The Holston Conference's First Fact-finding Mission to Yei in Southern Sudan
by Caroline Njuki
In 2006, the Holston Annual Conference, having decided to send a team to Yei in Southern Sudan, requested assistance from Global Ministries' Africa office staff. The idea for this trip sprang from a chance meeting between Holston Conference members and the "Lost Boys of Sudan" -- Sudanese children orphaned by the civil conflicts between the northern and southern regions of Sudan who are now adults resettled in the United States.
After several meetings with Global Ministries, the Holston Conference established the "Friends of Sudan." This group, with the blessing of their bishop, James Swanson, made plans to visit Southern Sudan. The Friends learned from conversations with Bishop Daniel Wandabula of the East Africa Annual Conference (EAAC), of which Sudan is a part, that a number of United Methodist congregations were concentrated in the village of Yei. So it was to Yei that the group planned to go. When informed of these plans, Bishop Wandabula agreed to accompany the group and offered the services of his office to facilitate travel. The easiest route into Southern Sudan, he said, was through Uganda.
Though Sudan had been at war for years, there was not much global awareness of its plight. The Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), a southern rebel group, had fought against Sudan's government forces over the rich resources in the south. Given its deposits of oil and its fertile agricultural land, Southern Sudan could be a breadbasket for the region.
There has been constant friction over the control of Southern Sudan's resources. The Southern Sudanese are dark-skinned Africans, while Sudanese in the northern regions are mainly of Arab descent. By 2004, Darfur, a region in western Sudan, began to draw attention. Many churches and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) flocked to Darfur. The media and the Darfur movement capitalized on the situation, raising global awareness of the problems. In 2006, under pressure from the international community, the SPLA and the Sudanese government signed a peace agreement to end hostilities.
Unfortunately, John Garang, the newly elected vice president of Sudan and former leader of the SPLA, was tragically killed in a plane crash. This event threatened the fragile truce, raising fears of recurring hostilities in Southern Sudan.
However, during the many years of war, United Methodist churches flourished in Southern Sudan. Without the help of the extended church, congregation members built makeshift schools, and teachers volunteered to staff them. When necessary, classes were held under trees.
When I led that first fact-finding team from the Holston Annual Conference to Yei, our reception was just short of "frosty." Members of the congregations asked us where the connectional church had been. Did we expect them to be elated because they had finally been remembered? It took almost two days of listening, sharing information, and conducting negotiations, along with prayers of reconciliation, to start the healing process. Then work began in earnest.
Our visiting group held discussions with teachers, leaders, the women's group, and the children and youth, which helped us begin to understand the realities of daily life in Yei and Southern Sudan. When we were shown the main well used by the school and community, we could see that animals also used the well, and there was nothing to keep them out. The church members showed us that an army battalion lived not far from the well, so women were afraid to draw water for fear of rape. Besides, the water was unsafe for human use and consumption.
The 506 school children -- 310 boys and 196 girls -- did not get lunch at school because of a lack of funding. To curb their hunger pangs, pupils at the Dar Es Salaam primary school spent their lunch break looking for raw mangoes or anything else edible they could find. Neither did they receive a good breakfast nor expect to have a proper meal for dinner. Their dilapidated school buildings were open to the elements, and, when the wind blew, it brought in dust that stung our eyes.
As I heard and observed the participants that God had brought together on this fact-finding mission, I wondered what we were being called to do in Yei. Here we were -- people from different cultures, ethnic traditions, and economic backgrounds -- trying to find a solution to the affliction created by human folly and visited upon God's innocent people. Sudan is very rich in oil and the southern region is blessed with fine agricultural soil and weather. Thinking of Sudan, one pictures a hot, dry, hostile desert environment, which is prevalent in the northern part of the country. But Southern Sudan is beautiful and green. Yet here were God's little children feeding on raw mangoes.
Here, too, were strangers who had given up the comforts of home to respond to God's call. I felt privileged to become a part of the transformation taking place. We visitors were brothers and sisters accepting blame for not coming sooner. The Southern Sudanese churchgoers began to understand why UMCOR cannot work exclusively with United Methodists but must work for the good of the whole community and why it is not possible for UMCOR to hire all those who need jobs. God opened many eyes to the complex processes that guide our work and prevent us from being everywhere we're needed.
Through this first trip, many lives were transformed forever. Some Holston members who made the initial visit have found their own niche in Sudan, blessing and being blessed by the lives of the Sudanese people. The "Friends of Sudan" from the Holston Conference have made numerous trips since the first mission in 2006, including one in February 2009, accompanied by Bishop James Swanson. The bond that has been created keeps on growing, and churches are flourishing.
The Sudanese now feel that they need to be independent and manage their own affairs. But the connectional church remains there to walk alongside the churches in Yei. What an honor to have been part of this beginning!
Caroline Njuki is the Assistant General Secretary overseeing the Africa office of Global Ministries. Photos for this article, taken in Yei, Southern Sudan, were provided by members of the Holston Conference Sudan Mission Teams.
Date posted: May 01, 2009