Rev. John Tong Puk 1956-2018
Bob and Kristi Rice shared sad news about Rev. John Tong Puk at Nile Theological College in South Sudan. Please keep Rev. Puk's family, Nile Theological College and the Rices in your prayers.
"If the Lord Does Not Come"
As I nestled into the large outdoor couch overlooking the majestic African valley deep in Murchison Falls National Park during the early evening hours, I took out our iPad and quickly glanced at a few personal emails. One message grabbed my immediate attention and kept it. News had come from Khartoum that morning, Wednesday, June 13th, that Rev. John Tong Puk, a close colleague and friend, a leader in the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC) and Dean of Studies at Nile Theological College (NTC), where I teach, had died that morning. I read the message over and over in disbelief. I had just been with him and greeted him before his journey to Khartoum to see family. Could it be? It was like a dream. For the next twenty-four hours I kept saying to myself, “John Tong Puk is dead,” a statement of sheer disbelief and quiet quandary.
This last Saturday SSPEC leaders hosted a memorial service for Rev. John Tong Puk here in Juba; he had been buried in Khartoum the week previous. The Saturday memorial was a significant event, well attended by family, friends, colleagues, students, church leaders, politicians, and even the first vice-president of the country. It began at 1:00 p.m. and we didn’t find our way home until after 6:00 p.m. A heavy storm with rain threatened to disrupt our holy gathering; Kristi and I were impressed by the way everyone "made do" as heavy water leaked between the tent tops and as people squeezed closer in as sheets of rain invaded our gathering. I was particularly impressed with Rev. Phillip Obang Akway, General Secretary of SSPEC, for his quiet leadership and powerful preaching. I was also impressed by the engagement of Rev. Michael Aban, a colleague and friend at NTC, who spoke well of our late brother and stayed engaged throughout, listening closely to each speaker until the very end. For this momentous occasion a white bull had been slaughtered beforehand and the hundreds of attendees were well fed.
Three significant memories come to mind when I remember our late brother, the Rev. John Tong Puk. The first memory is his “watchful spirit.” On most occasions when conversing with him, he would always conclude our time together saying, “[We will do such and such and see each other again] if the Lord does not come.” Rev. Puk was ever mindful of the reality that Jesus’ coming again is imminent, that we should watch and pray and always be ready.
The second significant memory lies in the humility of our late brother. In my final conversation with him, I gently confronted him about calling me “kawaja” (white person) a few times over the previous few weeks. Trying to be as gracious and loving as possible in a culture which usually shies away from direct conflict, I took his hand and shared with him how as a Christian brother, colleague and friend, I would appreciate if he would call me by name rather than using this general term that often carries a negative connotation. His response? He humbly and graciously apologized and asked my forgiveness. Turning to leave, he looked back and said, “Thank you for telling me.”
The third memory lies in his interaction with students. Rev. John Tong Puk, the Dean of Studies, was one of two faculty members to consistently attend the early morning devotions with students before class each day. As we would leave the place of worship to form a line to greet one another, he would come along and look us each square in the face, grip our hand firmly and lovingly, and say “Shining,” a massive grin written across his round face. He also often greeted me personally saying “Haddim El Rop,” a classical Arabic expression essentially meaning “You are a Servant of the Lord.”
Rev. John Tong Puk was a humble servant of the Lord. He was watchful and ready. If one paid attention to all the things that were said about him and considered his distinguished career of service, one would come to the conclusion that this life was one singularly committed to the Lord and to others. The Lord has come for our brother; may he rest in peace, may he rejoice in glory, worshiping and serving our Lord for all eternity. I look forward to seeing him again, looking full into his bright, round face, and hearing him say, “Shining,” “Haddim El Rop.”
Rev. John Tong Puk, 1956 - 2018