lots of UN trucks and the white pick-up truck is from Samaritans Purse, one of the many NGOs working there...

You never know who is hiding in the field.  :)

Many of the men had these scarring patterns on their foreheads.  It is part of their entrance into manhood, done at about the age of 15.

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