Of course, in South Sudan, there are all the challenges you expect to see in Africa: poverty, corruption, infrastructure yet to be developed and the roads to prove it, economic disparity, HIV and AIDS. And yet…and yet, our introduction to this land has so far brimmed with optimism and excitement.
The simple reason for this probably is that we’ve spent this first day, the Lord’s Day, with the Lord’s people. We went to church this morning at an Anglican congregation called Emmanuel Dinka Church, and attended the first of two services. Our team was three of the 2,320 in attendance, and the second service would be as many people. It was a confirmation service, and more than 100 people, most of them teenagers and young adults, were received into the church. And, notably, this church was just several blocks down the street from one of the Anglican cathedrals in town, which had even more people in its service. The Church in South Sudan is huge, the vast majority of the population. In a country of over 12 million people, almost 90% of them are Christian, and most of that number are Catholic and Anglican.
I was grateful to be able to say to the congregation, “We have come because we admire your courage, and because we want to celebrate your independence with you, and because we are brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.” I told them what I’ve felt since the first moments in Juba, that it is a privilege to be on the soil of the newest country in the world.
And optimism is in the air here, for all the suffering that has been here and still is. The South Sudanese have a chance, for the first time in their recent history, to make a go of it for themselves. After 55 years of war, and what was effectively an attempt at genocide that ended just over 10 years ago, now they can try to make a better future for themselves and for their children. They are up to the challenge, and they have great faith in a great God, and today I met a great leader.
Archbishop Daniel Deng is the head of the Anglican Church in Sudan. We spent the better part of the afternoon with him, Rev. John Chol Daau, and Bishop Abraham Nhial from Abyei, which is still in the news as a battleground with Sudan in the north, and still is suffering greatly.
Since we are here on behalf of the Anglican Relief and Development Fund, much of our conversation revolved around the practical needs that South Sudan faces and how ARDF can help. Archbishop Deng outlined seven key areas: Communication, Evangelization, Reconciliation, Food Security/Agriculture, Education, Health, and Infrastructure for the church there. Of these, food, health, and education topped his list as priorities. There is much work to do.
Our conversations ranged widely, including about the larger tensions in the Anglican Communion. In this context he said what I don’t think I’ll ever forget, something that explains the posture of these South Sudanese Christians in the face of great and many challenges they’re still facing that threaten their church and their newborn country: “Because we have learned suffering, we cannot be intimidated.”
South Sudan is a country where everyone you meet has either endured extreme trauma and deep suffering for decades, or were born into it and it’s the only thing they’ve ever known. And precisely because they have “learned suffering”, they have a lot, an awful lot, to teach us. I’m grateful to be here and to learn.