“By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion…How can we sing the songs of the Lord while we are in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137)
This Psalm of lament came to me while in the midst of a very intense, very joy-filled worship service in a small community outside of Juba, South Sudan on Saturday.
Know this, my friends, about Juba: it is growing by leaps and bounds every day. In 2005 it was a tiny town, the regional capital of the southern district of Central Equatoria. When the terms of peace were won in the Sudanese civil war, and it appeared as though there would be a new nation of South Sudan, then the construction began in earnest. Hotels, an airport, an infrastructure, and public services are all needed for a place that is growing quickly. Much of the growth is fueled by those who have roots in the southern part of the country but who had chosen or been forced to return to the South by the government of Sudan in Khartoum. One of the results of this as amazing growth is the fact that one cannot buy much – the supply is far outstripped by the demand. Hence, the prices are high and the goods are spotty.
And as difficult as that is, some of the growth is fueled by even more difficult circumstances. We went on Saturday to participate in the ordination of five elders and two deacons in a community about an hour outside of Juba. As we arrived, I noticed that the style of homes was quite different that that which we had seen previously. The people were dressed slightly differently as well.
As we entered into worship I was informed that this was the meeting place of the Gorom congregation of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church. This church is composed almost entirely of members of the Anuak people who are refugees from Ethiopia. They arrived in Southern Sudan in about 2003, and were resettled in this refugee camp about two years ago.
Let that sink in for a moment, beloved. Imagine things being so difficult, so frightening, so dangerous in your own home that fleeing to a neighboring country that is in the midst of a civil war of its own seems like a good idea! Yet that is what the Anuak have done. And they have made a home for themselves, somewhat, here in the harsh climate of the bush in Southern Sudan.
The worship was long. And it was conducted in 4 languages: English, Arabic, Anuak, and Nuer (a local language of the South Sudanese). And it was hot. Not Pittsburgh hot, or even Arizona hot. The temperature had to be 110 degrees and the humidity made it feel like 125.
And still the service went on. Laughing. Singing. Ululating women and clapping men. Giggling children who played and dozed and cried and sang.
Why? In one respect, it was unbearable.
But in another, deeper, more important respect, it may have been the only bearable thing. When I saw those people singing praises to The Lord in their own tongue and with their own songs, I saw them in a place that was NOT a mud building baking under a tin roof in the forgotten desert of one of the world’s port countries. No. I saw them at home.
Do you see? In their worship of God, they were able to re-member themselves. To put their members back in order. To recall, to re-establish, to enter once more into their identity as children of God. While we were there, we were not refugees or tourists or citizens or aliens. No, we were the family of God, coming home. We sang and ordained and prayed and preached so that we could finally remember who – and whose – we are.
Do you want to know how we ended this brutishly hot, amazingly wonderful day among the refugees who had welcomed us home? We sang a song in the Anuak language: “We give you thanks, O God, because you have blessed us.” And then we left the sanctuary, whereupon we formed a line in which each person greeted every other person in worship (yes, that took some time). Then our hosts invited us back into the building because they had “a little bread and water” to share.And there, after singing the songs of home and remembering the reasons that we are who we are, these lovely people ate the food from home. Each of us was given a plate piled high with steaming njerwa flatbread, beef stewed in bere-bere sauce, lentils ground into a porridge, and sweet cabbage – Ethiopian delicacies that were prepared with love in South Sudan.
Oh, my friends, I know we are taught that when we die, we want to avoid the place that is hot. But I am here to tell you that I learned a lot about home, about heaven, about belonging, about re-membering the Body of Christ in a blistering building amid searing heat and oppressive humidity surrounded by people who were not wanted in their own country.
And I would go back tomorrow if they asked me.
Thanks be to God!