After three flights and 13 hours, the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis (Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly) and I arrived in Juba, South Sudan on Feb. 1. We were traveling as part of an ecumenical Journey Toward Peace, a follow-up to Pope Francis’s spiritual retreat with political leaders of South Sudan in 2019. The journey was delayed from 2020 because of Covid-19 and again in 2022 to allow the pope to heal from a knee injury and recover his strength.
“Welcome home!” was a greeting and invitation I heard many times as I made my way through Juba’s airport. The welcome continued as we were driven to our home for the next six days, the Episcopal Guesthouse. We were grateful for the support of our PC(USA) host, Sharon Kandel, Regional Liaison for the Horn of Arica, and Jeff Boyd, Regional Liaison for Central Africa and interim Co-Coordinator for Africa.
Unimpeded by traffic lights and with only a few stop signs here and there, people moved in cars, on bikes, and on foot through the capital, mixing even as they made space for each other. Among the Acacia trees and distant savannas, I saw land that produces banana, guava, citrus fruit and mango, and people who live among many of God’s other creatures, including goats, cattle, dogs, cats and chickens. The high poverty rate and ongoing conflict, not to mention reduced water supply during the dry season, makes life very difficult for the South Sudanese. Yet I could see people supplying for the needs of their neighbors: street food, fruit and vegetables, car washing, taxi services.
The first afternoon we checked in at the guesthouse we had a delicious lunch and got right to one of the main reasons we were in Juba: to support the work of reconciling Presbyterians in South Sudan. The director of RECONCILE, the Rev. Peter Tibi, told us how conflict had divided the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan into two camps, with each side claiming to be the “true” church leaders. His honest assessment of the church and history of the conflict as he knew it helped us prepare to meet with our partners in the coming days, when leaders of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan would name the trouble facing the church and country “a spiritual brokenness” — one that has prevented them from seeing and addressing the issues dividing them. Both sides of the church would need to start clean and open themselves to conversation guided by the Holy Spirit. The Presbytery Mission Agency has supported RECONCILE through the peacebuilding work of mission co-worker the Rev. Shelvis Smith-Mather.
Later our first day we were introduced to Nile Theological College (NTC), where our mission co-worker, the Rev. Bob Rice, serves as an instructor in Theology, Church History and Biblical studies. NTC is an ecumenical institution that reopened in Juba in 2015 with only five students; today the enrollment is more than 100. The female student enrollment has increased even from denominations that don’t ordain women. NTC is looking to grow in meeting the needs of its students and expanding its curriculum into Christian education and mission studies. The school’s principal, the Rev. Dr. Malakal Dual Ger, and other leaders discussed their vision for the college with us.
We shared our first days in Juba with our partners in the Church of Scotland: the Principal Clerk, the Rev. Fiona Smith; the Moderator of the General Assembly 2022, the Very Rev. Dr. Iain Greenshields; Faith Action staff members; and the Rev. Ian Alexander of International Partnerships. We also talked with leaders for the Anglican Church as they completed preparations for the arrival of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rev. Justin Welby. We all looked forward to the pope's arrival — also the next day.
I found my colleagues friendly, courteous and willing to share, even though we didn’t fully know what this experience would look like and the results it would yield. We faithfully followed God’s plan and trusted God for the result.
On a previous ecumenical visit to Africa, I saw thousands of people gather for the Meskel Festival, a major religious celebration for the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. That’s the level of excitment, joy and hope I witnessed on our third day in Juba as people lined the side of the road for a glimpse of the pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. For miles on end, people stood dancing, singing and waiting for the impressive state cars. It seemed like the whole of Juba was in the streets in anticipation of what this journey toward peace was going to do for them, their children and their precious South Sudan (the newest country in the world, just 11 years old).
You could feel the excitment — young and old waved flags and cheered as special guests took their places, including the vice-president of Uganda, two village kings and church leaders. Everyone hoped this would not just be an instance of important people saying the right things without doing the follow-up things to make positive change take hold. As I watched and listened, it was my prayer too.
The caravan of leaders made their way to the president’s residence, where behind closed doors the pope reconnected with President Salva Kiir Mayardit while the vice-presidents visited with other church leaders accompanied by our own PC(USA) General Assembly Co-Moderator, the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis.
I wasn’t inside that room, but I imagined the pope wanting to hear about how plans for the new government have developed, and how the people of South Sudan are doing. I imagined he wanted to hear the president talk about the impact of the humanitarian efforts and explain the continuing delays. I imagined he wanted to share his concerns about the outbreak of violence, especially against women and children, and to share the people’s frustration that not much has been done.
Later that evening in the palace garden, the president welcomed Pope Francis and expressed his hope that his coming would bring everyone together to continue the peace talks. In his remarks, the pope reminded leaders that he had come to walk with them on this ecumenical journey toward peace and reconciliation. He reminded them that they are called to serve the community, and that what they do now is how they will be remembered in the future.
