Sunday, December 14, 2014

Refugees Have...

As the staccato shots rang out, we joined hands and, together with the rest of the crowd, fled from the center of Gambella market. Moments later the embarrassed laughter of relief broke out as the crowd realized that we had all been running from a back-firing Bajaj (taxi). Tension and laughter; something that we in Gambella have been living with for the past few weeks.
Sunday found us on the road to Bonga - home, in our opinion, of the best honey in Ethiopia. We passed soldier after soldier, their AK-47’s slung carelessly over their shoulders, now stationed along the streets in this Mezhenger-zone border area. Heart-breakingly, we heard that the bee hives of the Mezhenger people, their source of food and income, had been deliberately destroyed in the recent uprising in this region. Our destination was  St Thomas’ Anglican Church in Bonga. It was wonderful to join our Anuak congregation there in a worship service permeated with peace. I was struck by the beauty of the quiet tears adorning the face of one woman as she raised her hands in thanksgiving and adoration. The Anuak plans to start a Mezhenger-speaking congregation in this area are discussed with excitement and enthusiasm, undiminished by either suffering or unrest. It is great to be part of what God is doing in the midst of the tumult and trust of walking with Him in this part of the world.

Refugees have no God

Ethiopia is a majority Christian country. We enjoy freedom of worship. Christians are able to meet freely here without fear of reprisal. Well, most of the time. There are, of course, parts of the country where this is not the case. 

Two sad situations were reported to us recently. Both happen to have taken place near the Sudan border in refugee camps where people are vulnerable at the best of times. In one camp, Anglican Christians were meeting with a camp official who had given us problems in the past, denying the church various things. On this particular day the official seems to have been trying to put Christians in their place, attempting to show them ‘who was boss’, and to assure them that as refugees they had no rights (not true, of course, although refugees often have little knowledge of what their rights are). Our church members were asking for the camp to allow a priest to come to give them Holy Communion and to baptize their children. “Refugees have no God,” the official told them. 

“Refugees have no God”? What does that mean? - especially since it was spoken by a man who, as a Muslim, claims belief in one God.  Does it mean, ‘Your so-called god has let you down. The one I believe in is bigger than your god’?  And what of the underlying  assumption, “You are sub-human. God does not care about you. You are not worthy of having your religious practices honoured and valued - you are mere refugees, unimportant people”?  The lay reader who told me this story also assured me that attendance in the church in that camp has gone up recently. It seems these people have a God after all.

A half day drive away in another camp a remarkable revival has been going on for several years. Every evening at sundown the children and young people of St John the Baptist Anglican Church gather outside the church for a half hour. They sing, they read a short passage of scripture which is commented on briefly, they pray for the sick. Then they all disperse to their homes for the evening meal and bed. Other churches in the camp have tried to model the practice. For some  reason these other gatherings have fizzled after a week or two. God is doing something special in this particular church. It is not a technique, it is not something that can simply be copied. But a few weeks ago in the midst of their Evening Prayer, the camp police arrived. They took the pastor and all the children to the camp jail and told them that what they were doing was illegal. They were told to desist. Our pastor said, “No, we are allowed to pray. We will pray. If you want to imprison us for the gospel of Jesus Christ, we will suffer gladly.” They were finally released...too much trouble to keep them all locked up it seems.

These stories of attempts to humiliate and dehumanize are in sharp tension with the over-arching story we find in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In that story we find that although Jesus possessed “equality with God” he did not consider that this meant living a life of privilege. He became downwardly mobile, entering our fleshly, dusty, muddy existence, giving himself for others, for us, for refugees, and for the proud, for victims and perpetrators, for his enemies and his friends. This story, encapsulated in Philippians 2:5-11, stands in contradiction to the stories of hatred, ridicule and oppression that are so common in our world. In the face of the attempts to dehumanize them, our people simply continue to sing and to pray, to build churches out of the mud and the sticks, because they know that one day all will become clear. One day “every knee will bow and every tongue confess ... that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” One day the God of the refugees will be praised by every creature “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” And the humiliated will be exalted together with the one who “humbled himself” for them, to live and reign with him. 

