Suffering and Mission: Modern-Day Heroes of Faith
by Jeff Ritchie
I was part of a mission team that visited Ethiopia and South Sudan in May of this year. I wrote about the Ethiopia part of that visit following my return (“Changing Your World with the Gifts You Bring,” June 7, 2016). In this week’s blog I want to reflect on some of the people we met in Juba, South Sudan, particularly in light of what happened after our group returned home.
When we met the leadership of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan in May, we heard how difficult it is to live. The General Secretary, the Rev. John Yor (third from left), shared with us that the falling exchange rate had made prices for basic food staples almost out of reach of ordinary people. Medical treatment was difficult to come by. People were not being paid on time by their institutions. Even soldiers in the national army had not been paid for months. How anyone could live in this city under such conditions?
Then matters got worse. A few weeks after we had returned from South Sudan, the capital city of Juba was rocked by a wave of violence. First of all, soldiers loyal to the President tried to kill the Vice President and fought with soldiers loyal to him. Then soldiers and other armed groups began a rampage of killing, looting, and destruction of property.
At present the situation has calmed down, but there is no peace. We grieve with our South Sudanese friends as they pick up the pieces of this latest disaster. Why would anyone want to live in such a hopeless situation? Wouldn’t it be better to go to nearby Kenya, or even the United States, where one can have some semblance of “normal” life?
The scriptures of the Old and New Testaments refer to the suffering of the people of God more often than we would like to see it mentioned. Psalm 80 laments that God has “fed his people with the bread of tears.” The Apostle Paul told new believers in Asia Minor, “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.” The writer of Hebrews describes great heroes of faith, some of whom were victorious in overcoming evil while others were victims of evil. Both “conquerors” and “victims” were heroes in God’s eyes.
So how do we continue to be faithful when it is so hard? Why do those women of Aleppo, Syria about whom Marilyn Borst wrote about in her recent blog, return to a city when a war is still going on? Why do the leaders of the Church in South Sudan and ordinary South Sudanese Christians still remain in service of their fellow countrymen?
The reason is that these modern heroes of faith are “prisoners of hope” (Zechariah 9:12). Our sisters in Aleppo took symbols of hope and peace with them back to their city. The courageous Presbyterians of Juba, South Sudan printed a new edition of their hymnbook (shown in the photo) to sing the songs of faith and trust in the midst of their suffering. They also continue to work with other Christian leaders to call on their government and the international community to bring an end to the civil war. They hold onto the hope that God has a plan for their people, their nation, and they are committed to that plan.
It takes courage to be steadfast amidst suffering. When we flag in our journey, we have heroes we can look to. They live in South Sudan and Syria, in Iran and Egypt. They also live in our own cities and neighborhoods. With these brothers and sisters may we all look to Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding the shame, and took his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). As “prisoners of hope” may God grant us the perseverance to run our races to the finish.
Associate Director for Mission