Living and working in South Sudan is full of paradox. Like Dickens’ ‘…Two Cities’ it includes the best of times and the worst of times. The bad is obvious. Poor country, disease is prevalent, and the rumors of violence are continuous. The good is more fundamental. Great people, smiling and active children, a country with high hopes for their future, and a church that is integral in almost every aspect of society.
In many ways, to work in this environment and remain healthy is to simultaneously love the people and hate the circumstances. Love of the people is necessary. Not only is it the first rule of leadership, but without it, nothing, and I do mean nothing, would make me stay around. To be the sole missionary working with a foreign church is too expensive. I miss my family, and being here has caused me to sacrifice relationships and moments that are very dear to me. Hating the circumstance is also important, I feel. Part of what fuels me is a disdain for the suffering of those created in God’s image. I also don’t want to see people who were created to thrive barely get by.
I used to describe my work as trying to use the scriptures to explain how our health is integral to our faith and integral to the life of the church. Now, I understand my task as something much more basic. It is simply to live out Christianity more fully. When the gospel is lived out, it impacts every aspect of our lives – health included.
The other day the Community Health Education team (Mama Rose, Medical Officer Kenyi, Driver Joseph, and me) traveled some 60 miles from Juba to the payam of Lobonok. We went there to speak to the pregnant women, and see what they were planning for their deliveries. After speaking to the women, we were told that one of the pregnant women had a husband who was sick. We looked at the man and soon decided he needed to go to the hospital. He looked pretty bad, about two days from death (I’m able to estimate this from of my experience as a VA chaplain). He was coughing heavily. When he sat up, his face grimaced and he grabbed his sides. My uncle, who once had tuberculosis, recently described to me what it felt like to have TB. When I saw the man, it seemed like my uncle’s words were coming to life right before me.
After much persuasion and a promise to take care of him, we found ourselves traveling back to Juba with an additional passenger. The man’s sickness brought a stench vile enough to cause Mama Rose to vomit 15 minutes into the journey. In such a situation, there is nothing much to do but look out the window and try to take in as much fresh air as possible.
As I looked out the window, I began admiring the area’s natural beauty. I’d been to Lobonok before, but this was the first time I noticed the area’s magnificence. I don’t know if it was because I was less comfortable when I first came (anxiety always clouds what’s beautiful), or if it was because the tall grass was now burned. Either way, after about 5 minutes of staring out the window in awe of my surroundings, it began to dawn on me that my work as a minister requires me to ride along a bumpy dirt road in the heart of Africa. What a gift! I had to just praise God in my heart for the moment. Then I looked behind me and saw sitting beside Kenyi an extremely sick man, a man struggling to keep his head up and whose mouth we covered because we feared his illness. Oddly enough, I had to praise God for that too.
10 years ago when I finished my undergraduate education, I would have never imagined that I would live and work so far from home in an area so beautiful. 4 years ago when I entered Duke Divinity School, I would have never imagined that literally saving physical lives would be part of my ministry. It’s difficult to explain the gratification that came from seeing two beautiful sites at once – God’s creation in the mountains of South Sudan, and God’s creation in a man headed for healing. That day in the car, I shared with the Community Health Education team what a blessing it was for me to work with them in South Sudan, to touch all the lives that we touch. They think every American is rich and easily travels, so it’s hard for them to appreciate the significance. But in that moment, I understood I was living a rare and unexpected blessing, nothing less than a miracle. In reality, I’m the grandson of a sharecropper. Like most middle-income African-Americans, I’m one generation from poverty.
When I came home, I found a website that allowed me to upload pictures and send one of my grandmothers a postcard. I did that as an attempt to share the journey and blessing with her. I remember attending the 2001 National Society of Black Engineers Annual National Conference in Indianapolis, IN. At the closing gala the keynote speaker said, “You are the product of unceasing prayer!” I believed him them, but last week those words never rang truer. I know the blessings I receive are not of my virtue. In ministry, the gift you receive is always greater than the gift you are. I received a great gift that day, a tremendous blessing of aesthetic pleasure, and joy and satisfaction in work. It was more than I had ever imagined, and still somehow I know the best is yet to come.
“‘What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived’
the things God has prepared for those who love him—” 1 Cor 2:9