We have much to be thankful for. We have just finished our annual Area Assembly (like a synod or a convention) which brought together almost 200 representatives from our churches to worship, learn together and make decisions. There are signs of growth in depth and commitment among our churches here - makes a bishop’s heart glad.

Bishop Grant
Area Assembly November 2014:
Click link to read Bishop's Charge

Small Stature.... Great Dignity

~ Please Pray with us ~

Give thanks for the recent Area Assembly (Nov 26-28, 2014) which brought together representatives from most of the churches in Ethiopia, and especially for the wonderful emphasis on repentance and reconciliation.

Give thanks for Johann and Louise Vanderbijl, recently arrived in Gambella. Louise is working together with Wendy on Mothers’ Union projects and Johann is preparing for the opening of St Frumentius’ Anglican Theological College.

Pray for churches in refugee camps that God with be present to them in all their joys and struggles.

Pray for several pastors who have had difficult family and personal issues to deal with recently.

Give thanks for Grant’s recent visit to other countries in the Horn of Africa and for doors for ministry
 to continue to open there.

Pray for God’s provision of finances for St Frumentius’ College, for clergy salaries and for many other needs.

Pray for the upcoming ‘discernment conference’ and for those who are praying about their call to ordained ministry.

Pray for peace in South Sudan.

Pray for the several visitors coming to Gambella in the next two months.

Small Stature....  Great Smile

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Supermodels, Princesses & Special Police

Undiscovered Gambella Supermodel

Gambella is a strange place. It’s out of the way (we have an airport but it is used mostly by the World Food Programme). It’s poor (nearly half of the current residents of the region are refugees). Our two seasons, ‘rainy’ and ‘dry’, are more simply known as  ‘mud’ and ‘dust’. In Gambella, not many are educated, not many are employed, not many are well-fed.
But on occasion weird and unusual events happen in Gambella.

Seventeen years ago, Paul Pok,  parish priest of Pinyudu Refugee Camp, made the difficult decision to send his two eldest daughters to school in America under the care of  a relative. Recently Paul, now Regional Dean of Pinyudu (overseeing twelve churches), told me that one of his daughters was coming for a visit - they would see their little girl for the first time in almost two decades. As the visit got closer I began to realize that there might be something unusual about this young woman. She was traveling with a small entourage including a photographer and someone who seemed to be a kind of handler. Slowly the story emerged. This young woman is a (famous, I guess...) supermodel working in Milan, London and New York.    
Nikon Paul

We were invited to meet her and had no idea what to expect. Wendy and I travel in some diverse circles, but the world of high fashion supermodels was never our interest, really. As it turns out Nykhor Paul is a delightful, articulate young woman. In spite of being out of Africa for seventeen years she has managed to retain her use of the Nuer language. Although she has not been ‘home’ for most of her life, she cares deeply about the plight of her family and the many South Sudanese refugees once again fleeing their homes because of violence. She has started an organization (“We are Nilotic”: see and a fund to help these victims of war (see
Then a few weeks back, while shaking hands with the congregation at St Matthew’s in Addis Ababa, the British Ambassador asked if I was going to be in Gambella at the end of September - sadly no, I was going to be in another country for meetings, I responded.  “Why?” I asked. 
“Well, there is going to be a royal visit,” says he.
HRH Princess Anne with Rev Deng Mark
“In Gambella?? Really? Who?”
“Princess Anne.” (HRH, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth II...) “She is a supporter of a children’s charity that works in Gambella, so she’s visiting the project. She will also lay a wreath at the grave of the only Commonwealth fatality in the World War II ‘Battle of Gambella.’ I thought it might be nice if she could be met by the Bishop, and if he could say a prayer at the grave.”

We have known for a long time that Gambella has many, albeit unofficial, supermodels and princesses - we just didn’t know that Supermodels and Princesses from elsewhere would want to come to visit. We’re glad they did. If their celebrity draws the world’s attention, even just a bit, to the problems in South Sudan and western Ethiopia, well and good!

