Bob and Kristi Rice - Update

Juba, South Sudan

Nile Theological Seminary

Embracing Hope: The Gift of Presence

Dear friends,

I looked over at the faces of the choir members, rigid with intensity and dripping with sweat as they sang and danced down the road. The drums beat loud, but the people sang even louder, lifting their hands in the air. I was humbled by their enthusiasm and energy. This was something of a “welcome parade” to greet the moderator and the team that accompanied him on a visit to Bentiu. We were walking (or dancing and marching, with the choir) through the large camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), ending with a celebration at the church. Being met by such an enthusiastic crowd was humbling, and then we were welcomed in traditional Nuer fashion by having our feet washed. I was overwhelmed by the welcome and realized how significant it was for this remote congregation to be visited by their leaders and feel connected to the church in other places.

That Saturday was the ordination service. The church was packed to standing-room-only, with several visiting choirs and representatives from other churches. One pastor was ordained, along with seven elders and thirteen deacons/deaconesses. Several of the elders and deacons had traveled long distances to come and be ordained because according to the church policy, an ordination can only be done by at least two members of the central Ordination Committee. So, this was a rare opportunity, which had not happened in more than five years.

Bentiu was not an easy place to get to. We had traveled by cargo flight, sitting on boxes instead of seats, because that was the only way to reach this remote location. While sitting in the service, I reflected that this visit had been more than six months in the planning. The physical visit of our team showed value to the people of Bentiu, but more than that, it helped me and others to connect and understand in a way that was not possible only through hearing stories.

On Sunday morning in church, the youth choir impressed people with their full-throated and exuberant singing. I asked Nyakuma to explain the song to me. “They are singing about suffering,” she said. “We are dying of hunger, disease, and war. Come close to God, and he will comfort us. He is our only hope in this suffering.” I was surprised – somehow, I did not expect them to sing about suffering. But that is the reality in the region around Bentiu, where conflict and instability have driven most of the population into one huge IDP camp.

As we drove to our lodgings that night, Nyakuma pointed to the places where dead bodies had lined the road when she was fleeing to the camp in 2014. Her family had been living in the swamps and bush for 3 months at that point because their village had been attacked. They ate water lilies until starvation forced them to find a way to the camp. She recalled the struggle to get her siblings past the roadblocks so they could enter the camp. On this visit five years later, she was glad to see Bentiu again when it was peaceful, even though the displacement of so many people continues. The environment of Bentiu felt harsh and barren to me. When it rained, the clay soil became gooey mud that you sink into or that sticks to your shoes in big chunks. At those times, everyone either goes barefooted or wears gun boots. In the sun, the ground became hard – not ideal for farming. The land was dotted with scrub brushes, but not big trees or lush green like I expected. I learned later that large trees near the camp had been cut down to prevent soldiers from sitting under them and attacking refugees coming to the camp. Yet, in this remote, harsh environment, communities are slowly rebuilding, and people are surviving, healing, and holding onto hope. I join them in praying that peace will continue to come, and that doors will open for them to leave the camp and rebuild their lives.

Please keep the people of South Sudan in your prayers for lasting peace and stable lives.

Bob and Kristi Rice
Nile Theological Seminary

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