Today marks the three-year anniversary of the outbreak of open conflict and fighting in South Sudan. The Rev. Ranjit K. Mathews, Staff Officer for Africa Partnerships, has shared a reflection about his visit to South Sudan earlier this year.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
On the surface it looked like a scene you would see on a typical Sunday morning in many churches around the world. People were dressed in their Sunday best; hymns were sung; the lessons were read; and the Gospel was proclaimed. And then, there was preaching – preaching like I had never heard before. The Rev. Dr. Joseph Bilal was preaching at a packed All Saints’ Cathedral in Juba, South Sudan. He was preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the midst of a civil war. You could have heard a pin drop it was so quiet as people listened to the Good News amidst the despair and horror that have become common place in South Sudan.
As a foreigner, a guest in South Sudan, I was struck by how the normal act of going to church felt anything but normal as I sat there and thought about what was going on outside the walls of this Episcopal Cathedral in the world’s newest country.
I had spent a lot of time with Joseph before I heard him preach. He spent several days with my colleagues from the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of the Sudans (AFRECS) and me, accompanying us as we met with the Justice, Peace, and Reconciliation Commission of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan (ECSSS). He is a man of integrity who lives out his faith in the most trying of circumstances. As he preached, his faith, integrity, and deep commitment to his people were on display for all to see, hear, and learn from. He spoke of the desperate need for reconciliation in South Sudan and he called on the government and opposition forces to repent. He spoke with boldness about the mass atrocities that were being perpetuated. The gang rapes. The incredible turmoil that has taken over the country.
I’ve heard powerful preaching before, but never like this. I’ve never sat in a pew and listened to a sermon that could cost the preacher his or her life. That is the gift that Joseph gave me and everyone else in that Cathedral. We saw a man of immense faith living out his vocation as a priest and fully embracing the Gospel imperative to preach the Word of God. He spoke truth to power and didn’t pull any punches. What I heard that day was a clarion call for Christians to live out their faith boldly, even when doing so could have the harshest of consequences.
Joseph must have known that there were members of the government who were in the congregation that day and yet he felt it was less risky to tell the truth than it was to stay silent.
We do not all encounter the same realities that our brothers and sisters who live in the midst of daily conflict and violence do. And yet, as Joseph Bilal reminded everyone that day, we are all called to claim our faith boldly and follow the way of Jesus of Nazareth. When we do this, we look at the world through the lens of our faith in the God who loved us so much that he came to be present with us here on earth. We see the ongoing violence, massive food insecurity, and the real threat of genocide in South Sudan. We see this and we know that we are called to pray for and with our brothers and sisters there. We are called to speak up and speak out on their behalf in our churches. We, like Joseph, are called to have the courage to take up the mantle of Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives…”
In times like these it is easy to feel lost, to give into despair, and to lose hope. The season of Advent reminds us that we have the opportunity to wait and watch for the Christ child to be born in our hearts anew. And with the reminder that Christ has always been present, is present, and will be present in us, around us, and through us; may we step out in faith and let our Sudanese brothers and sisters know that they are not forgotten and that we will be with them in thought, word, and deed.
It seems appropriate to end this in the words of Canon Ezra Lawiri, the well-known Sudanese teacher, priest, and Bible translator, “but God is not defeated!”
To learn more about how you can support the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan, please visit www.afrecs.org.
For an in depth view of what is currently happening in South Sudan, please watch the recent United States Institute of Peace seminar “Not On Our Watch in South Sudan” available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAr7XvzIfZs