“In the case of an event keep your head down below the level of the window. The medical kit is right behind your head, just pull it forward if you need it.” The ‘special police’, former British military, were on the alert; an exciting, if somewhat hyper-vigilant introduction to one of the countries in our diocese to east and north of us.

The courtesy and consideration shown to me by the top government official was deeply touching. As we walked to the site of a proposed new Anglican church to be built in this country, it began to rain. “This is a sign of God’s blessing on the relationship between our two faiths”, I was told. Pray for the beloved countries of this part of the world. 

Remembrance Service in a beloved Country

~ Please Pray with us ~
Another Undiscovered Gambella Supermodel
For those undergoing persecution in certain refugee camps
For the St Frumentius' Anglican Theological college
~ Library and Office building nearing completion
~ Dean's residence nearing completion
~ St Frumentius' Chapel plans submitted to contractor
~ Curriculum development
~ Official opening planned for September 2015
For the Horn of Africa Area Assembly November 26-28
For our church leadership, Clergy, Lay readers and Mothers' Union

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Soldiers and Saints
Little Anglicans

“Yes,” he said, smiling happily, “we’ve come here for a holiday, and then we will return!”
I saw Grant’s face tighten with anguish and anger. Images of villages burning, of people shot as they ran, of the elderly and the very young - starving, dying, left behind; tales of the rape of countless women and the desecration of the dead came flooding to mind.
The young man sat back, relaxed, seemingly unaware of the tension that gripped the room. The older men’s faces became stony, their eyes darkened.

We had been sitting in our living room, serving tea to the relatives of a friend. It turned out they were members of the ***** army of South Sudan, and they were here for a break. I could see the young man’s apparent unconcern cut Grant like a knife. “What about the victims,” Grant was thinking, “do they get a break?” Instead he asked, “Why are you fighting?”
“We fight for our rights!” the young man answered.
“What rights did you lack in the new country of South Sudan?”
There was no answer.
“We fight for revenge.”
“Are you Christian?”
“Of course!”
“Revenge is not the way for those who follow Jesus.”
The conversation reached an impasse.
“We are praying for you and for the suffering of South Sudan,” I said. My heart was filled with an overwhelming sense of kindness for those entangled in such cruelty. “Lord, show them Your goodness, that they may know who they truly are,” I prayed.

A few days later the eldest one came to me. Even with almost no common language, we understood each other perfectly. “I return to Nassir tomorrow” he said.

“Pray for me, as you would pray for a little child,” and he bowed his head, that I might place my hand upon him in blessing.

St Martha's Anglican Church - new (the church)...and old ( the tree)

Wendy and I went to the Lare Mission Centre on a recent Sunday (August 10) to visit two little Nuer-speaking village churches out in the bush. Neither congregation had had a building before - just a tree to worship under. And neither congregation had been given a name (names are only given to churches when the Bishop visits!). So at 9:00am or so (after walking through fields where we were attacked by hordes of flies) we reached the first church in a place called Pietiel, where we dedicated St Martha's Anglican Church. Then at about 11.15 or so (after slogging through shin deep mud in our wellies) we reached the second church at Waken, where we dedicated Holy Trinity Anglican Church. Both congregations are small, each a part of an eight-point parish, but each has had a long, faithful and enthusiastic ministry in their area - and both are delighted to have a building, even one constructed of mud and sticks and thatch.

Dedication St Martha's

Bethlehem Church, Abobo

On August 24 the destination was an Anuak-speaking congregation in Abobo. Bethlehem Anglican Church has no full time pastor and is less than a year old. But they have good lay leadership and they are hard workers  - not only have they built a new church building for Abobo town, they have also planted several new congregations in the surrounding villages in the past year.

Thanks to all those whose generous contributions have made the building of new churches in the Gambella region of Ethiopia a reality!

~ Please Pray with us ~

Open heart Surgery for Wecka
For protection and healing for 6 year old Wecca  and 8 year old Sarah as they undergo open heart surgery in early September.

