One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years. In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal. In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a different way. The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me. You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.
The pendulum has indeed swung! A week ago, I was in the midst of frantically helping a group of 13 young pilgrims debrief our very intense and active visit to our friends in the Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian’s Synod of Blantyre. In a way, it was an extrovert’s dream – meeting in groups, talking about big ideas, engaging in one-on-one sidebars, and always taking in new experience! When I waved goodbye to the young people, I set my sights on preparing for an official visit to our partners in the South Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church, on which I would be joined by three Malawian colleagues. That, too, was an adventure in rich conversation and dreaming about possibilities for ministry in a variety of groups and contexts. Earlier this week, however, I escorted those brothers to the airport here in Juba and am now settling in for the last phase of my African pilgrimage: traveling in South Sudan and Ethiopia by myself (although within a well-defined and well-equipped web of friends, guides, and mentors). Before I fully enter that place, however, I’d like to share a bit about the visit in Juba in the hopes that those who are invested in one of these churches or our partnership might be encouraged and challenged.
Our little team arrived at the Juba airport on Saturday morning, and we were enthusiastically greeted by a team of pastors and elders from the SSPEC. After making sure we’d taken care of all the legal formalities, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that we would stay, not at the ECS Episcopal Guest House that had been “home base” on my previous visits, but rather the Aron Hotel. This gracious gesture by our hosts gave us the opportunity to maintain contact with friends at home via wifi and have a great deal of privacy as well as space for meeting as a team.
Saturday evening’s agenda included a much-longer-than-anticipated gathering with most of the SSPEC Executive Council at the SSPEC Headquarters in Juba. This was very helpful for our team, as I am the only member of the visiting delegation to have been in South Sudan before. My friend Abuna (pastor) Madut gave a brief introduction to the history of the SSPEC. Most of these Christians have roots in Sudan (“the north”), particularly around Khartoum. One of the outcomes of the decisive and historic referendum that resulted in South Sudan becoming the world’s youngest nation in 2011 was that these men and thousands upon thousands of others were forced to leave their homes, their ministries, and their positions in the north and take up residence in South Sudan. It was a mass migration to a place that in many ways (infrastructure and development) was not equipped to handle it. They left well-built churches and schools and homes to come to a place that didn’t have much of that at all. As Madut said, “We came empty-handed, but God has provided.”
Elder Daniel added, “When we were in the north, life and faith – it was too easy for us. Here, we are challenged. I think it is better.” Abuna James Par Tap, the Moderator of SSPEC, summed it up this way: “We are here. We are OK. We are doing fine.”
Our conversation that evening covered many things, from updates on Trauma Healing Workshops being conducted in several places to a sense of cooperation with their sister denomination the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan to the idea of leadership training through the Nile Theological College. These leaders talked to us about the church’s attempts to buy land in various areas throughout the south, so that when the peace is finally realized, they will be in a position to take root and grow.
My Malawian colleagues were very engaged in this discussion, and enthusiastic participants (if you know me at all, you can presume that I, too, was engaged and probably talked more than I should have. You should just assume that about me in most places…). Blantyre Synod Moderator Masauko Mbolembole brought up the fact that for some time, there has been discussion about twinning congregations in the CCAP and SSPEC. He pushed that conversation hard, and pledged that such would happen in the next few months. This was welcome news, and the South Sudanese were really excited about the prospect of having a church partner on the same continent. Billy Gama, Convenor for the Partnership Steering Committee, reminded the group of the idea of seconding an SSPEC pastor to Blantyre Synod for a period of 6 months – 1 year. Again, that was met by nods of assent and affirmation. As we discussed these and other issues further, Elder Thomas of the SSPEC said, “There’s a new school here. The PCUSA and the CCAP are older, better developed churches, but SSPEC is coming along. Let us learn together: how can we benefit each other? We are a mixture of large, poor congregations and small wealthy ones in both the USA and in Africa. How do we grow? How do we encourage and include the women and the youth?” Again, there were deep affirmations of this quest. As the night fell and we ran out of time, Abuna Madut (while holding a copy of The Writings of Immanuel Kant) said, “It comes back to, as it always does, the question of philosophy. Here in Africa, we have a philosophy that is called Ubuntu. When we unite, we succeed. We are a tripartite partnership. Surely God is behind this.” As he said this, I remembered an African proverb that says, “A person is a person through other people.”
