“This retreat has been a real blessing. It has been more than one year since we have slept outside the UN Mission Camps, and here in Yei it is so quiet and dark and peaceful. When I am in the camps I can’t sleep. It is noisy and people are fighting and crying so much that I can’t fall asleep until midnight or even 1 a.m.” That’s the evaluation that Pastor James offered concerning his impression of the retreat that the team of six from Pittsburgh Presbytery and seventeen leaders from the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC) shared on the grounds of RECONCILE International in Yei, South Sudan.
Another pastor offered this reflection: “We have worked with partners from abroad before. We have received guests from Europe and the USA, and it has been very good. But this time – this is the first time that someone has come just to be with us. We have felt so free just being together. Thank you.”
Our team is back in the capital city of Juba now, preparing for the last leg of this amazing journey. The slower pace of last night and this morning gives us time to reflect on the week that we spent with our brothers and sisters in Yei, a bustling community about 60 miles (a five hour drive over, shall I say, ‘punishing’ roads).
The purpose of the trip was to engage each other in a setting that was welcoming to all and home to none. We almost achieved that – it turns out that one of the SSPEC pastors grew up in Yei, and his father had been a chief there. So “Chief”, as he came to be called by both Americans and South Sudanese, took great delight in showing us places that were familiar to him and introducing us to fruits unique to that region. We were disappointed in that a family illness prevented our PCUSA mission co-workers and friends Nancy and Shelvis Smith-Mather from being able to participate in the discussions, but the staff at RECONCILE was more than hospitable in their absence.
There were three main content areas of our time together. As mentioned in a previous post, the Rev. Peter Tibi led us in some amazing conversations about the nature of trauma, healing, and steps towards peace. In our last session together, Peter challenged all who were present. “The future of South Sudan depends upon the Upper Nile [the region of the country in which the conflict of the last year has been most intense]. And the fate of the Upper Nile depends upon the ability of Presbyterian Pastors to come together and help their churches to put a stop to this and to recover from this trauma.” He then looked at us and said, “And the Presbyterian Church in South Sudan cannot do this alone. They are the ones who can go to Upper Nile, and they are the ones who must speak to their people, but they need to be equipped and encouraged. You and your churches must stand with them and help them.” Each of the six Pittsburghers felt the weight of that challenge. We also sensed that in the Rev. Tibi, we were in the presence of a true spiritual giant in the field of trauma, reconciliation, and peace-making.
The second way in which we spent our time was under the leadership of a man named Abanzi, who has been trained in team-building and group process. Through a variety of lectures and presentations, Abanzi helped us to understand how best to engage and motivate varied members of the community to work towards a common goal. While many of us, Americans and South Sudanese alike, felt as though we’d be able to apply these lessons in our specific ministries and lives, the real fruit of our time came in the ways that Abanzi’s insights helped us to grow together in partnership and friendship.
We responded to the input from the Rev. Tibi and Abanzi in worship and prayer. Our daily worship was facilitated by Pastor Gary, Pastor Moses, and me. The highlight for many of us in this regard was the ability to come together in small groups for conversation and prayer. This gave us the chance for personal, intentional sharing. During the last of our gatherings, each participant was given a small Jerusalem cross. This cross is formed by one central cross, representing the centrality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the life of the world. Surrounding this are four smaller crosses, representing the four gospels that are to be taken to the four corners of the globe. In addition, the larger cross is made of four shapes that are reflective of an ancient crutch, reflecting the truth that the gospel, intended for healing, can only be carried by those who have been wounded themselves. These crosses were distributed by means of a “cross-warming prayer”, wherein each of us held the cross of a fellow team member and prayed for them by name and then passed that cross around the circle. By the conclusion of this exercise, we were all wearing crosses that had been prayed over by the other members of our small group.
We arrived safe and sound in Juba and will spend today in some “sightseeing” around Juba and preparing for our worship leadership tomorrow in various churches around the city. We appreciate your prayerful support and encouragement.