For the Gambella clergy as they begin teaching new candidates for baptism and confirmation
For the Mothers' Union leaders of our churches as they teach their members in basic health issues and nutrition.

For our new congregations being formed in refugee camps in Ashura, Dimma, Pinyudu, Leitchor, and Akule 1, 2 & 3, and for the new refugee pastors who have recently come from the dioceses of Malakal and Renk.

For the Opo Bible translators who are currently translating the gospel of Luke

Opo Bible translators David Onuk
and James Bol

For blessing and peace for Johann and Louise Vanderbijl as they make their way through the Ethiopian 'Sea of Red Tape' to receive residence permits. Johann will be principal of St Frementius' Anglican Theological College.
Johann and Louise Vanderbijl


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Living in Suffering and Hope 

Sunday's Offering, Akule Refugee Camp 

“When 2 Elephants fight, the grass suffers.” The story of South Sudanese refugees living in the Gambella region emerged through the mosaic of comments and insights offered as we listened to a small group of unregistered refugees, who were being helped by the members of one of our churches. “The problem started in Juba”. “The government met on December 15th and disagreed on some issues. They began quarreling among themselves. The fighting spread to the soldiers”. “By December 16th, many people, even women and babies in the streets, had been killed”. “The people fled for shelter in UNMISS [United Nations Mission in South Sudan] compounds throughout the region”. “Church leaders spoke up against the fighting and they were killed; priests, bishops, even the moderator of the Presbyterian church”. “Those who tried to discourage the fighting were told, ‘...if you don’t want to fight, then leave.’ ” 

 The comments coalesced into a narrative: “And we left, taking only what we could carry. And mostly what we could carry was our children. Even so, we have little ones who went missing as we ran for our lives, for they were shooting at us as we ran. More than once, we were ambushed on the road. Many of our elders couldn’t make it. We walked and ran, snatching only a few hours of sleep when we could. We had nothing to eat but leaves during the days it took us to flee to Akobo. From there we went by boat. We arrived in Matar naked and hungry. No one told us how to register as refugees in Ethiopia. The refugee office in Gambella town is closed. Now we hear that you can only register at the border, with a visa, and with identity papers from South Sudan. But there are thousands waiting at the borders. They are starving and they are still being killed in the fighting, even there. And we don’t have visas or papers. Those who are registered can get food at the new refugee camps. But some of the new camps are in flood zones, and many are now dying of disease. We fear malaria and diarrhea. We cannot register, and, without registering, we have no food except what the church collects for us. And yet, if we register, we fear the living conditions.” (A week after our visit to Akula refugee camp, Isaac Pur of the Gambella Anglican Center, returning with a donation of clothes, was told of the deaths of 5 of the children who had met with us in the church). “The problem is between two big elephants. When the elephants fight, the grass suffers”. 

 The Road to Opo, April 28,14 We set off with as much maize, cooking oil, onions, tarp and mosquito nets as the Landcruiser could hold. We drove past flocks of storks, looking for all the world like small congregations of elderly British undertakers; past birds iridescent in crimson and turquoise; past the Jedi-like Fulani as they travelled from Nigeria on their long migration, and through the mosaic of bright yellow mango seeds and peels left in the wake of feasting travelers (a road definitely “not in Kansas anymore”). The road passed through the new Akula refugee camp. In the two weeks since our last visit, this part of the road had become almost unrecognizable; mini villages of wood & thatch tukels, and grass and tarp pup-tents had sprouted and grown along the once deserted roadside. Finally we arrived in Opo. 
Fulani Herdsman
 I’ll let Grant tell of our visit. 
We visited our Opo people this week. They have had some real trouble. Most Opo (there are about 5,000 Opo people in the world) live in Ethiopia, but some in South Sudan. Two weeks ago the rebels in the South Sudan conflict tried to conscript the Opo to fight in the war. When they refused, their villages and all their food stores were burned. They (at least 1,000) have now walked across the border and are staying with the Opo in Ethiopia. Our priest there, David Onuk, who is really the key community leader as well, has invited them to join the church. They have had no food except what the Ethiopian Opo could share with them, so we brought them a truckload. We discovered UN workers there doing an "assessment" of their situation - but they can't call them "refugees" and give them ongoing support because they have no identification. They will probably (after a month or so) be given support which will last them 2 months. The UN workers were clearly frustrated that their hands were tied - one of them said to us "thank you for bringing food for these people, all our assessments are useless if they just die..." 