Sunday morning was dedicated to sharing congregational life in varied contexts. The Malawian team was each sent to a congregation in Juba that has expressed a desire to partner with churches in Blantyre. I was honored to accept an invitation to preach at the United Nations Protection of Civilians Camp #1 (you can see photos from that and in fact hear my sermon by looking at the previous post on this blog). Worship was followed, in most cases, by meeting with the leadership councils of those congregations and exploring possibilities for partnership.
Sunday evening was a festive occasion as members from several congregations around Juba hosted us for a dinner on the banks of the Nile. While the seasonal rains drove us indoors, they only dampened our clothes and not our spirits. We were privileged to be joined by my good friend the Rev. Michael Weller, a PCUSA Mission Co-Worker who is serving in Ethiopia but who has come to Juba to teach an intensive course at the Nile Theological College. In addition, the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Ross, a pastor and professor who has spent a great deal of time in Malawi but is here to join Weller for the course at NTC, was on hand to enjoy this time. Great food was enjoyed, deep laughter was experienced, and, of course, gifts were exchanged and speeches were made!
Monday morning was similarly full: my Malawian brothers and I were accorded an audience with the Honorable Dr. Riek Gai Kok, the Minister of Health for South Sudan. He told us some of the political history of the country and narrated his own involvement with the independence movement, working with John Garang in the decades leading up to independence. Our conversation was animated and political, and then he surprised us all by expressing a deep and lasting gratitude to the people of Malawi. He said that in 2009, there were a total of 9 midwives to be identified in all of South Sudan. Malawi, he said, was the first nation to accept South Sudanese midwives, nurses, anesthesiologists, and clinical officers for advanced training. Now there are more than 9,000 midwives in this nation of approximately 12 million people.
We were also glad to visit the Juba campus of the Nile Theological College, where we were welcomed by their Principal, the Rev. Michael Obat. Once more, the notion of intra-continental collaboration was discussed with great excitement. Too often, the notion of acquiring an advanced degree is equated with study in Europe or North America – a costly endeavor that sometimes results in “brain drain” as many of the brightest and best students find it easier to remain in their adopted country than to return to their own. I listened with joy and anticipation as the conversation explored ways in which institutions such as NTC, Zomba Theological College, the University of Blantyre Synod, and even places like the University of Juba or Chancellor College in Malawi might join together in providing education that is affordable and contextualized.
I was further privileged to return to NTC and sit with Rev. Michael for a couple of hours this morning. We talked about Presbyterian Polity and contextualized worship and theology and dealing with prickly issues in congregations and growing partnerships that are sincere and affirming and characterized by mutuality. It is my deep prayer that fruit will come from these conversations and the ones that I hope will follow.
With that, the “formal” time in South Sudan ended, and I was free to hole up in an apartment being graciously lent to me by PCUSA Mission Co-Workers Lynn and Sharon Kandel, to walk to dinner adventures with Michael and Kenneth, to join those brothers in prayer and sharing, and to reflect on what has been and what is to come. I have discovered that while the news from South Sudan is often discouraging, life in Juba is vibrant and growing. In fact, I texted my wife that the part of the city in which I’m located reminds me of Cairo – it is loud, noisy, fast, dusty, and busy, busy, busy. There is much to be done, for sure, and we must continue to join our hearts and minds in prayers for peace – but I can also tell you that this is a different city than the one I visited in 2015. This time, and indeed this life, is a great gift. Thanks be to God!