Journey to Africa:
Part 3 in a series
Wess Stafford, president of Compassion International, quotes Deuteronomy in the forward to the book, “Hope Lives: Journey to Restoration.”
“There will always be poor people in the land,” Stafford writes. “Deuteronomy 15:11 … haunted me throughout my years growing up among the poor on the desolate plains of the Ivory Coast in West Africa."
I did not grow up in Africa, and the poverty I experienced as a child in Houston, Texas, cannot be compared to the poverty I witnessed in Vietnam (1970-71), Cambodia (2002), or most recently in south Sudan (2009). This kind of poverty will leave you speechless, vulnerable to tears, and motivated to change the conditions in which people are forced to live.
Do you remember the story of how God spoke to my heart through the photo of a dying Sudanese child? That experience pales to what I witnessed in Sudan this past February, after my plane landed on the red-clay runway of Yei airport. Bishop Daniel Wandabula, Bishop Felton May, and I were greeted by the cheers of some weary workers from Holston, who celebrated the arrival of their bishop in a place that had captured their hearts and souls.
I didn’t have a clue how the people and this land would touch me over the next few days.
It began with a ride from the airport to the Twins Motel. I saw weak, worn-out soldiers camped in mud huts, and I wondered how they would protect us if war broke out. I saw coconuts lying on the red clay and people walking by, not noticing the coconuts. I asked, “Why don’t they harvest the coconuts?” I was told they are not edible.
Just as I had observed in Liberia, there was no evident wildlife in south Sudan. But this time I understood why.
We crossed a small bridge over Yei River, where I saw people washing clothes, bathing, playing, and drawing water into jugs. We entered the town of Yei, bustling with life and business. There in the marketplace were the trucks that had come from Uganda, loaded with goods for prospective buyers. I noticed two new banks, yet the money changers were still present on the streets. Goats and chickens wandered everywhere.
We arrived at the motel, where I met Sebit and Edina, the dual leaders of the United Methodist movement in southern Sudan. We embraced and exchanged greetings. Edina was filled with joy because the bishop of Holston Conference had finally arrived to, as she said, “make witness with your own eyes and ears.”
As soon as our luggage was unloaded, the Holston mission team took me to the Yei hospital. They wanted me to pray for a baby who had received care from our medical team. The hospital was a shock to my system. The building looked like an open dormitory. I entered and saw a woman sitting on a small bed with an infant in her arms. The baby was tiny and obviously malnourished. The woman and I greeted each other without benefit of a translator, but she seemed to understand I was there to pray for the child.
I began praying, not noticing that Bishop May had left my side to move further into the hospital and pray for another child. I later learned that while he was praying, the Lord gave comfort and took that child home.
We went back outside and talked with the hospital administrator, who was holding his own sickly child. He told us that within the last 20 minutes or so, four children had died in the hospital.
I saw people gathered outside the hospital, cooking under the trees. I was told that patients must provide their own mattresses, linen, medicine, and meals, and so family members often stay near the hospital to cook. Yet, in a country with so many orphans, patients often come to the hospital with no family to provide these services.
The day ended as we gathered over dinner with Oba Cicilia UMCOR staff. Joining us were Col. David Moses, commissioner of Yei, and Cecilia Oba, member of the Parliament of Cental Equatoria States. During our meal, we learned that Rafael, the infant whom I prayed for at the hospital, had also died.
In Yei, I met pastors who told me about working hard all day to visit their members and fulfill their ministries. At night they returned home to families who had not eaten all day, and neither had they. “So what do you do?” I asked. They smiled and said, “We go to sleep, wake up the next day, and start all over again.”
I learned that three years ago when Holston Conference heard God’s call to go to southern Sudan, there were only five United Methodist churches. Today, there are 19.
I experienced great hope and Holy Spirit filled worship. I saw people coming to and conversing at wells provided by the generosity of people from Holston. I heard a government official talk of his faith in the Risen Christ and his belief that God has not forsaken his people. I saw fatigued, tearful mission volunteers from Holston, doing their best to make a difference.
You are asked to bring an offering to Annual Conference on June 14-17 for the Lord’s work in southern Sudan. I encourage you to do all you can to help Holston raise as much as possible. I report to you, Holston Conference, that you are making a difference in a land where we will always have poor people. My spirit is buoyed not by the challenges, but by this great opportunity presented by God. We must count our blessings and head into a brave new adventure with Christ, who took just two fish and five loaves of bread and did not curse the scarcity, but blessed what he had and God gave the increase.