We unloaded our gifts of food - pitifully inadequate for such a large number, but enough to keep away hunger for at least a day or two. Every stray kernel of maize was carefully swept from the car and carried into the church - nothing would be wasted. 
Food for Opo

As we took our leave, the three people given permission to ride back with us had metamorphosed into eight extras - the safety hazard caused by crowding apparently of concern only to Grant. We pulled away. Untranslated but unmistakable, the women with us cried out to their friends as we passed, “Hey, Look!!! We’re in a CAR!!!!!! Wheeeeeee!!!” With the inevitable predictability borne of long experience, Grant’s faint and happily ignored protest, “The kids will throw up”, was once again fulfilled. Looking on the bright side, at least no one had diarrhea on this trip! (Note to self: bring plastic bags next time). 

Matthew 28 v.1 was quoted in last week’s sermon at St Luke’s Church, Gambella. “Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, the Mothers’ Union* went to see the tomb.” *[Mary Magdalene and the other Mary] “We always say ‘Mothers’ Union’ when we talk of the women disciples of Jesus,” explained John Gach, one of the clergy who had come to Gambella for this month’s clergy training. 
Jesus with Mothers' Union (Mary and Martha) at Lazarus' tomb

The Mothers’ Union teaching event, May 7th & 8th, looked at the causes of recurrent diarrhea. The Gambella region far exceeds Ethiopia’s infant/child mortality of 90/1000 live births, with diarrhea as one of the 5 major causes of infant and childhood death. We practiced making Oral Rehydration Solution using a technique that required neither measuring spoons nor expertise, and yet, when measured repeatedly by me in my kitchen, turned out to be reliable and reproducible. Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS) has saved hundreds of thousands of precious lives since it’s widespread use starting in the 1970’s. Eddie Ozols, of Anglican Aid, Australia, the major donor for our Mothers’ Union training program, asked our Anuak priest, Darash Thatha, how many children’s funerals had he held last year, before the Mothers' Union teaching program, and how many had he held this year, since the program began almost a year ago. Fifty funerals last year, none this year. 

 Opo Mother's Union rep, Mary Ngate; looking through a magnifying glass for the first time in her life; practicing making ORS 

 If you’d like to read more about our Mothers’ Union training program, click here to see the 2nd Quarter report (Jan-Mar 2014) prepared for Anglican Aid:

~ Please Pray with us ~

Young Refugee

~ For the 100,000 new refugees in the Gambella region
~For our church members who are sharing their homes and their food with the new refugees
~ For our clergy and lay readers
~ For our Mothers' Union
~ For Johann and Louise Vanderbijl as they prepare to come to Gambella; Johann will be the principal of the new St Frementius college

 The Future St Frementius Theological College: Site plan 

St Frementius Theological College: Future Chapel & Conference building

~For the establishment of the St Frementius Theological College, Gambella;
-new buildings to construct (faculty and student housing)
-old buildings to renovate (office, library, classroom, principal's residence)
-college chapel to build
-security wall to complete
-faculty to recruit
-principal to arrive

Photo Credits:
Many thanks to our visitors,
Rosie Fyfe,  Diocese of Egypt, for her photos of Akule Refugee camp ( Sunday offering), and the Fulani herdsman
and Eddie Ozols of Anglican Aid, Australia for his photo of the young Sudanese refugee at St Luke's church, Gambella
and thanks to Johann Vanderbijl for his icon of the raising of Lazarus

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Refugees Arrive...

Akula: a forest of tiny ‘pup-tent’-like dwellings fronted by cooking fires and filled with children. The tiny faces peeking out to stare at the “Kawaja” (white folks) walking by, break into sudden and delighted smiles as we greet them. Dozens of little hands try to hold mine as we wind our way to the ‘church’ - a large tree around which 3,000 Christians from many denominations are gathered. The new refugee camp of Akula, now one month old, is already sheltering 33,000 with more arriving daily.

