The official religion of South Sudan is Christianity. “Shouldn’t we go to people who have never heard of Jesus? Shouldn’t we go to the 10/40 window and preach the good news of Jesus? Is this really an unreached people who need missionaries?” These were the questions I asked myself when we were first feeling called to South Sudan. We came because we felt this was where God was leading us. We came because we knew beneath the “national religion” there was a deeper need for Christ’s peace.
And what we have learned is that beneath the surface, there is a deep need.
We are seeing people in bondage. Recently, to celebrate the creation of Tonj state, 21 bulls were sacrificed to spirits as part of a government celebration. The strongest and best spear masters (or witch doctors) were recruited by the government for the ceremony. The horns of the bulls are now on top of posts as idols surrounding the South Sudanese flag in the middle of Freedom square.
We are seeing people in pain. A friend‘s husband took a second wife this month. In a culture of polygamy, I honestly placated myself by believing that it was accepted and therefore it did not hurt like it would me. I was wrong. The betrayal, embarrassment, pain, and anger are just as raw and deep as they would be in me. It would be like my husband having an affair and then marrying the woman, then having her come to live in the guest house.
We are seeing people in fear. The mother of twins went through an extensive ritual to protect them and bless them. When one died, she mourned the fact that she must not have honored the spirits enough. She began grasping at anything that might protect the remaining twin.
We are seeing people feeling hopelessness. The poverty, hunger, and thirst take an incredible toll on the people here.
Far from being a place where missionaries are not needed as I originally thought, it is easy to then fall into that same hopelessness. It seems too little for 4-6 adults to do...why are we here? The fight is too big, the laborers too few.
But God is big enough. Period. We are not big enough…at all. But thanks be to God, this is not too big for him. We are seeing changes in the people around us as we continue discipleship relationships with them. It has been such a blessing to have the honor to see God at work.
...A man remaining faithful to his wife even when culture and family pressures indicate he should take a mistress or second wife.
...A witch doctor who dedicated his life to Christ this year was approached by the governor to serve at the state blessing ritual. He was offered significant payment. Despite the fact that he is extremely poor, he said no and explained to the governor that he now followed Christ.
...Our friend on hearing the parable of the four seeds rededicated his life to Christ and burnt his idols that day.
“Finally be strong in the Lord and in the strength of HIS might... For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
In His might we can have hope. In His might we can move forward. In His might, our tiny work belongs to Him and He can do anything. Thanks be to God.
Suffering for the Gospel. When most of us hear this, we think of the persecuted church in countries that are closed to the Gospel. We think of torture, imprisonment, and constant threats on your life. Not being able to freely speak of the goodness of Christ without fear of reprimand. However, all suffering may not be quite as severe as all of this.
Recently, I was sick for about three weeks. I felt so bad that I wasn’t able to do much other than lay in my house. Over the past three years of my time living in Africa, this was definitely the worst I’ve felt and the longest period of time that I’ve been sick. I felt worthless, and even began to even question my purpose of being in Tonj, since I couldn’t accomplish anything or be out with the people. During this time, I began to reflect on some conversations that I’ve had in the past with some teammates regarding suffering. One instance was a recent conversation Tianna and I had regarding her struggle with acne since coming to South Sudan. As silly as it sounds, the battle with acne in South Sudan is a form of suffering. I was also reminded of a conversation I had with a past teammate during a time in Ethiopia when many of us were constantly battling sickness; sleepless nights due to countless runs to the bathroom because of something you ate or drank is a form of suffering. Even though these examples are not quite as “exciting” as stories from Paul or an undercover missionary biography, it’s still part of the cost of being a disciple of Jesus. As my view began to morph from feeling worthless, I tried to focus on being thankful to have been given the opportunity to suffer for the Gospel, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Although I may live in a place where I’m not persecuted for my faith by being tortured, imprisoned or receiving constant threats on my life, there is a cost of leaving my family, having a variety of tropical illnesses and not as many comforts as I would have in America. As a believer, when you say yes to Jesus, that means at all costs, no matter where you are or what the outcome is.
As holidays are upon us, I know that this is a particularly difficult time for me as well as other people who are away from home, and for the families that are left behind. As we are missing our loved ones this holiday season, may we all focus on the cost of discipleship, joyfully proclaiming that Jesus is worth it!
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let your steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4