The People God Uses to Accomplish His Plans: Reflections on a Journey to Africa
by Jeff Ritchie
My recent trip to Ethiopia came at a time when peace for South Sudan seemed farther away than ever. Upwards of 5,000,000 people in South Sudan were facing starvation. Refugee camps in South Sudan’s neighboring countries were being strained to the breaking point as wave after wave of new refugees fled war and starvation. This terrible situation made us ask ourselves, what can we do to make a difference among so many people? The needs far outstrip the resources that we or others can provide.
Within two days of our arrival we learned that our petition to enter the refugee camps was not approved by the government authorities. We had come to Ethiopia to encourage people traumatized by war. Now our mission was in jeopardy.
Even if we had been given permission to enter the camps, there was another problem. Factions had sprung up inside the refugee camps, including rival groups among church leaders. Some of the conflicts were personality-driven while others were politically-motivated. Right before our arrival, for example, a high-level church group promoting peace for South Sudan went to one of the camps but was not welcomed by the refugees. The reason? Three of the ministers in the group were from Juba, the capital city of South Sudan. It did not matter that they had come on a mission of peace; the fact that they had come from Juba was enough for many of the refugees to label them as supporters of the government of South Sudan which had been killing their friends and relatives since December 2013. Even though this perception was false, it caused enough uproar in the camps to deter government authorities from permitting other groups such as ours to enter as we and our partners had been planning for months.
All in all, it was not an auspicious way to begin a 10-day trip in Africa. And yet, God showed up. We were able to meet with dozens of youth from the camps and their pastors. We distributed musical instruments bought through the gifts of American friends for the youth of each camp. And, most important, the youth of the camps paved the way for the pastors to overcome their divisions and work together on ways to share the musical instruments with all the churches in the camps. A miracle of unity took place, and we praise God. In this blog I want to reflect on some of the key people through whom God accomplished this work.
First, there is the Rev. Allen “Chip” Grammer. Chip served in the U.S. Army for over twenty years before becoming a pastor. He pastors a multi-cultural, multi-racial church in Fayetteville, NC that has grown from 30 to 90 over the past 3+ years, and he has wanted the church to get connected with global mission. Chip chose our trip to be his first time in Africa, and he was game for whatever happened.
From the first, Chip Grammer was a god-send to the team. A born encourager, Chip never met a stranger on the trip. He engaged people with gusto and enthusiasm, young and old, in the churches and on the streets. Chip’s greatest contribution to the trip was the question that he asks his congregation each Sunday, “Where have you seen God at work this week?” This question became our antidote for the discouragement that we were feeling about the trip. Rather than see the very real problems, we refocused on the great God we serve for whom nothing is impossible. Thank you, Chip, for the way you encouraged our team!
The next person who paved the way for God to show up was the Rev. Yonas Yigezu, president of the Mekane Yesus Church. Rev. Yonas’s contribution was that he introduced us to an international peacemaking team from the churches in and around South Sudan. Our two meetings with these brothers in Christ encouraged us to believe that the church has a role to play in peace that may be more effective in the long run than the efforts of government negotiators. More than that, they exhorted us to see our mission to Gambella as part of the “Action Plan for Peace” they were promoting throughout the region. The more we reflected on our trip as a work of peacemaking, the more we saw the purpose of why we had come. Thank you, Rev. Yonas, for this contact!
As mentioned above, our plan had been to go to Gambella, distribute four sets of musical instruments to youth in each of the four camps, and then have them sit together to develop a plan for sharing the keyboards and sound equipment among the thousands of youth in the churches in the camps. Since we could not go to the camps, we decided to invite youth and their pastors to a Mekane Yesus Church Compound in the city of Gambella and try to accomplish our purpose. However, the question of division among the church people still hung over our heads. We wondered how we could get leaders of the churches in the camps to come together when they were not even speaking to each other. Would they even permit the youth in their parishes to meet with us?
God provided the answer in the form of two people. Mr. John Jock, the coordinator of the education work in the camps, and the Rev. Stephen Pal Gun, the pastor appointed by the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan to coordinate all other ministries in the camps, met with us the day after we arrived to prepare an agenda for a two-day meeting with the youth of the camps and their leaders.
Prior to this meeting, John Jock and Stephen Pal Gun themselves had not worked together for months. There were many issues behind this, but with our coming, both men were willing to take the risk of working together. Between them, John Jock and Stephen Pal Gun knew all the key leaders in the camps. They ensured that all the people who needed to be present would come. It was not easy for these two brothers to join forces for God’s work, but they did. Thank you, John Jock and Stephen, for being the first to model the reconciliation we were hoping would take place among the churches in the camps.
We finally met with over ninety people from the refugee camps, including almost forty youth and young adults. In the end it was the youth in the camps whom God finally used to bring reconciliation and unity among the church leaders which had been lacking for over a year. The youth were clear that they were united in their desire to worship and serve God through music. They made it plain to their adult leaders that they did not want the divisions among the adults to keep them from working out a plan to receive and share the gifts we had brought them.
It was not easy in the Nuer culture for the youth to stand up to their leaders. In the end it took some outside intervention from the Sudanese American members of our team, Jacob Gatkuoth and David Paduil. But it was the youth of the camps whom God used as examples of what he desires for all his people – unity in Christ and a commitment to proclaim and live worthy of the Gospel of Christ. Thank you, youth of Kule, Pinyudo, Jewi, and Nguangyiel Camps in Ethiopia. You led the way for peace in the camps. In answer to Pastor Chip’s question, “Where have you seen God at work among the refugees in Ethiopia?” we say, “We saw God through the witness of the youth in the refugee camps.”
Perhaps it will be the youth of South Sudan who will deepen the momentum for peace and finally end the civil war in South Sudan. Amen. May it be so.