Glimpses of the stories of those who have fled here for shelter were seen in the prayer requests.
“My sister died on the way. Her children were suffering from dehydration so they were brought here for medical care without being registered. Now they are with me, but they are not registered, so I cannot get food ration cards for them. Pray that I can get rations to feed them”
“My husband Jacob has been missing since December 15th. I can get no news. I pray to know if he is alive or dead.”
“Not all of us are here. Our beloved elders...”

A few stand up to share their reflections.
“We should not be surprised at the calamity which has fallen upon us. It says in the Bible that these things can happen. But be encouraged, for nothing, not even this, can separate us from the love of God.”

“It was quarreling that brought us here. We must forsake quarreling.” 
Sadly, poignantly, many tried to make sense of overwhelming evil: “It was our greed. It was our idolatry”

The congregation breaks out in song.
“Let us greet one another, and when Jesus comes, we will all love one another.”
“Let us kneel together before our Jesus”

Grant is invited to preach: “Jesus hates suffering and death. He wept at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus. A couple of weeks later, he gave himself to die on the cross and to rise again, defeating suffering and death. Because Jesus rose from the dead we know that one day there will be no death, there will be no suffering - God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. And on that day people from every tribe will be together around the throne - white people and Chinese and Arab and Nuer and Anuak and Dinka and Murle - so we should get used to being together now!”

Snap shots of life in the Horn of Africa:
February:  We had a wonderful time with a team of engineers and architects who came to help design new structures for the Gambella Centre so we can accommodate a new theological college in next year.
March: The rain is coming soon - we worked hard to organize the construction of as many new, simple church buildings as possible before the rains come in April - 30 new churches under construction. It seems that we now have about 80 Anglican congregations in this part of the world.

March: While Wendy was in Canada visiting her father, Grant preached and led worship at St Matthew’s, our English congregation; collected large piles of used clothes for refugees in Gambella; met with house group leaders from a non-Ethiopian part of our Episcopal Area (a country about which I can’t say too much); arranged for our Opo priest (David Onuk) to attend a one month course on Bible translation (David and two others have now finished translating the Gospel of Mark into Opo, the first book of scripture in their language)

March: Grant spent three days doing Bible teaching and leading worship with a congregation made up of students (some Ethiopian, some from other countries) whose only common language is English; learned of at least three other university cities where groups of students are meeting to worship in English in new Anglican congregations ... the Bishop is always the last to know.

March: With Wendy back we headed to Egypt: Grant teaching New Testament exegesis of the passion narrative of Mark’s gospel at the Alexandria School of Theology, as well as having diocesan meetings and preaching at five different congregations.

Last night: Back in Gambella our deacon, Gabriel Luot was arrested in Gambella on his way home to Sherkole refugee camp from our monthly clergy training session. Fighting between Dinka soldiers from South Sudan and Anuak from Abol the previous night (one from each side killed just a few kilometers outside of Gambella town) has heightened tension against the Dinka - and Gabriel is  Dinka. Darash, our Anuak (!) priest went to the Gambella police and was able to get Gabriel released.

Today: David Onuk, John Bol and Isaac Pur work in our office meeting room, translating the gospel of Mark into the Opo language. Today they will finish  Chapter 15 and 16 and then bring it to the Opo people and read the whole thing on Easter day - then the process of editing will begin.

Still today: Two Anuak women have been walking around our compound cursing the Gambella Anglican Centre and trying to pull up our fence in an attempt to extort thousands of Birr (Ethiopian money) from us for land they (falsely, according to local authorities) claim to own. This claim might have had more weight if there weren’t several others also claiming ownership of (and therefore compensation for) this previously uninhabited and unused land, and all of whom refuse our offer to take these claims to the municipality where the land ownership history and title deeds are known and kept. 