He said “Basta! Basta! Basta!” (“Stop it!”), alluding to the four simple words said by Jesus in another garden called Gethsemane. “No more of this!” he said, continuing in Italian. “No more bloodshed, no more conflicts, no more violence, no more leaving your people athirst for peace. No more destruction: it is time to build! Leave the time of war behind and let a time of peace dawn!”
What Pope Francis said was powerful, but few present spoke Italian. After a long day of waiting and hoping for a message from him, the words had been foreign. I felt their disappointment and sense of being left out. But they recovered. Archbishop of Canterbury Welby remarked in English (one of South Sudan’s official languages; Nuer and Dinka being most widely spoken) about the devastation and beauty he saw. He said that once again the church had gathered to wash feet, to listen, to remember the wonderful vision of a better life. “Our presence here equals hope for the future.”
“You promised more,” he added. “But your commitment to the people has not materialized. Surely you have the courage to work for the peace you won at your independence.” From the reaction of the crowd, I could tell it was the cry of the people, too.
Moderator Greenshields called for the leadership to remember that Jesus taught the disciples, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). He noted that the Christian family came together to serve as a model of peace for South Sudan.
Maybe the bold messages to the president and leaders, in the hearing of the people, will make a difference and serve as another call for peace. The ecumenical community was brought together to give support to the peace process and to offer encouragement and hope to the South Sudanese people.
Although the PC(USA) delegation was not present, the pope met with religious leaders in the Cathedral of Saint Therese. He reminded them of their calling to intercede on the behalf of the people — to risk it all by stepping into the middle of the situation.
Many weeks and days prior to coming to South Sudan, the pope had received letters from children displaced by war and flooding. In Juba, he heard the stories of their lives in the camps, their dependence on humanitarian aid, the struggle to make it through the day, the impact of floods, lack of space for their family and no educational opportunities. They cried for good food, a “normal” life with time to just play. They wanted a good education and a future with peace.
“We know that you love children,” one child said. “And we love you too.”
The pope responded to each child as he renewed the call for peace. “There is no room for further delay. Too many children are losing their lives, their roots, their tradition, their future.”
At an ecumenical prayer service at the John Garang Mausoleum, three church leaders from the Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian traditions prayed for and thanked the South Sudanese Christians for their deep commitment to reconciliation and peace. The pope called on everyone to pray. With prayer comes the strength to move forward, he said, to walk through your fears, to see the light even in dark places. The prayer of intercession brings the people before God and causes God’s salvation to come upon them.
He also called on everyone gathered to work to build peace and actively promote unity. Sitting with our hands in a prayer posture alone won’t do it, he said. It is a journey. The work is something that we must move towards and keep at it.
Finally, Pope Francis encouraged the South Sudanese to persevere in their memory and commitment. Remember the sacrifices and witness of those who have gone before you. Commit yourself to journeying on toward the unity and peace you seek.
During a Sunday holy mass before more than 100,00 people, Pope Francis called the people “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.”
"Jesus knows your anguish and the hope you bear in your hearts, the joys and struggles that mark your lives, the darkness that assails you and the faith that, like a song in the night, you raise to heaven. Jesus knows you and loves you. If we remain in him, we must never fear, because for us too, every cross will turn into a resurrection, every sadness into hope, and every lament into dancing."
That night we gathered with our mission co-workers at a restaurant along the Nile. What a beautiful site! While we reflected on our time in South Sudan, we shared in the laughter of the people around us, the flow of water around a sunken ship, a makeshift island, and children swimming on the other bank. I was surprised by how wide the river was. It was an unexpected site and a blessing.
That restaurant scene could have been found any place in the USA. But other communities we had traveled through were struggling for even a little abundance and tranquility. I had a feeling of guilt about enjoying something while other people are locked out. Remembering the faces and the testimonies of the people, their sadness and hope, their lament and dancing, I closed my eyes and took a deep prayerful breath — well, not so deep. There was something in the air that made breathing hard without a mask.
On Monday morning, we finally gathered with our partners in the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church. Their moderator, the Right Rev. Thomas Tut Pout, served as an ecumenical advisor delegate for our 225th General Assembly last year. We were joined by mission co-worker Kristi Rice, who works with the church and as a trained facilitator for trauma and healing.
It was inspiring to participate with the church leaders in a bible study on Ephesians 5:8-14. It was the first time we were treated not as guests, but members of the household of God. The conversation that followed gave us a brief history of the founding and work of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church and the major challenges it is facing, among them the need for more space for education and worship, concern for the women and children who are most affected by the conflict, continuing education for pastors, and evangelism tools. Most of all, I thought the church would relish participating in conversation that leads to action, and that would define ways it can help build peace and reconciliation in South Sudan. The leaders believe that the church can play a vital part in making South Sudan whole again.
All that we saw and heard on our trip was a call to prayer. Let us pray without ceasing for the people of South Sudan and the leaders who have been called to serve them.
Dr. Dianna Wright is Director of Ecumenical & Interreligious Relations in the Office of the General Assembly.