More today: A Regional Dean for the Anglican Diocese of Malakal, South Sudan, displaced by the war, came for help to give him transportation and food/accommodation as he makes his way to Addis, and then to Kenya to be re-united with his family. We had a very helpful visit from leaders of the ‘Ethiopian Network of Religious Leaders living with HIV-Aids’, an organization started by our deacon, Ayano, now deceased.

Tonight: We discover news of “Koma” people (the name of the Opo people who live in South Sudan) who have fled to Opo villages in Ethiopia to escape forced conscription into the so-called ‘white army’ of South Sudan. Their villages having been burned, they are now being housed and fed by our Opo Christians.

Right now: We welcome Michael Anyar’s wife Elizabeth and their five children, now needing to flee threats of violence against them due to their Dinka ethnicity. They will stay in our compound until we can arrange transport for them to Addis.

In Gambella the refugee situation caused by the fighting in South Sudan continues to worsen. The latest official (UN) figures cite 92,448 registered South Sudanese refugees in the Gambella region with 13,000 listed as waiting registration. Estimates predict between 150,000 to an unbelievable 300,000 arriving by the end of this year, nearly doubling the population in this already under-serviced area. Christian friends from all over the world have been providing much needed support for our ministry among these new exiles. 

Visits to refugee churches will dominate the next month. Pray for these dear Christians who need to know that their suffering is caused by human evil and is not a result of God punishing them (sadly a common explanation for their plight).

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

We do not grieve... those without hope 1 Thess 4:13-14
Tukal: A Gambellan home

As we all sat in the tukal, -sisters, brothers-in-law, father, mother, grandchildren, friends and relatives, the sunlight streamed in the door, glancing off the feathers of inquisitive baby chicks, and falling softly on the faces of those who had gathered to share their grief. War had a face. It was the suffering face of our friends and colleagues in Gambella as family after family heard of this son killed, that brother gone missing, that dear friend no longer alive. I was struck that there was no denial of grief as parents and relatives shared their hope in Jesus. Death had taken the one they loved from them, and Jesus had taken their loved one from death. Both hope and grief had equal place. And we were privileged to share in this with them.

I’ll let Grant share more with you about Gambella and the nearness of war.

Running Away

Next door to us, South Sudan is at war. The trouble started, it seems, as a dispute between two groups of soldiers in Juba - one group backing the President, the other backing his ousted Vice-President. Within days the whole country was involved in a conflict which has killed thousands, and displaced hundreds of thousands. Despite the newly signed peace treaty, many,  in the colloquial English of this region, are still “running away.” When I was a kid to “run away” was a sign of cowardice; here it simply means survival - you run or you die.

The conflict, part political, part ethnic is, for us, very personal. We have many South Sudanese friends, and many here in the Gambella region of Ethiopia with roots (and family) in South Sudan. Almost every day we hear from our priests, staff members and parishioners that they have had a family member killed in South Sudan. Many, many tell me that they have not heard from family members - some reported to have fled, one reported to have been imprisoned. Soon after the fighting started it became clear that it was unsafe in Gambella for one of our priests. Michael was serving a Nuer congregation, although he is himself is a Dinka. We have had to send him and his brother-in-law (who is part of his extended family) to Addis Ababa for their safety, at least for now.

The Gambella region is surrounded on three sides (south, west and north) by South Sudan and Sudan. Some of the towns where we have churches near the border have been overrun with large numbers of people fleeing the fighting in South Sudan. The UNHCR and the World Food Program are working hard to meet people's needs, but there is always a delay, so people turn to the churches to help. For example, in Matar, where I went a couple of weeks ago with a truckload of food and other essentials, there were about 4,000 refugees waiting for their new camp to be built just outside another town called Nininyang. It is now ready and they are being moved there, but  more refugees are arriving daily. I am told the camp will have 17,000 people soon.

This past week I visited another new refugee camp, this one near the town of Dimma. The landscape was bleak - not much soil, just rocks and barren trees, devoid of any foliage in the heat and dust of dry season. I met on Saturday afternoon  (under a tree, not that that helped cool anyone off...) with leaders of the new Anglican Church in the camp. They are receiving adequate food and shelter from the UN and the WFP. They have tukals (huts) to sleep in, but no place for a community shelter for worship, or  other meetings (such as a place to teach their children - it will be some time before a school is set up). They also need clothes. They had to leave their homes in Sudan in a hurry and many literally had to flee with the clothes on their back. I had about $150 with me and spent it all in the Dimma market buying what clothes I could. More will be sent this week with Wilson, our priest from Dimma. Hopefully we can also get the church some shelter.

They asked me for bibles in various languages, to license their lay readers, and to baptize about 70 people. Their last request: they wanted me to name their church. Because Jesus, Mary and Joseph also had to “run away”, and were themselves refugees in Egypt, the new refugee church took the name, ‘Holy Family'. Interestingly, the people in Holy Family Anglican Church put their own twist on the name: they saw themselves as a holy family, a family transcending ethnicity, drawn together to worship the one God and Father because of what the Lord Jesus and his Holy Spirit have done for them.

On Monday morning I led worship at the camp. I was told that there were about 600 members but 800 turned up. We started at 7.30 am, so that we could worship in the coolest part of the day. We kept it really short (2 and a half hours) since we had a lot of baptisms. We also had the Eucharist which many had not had in a while. Amazingly, I caught a glimpse of the kingdom at this service -- although a large part of the fighting in South Sudan is ethnically-based violence, this church had made a decision. They would worship together in spite of ethnic and language differences - so we sang and prayed in Anuak, Nuer, Dinka and Murle (my ten minute sermon had to be translated into three of those languages which made it at least 45 minutes...). I was so grateful to be able to experience this inter-ethnic worship - kind of an 'in your face' to the devil, I think.

Arriving back in Gambella town I received news of more refugees arriving at already established camps in Sherkole and Pinyudu, and even more people being kept at the border in the Tiergol / Akobo region and in Lare. We have also housed a few refugees here in the Gambella Anglican Centre, as they transitioned to new areas.

I am very proud of our churches and our staff. We have worked hard in the last year and a half to see our ethnic diversity here as a strength of our church: Dinka, Nuer, Anuak, Opo, Mabaan, Jum-Jum (and now Murle) are in one church and pray and work together. In this new, rather tense, situation, our church members have supported and protected one another. “Ethnicity,” culture and language are not unimportant, but they are secondary to membership in Christ’s body. 

Some reports in the press characterize the South Sudan conflict as “tribal.” Two things are important here I think. First, the conflict is much more about political power than ethnicity, although obviously ethnicity comes into it and a conflict like this gives opportunity for old (even ancient) scores to be settled. In the present conflict, Dinkas have been fighting against Dinkas and Nuer against Nuer, as well as Nuer against Dinka (with a lot of other groups caught in the middle). Second, I believe we need to be sensitive to the derogatory overtones that words such as “tribalism” can convey. Our Canadian history of dispute between French and English, is one of many examples of ethnic tension in the West (think of the legacy of two World Wars, the Holocaust, Stalin-era Communism, Yugoslavia). Why are are our Western conflicts not called "tribal"? Is it because we think of ourselves as "civilized" and of others (Africans, for example) as "primitive"? Gandhi was once asked what he thought of "Western civilization"; he said he thought it would be a good idea.

I want to close this newsletter with a note of thanks. So many people have written to assure us of prayer. Mission agencies and churches have offered financial help. We are very grateful and we are doing what we can to use what is given wisely. Please pray for those who are still fighting, for those who are grieving losses, and for those who are ‘running away’.

Clothed with Inner beauty

~ Please Pray with us ~
For those caught in the crossfire in South Sudan
For those who have lost their homes
For those who have lost loved ones
For our churches  as they minister to new refugees
For wisdom in the use of funds given to help refugees
For the Mothers' Union teaching event Feb 5th &6th: "Nutrition: part 2"
For Johann & Louise Vanderbijl as they seek to raise funds to join us in our work in Gambella

Refugees at New Pinyadu before the newest influx from South Sudan

Showing off our new uniforms  (After School Sports Program)

Small, bright and beautiful