A community thriving on hope: the testimony of the Church in South Sudan
di Morris Ibiko *
The Church in South Sudan, which has celebrated the first centenary of Christian faith, presents the Gospel as the source of joy to those who encounter Christ. The Catholic community has been able to withstand the turbulences of its history because of its presence with the people
This part of the world called South Sudan, constituted as a country in 2011, has never known peace and economic development since its inception as recognised member of the nations of the world. In the 57 years preceding its independence, it was part of Sudan and it suffered marginalisation, oppression, persecution at the hands of the Muslim and arabised government whole leadership was predominated by the northern elitist and military cadres. The gross injustice and persecution of the Christian South by the Muslim government of the North necessitated and justified the resistance and formation of rebellions offered by the Southern population. During these decades of struggle for independence, the Southern region of Sudan was engulfed in two protracted civil wars with catastrophic consequences. By the time of the independence of South Sudan in 2011, it was estimated that more than 1.5 million lives had been lost, and about 3.5 million people were forced to take refuge into neighbouring countries and beyond. In 2011, the literacy rates of the population of South Sudan was estimated at 27%, mortality rates at 11.67 persons/1000, infant mortality rates at 66.9/1000 and life expectancy at 55.33 in 2011. About 85% of the population engaged in non-wage activities. These indicators, needless to say, point to the sheer inadequacy or lack of basic social services provision to the population in the region for decades.
After the independence of the South Sudan in 2011, one would expect that these figures have changed for the better. Sadly, not much has been achieved in these critical areas of life because the country quickly descended into war and what was started in the brief respite of two years was demolished to the ground by a new conflict in the country.
The people of South Sudan achieved their political independence from Sudan on 9th July 2011 following a popular referendum in which the southern population voted overwhelmingly to secede from Sudan and form an independent Republic of South Sudan. The 9th July was and remains a historic day in the history of the people of South Sudan. There were nationwide independence celebrations at all levels of government structures. At these historic event, the Sudan’s national flag was lowered and a new hitherto known flag of a new nation was being hoisted amidst ululations and cries of happiness that one in attendance immediately and at once felt a sense of connection both to the past and the future generations of a people that have suffered and now looked forward with hope into a future that would be different from the past. It was a time filled with hope and enthusiasm. It was also a time of faith in God- for God had heard the supplication of his people for peace, and he had indeed visited his people! The themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, reconstruction, rehabilitation cut across and predominated the conversations of all stakeholders and players of the post-independent South Sudan.
The joys, enthusiasm and aspirations of the people of South Sudan however were short-lived. The military generals and commanders now turned politicians and leaders of the new country wanted to hastily reap for themselves and their cronies the dividends of their sweat and struggles for the independence of the country. As the scramble and stampede for top political positions intensified, the only hope for the rest of the South Sudanese was lapse of time. It was hoped that these military generals would eventually be removed in a democratic plebiscite. This hope was however shattered because these politicians soon clashed within only two years of independence of the country and dragged the country back into turmoil, stagnation, and decay. All the resources generated after the independence of the country have been squandered in fighting a senseless war, and whatever foundation of everything started has come to ruins.
A witnessing and evangelising Church
When I speak about the Church in South Sudan, I immediately mean a community of people of God constituted by Baptism, nurtured by the Word of God and the sacraments, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, set on the mission of Christ, namely the salvation of all. The Church in South Sudan consists of an archdiocese and six suffragan dioceses most of whom have celebrated their first centenary of Christian Faith. Like the rest of the church in Africa, the question that the church in Africa grapples with is, “what is it that it can fully carry out in order that its message maybe relevant and credible.” (Ecclesiae in Africa, 21). And when I read the Evangelii Gaudium, the question I ask myself is, how can the church in South Sudan present the Gospel as the source of joy to those who encounter Christ? (Evangelii Gaudium, 1).
The Church in South Sudan has been able to withstand the turbulences of its history because of its presence with the people. The church leaders have never deserted their people during tough times, and they remained the only voices to contend with even when all other voices went silent. It is a church that is embedded in the reality and life situation of the people and thus bringing Christ as a faithful companion for people on their journeys of life. Through the various ministries of the church to the people in refuge and displaced to camps, to the bereaved families, to the orphans and homeless, the traumatised and afflicted, strangers and those excluded from participation and share of the services of the society, the church in South Sudan is able touch the lives of the people in a more profound and way. In this way our church compounds and premises are oasis of peace to all people. Our church institutions are melting-pots for all diversities of ethnicities and affiliations in a country torn apart by divisions, hatred and wars.
The Church in South Sudan is a growing Church. This growth is not a result of imposing obligations and prescribed body of doctrines, but by attraction of the commitment and way of life of its members. It is a church that stands firm in the face of ordeals and offers hope for the future. It is a community of people who are not intimidated or overwhelmed by the past and present happenings but who in the midst of the storms of turmoil and misfortunes still point to the future which God has promised for those who love him. The hope for a better future is grounded in the Gospel of Christ and it is the source of strength for facing the present. As Pope Benedict XVI defines it, it is a “trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face the present: the present even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the efforts of the journey.” (Spe Salvi, 1).
Called to be the Church of hope
If the church in South Sudan has to survive the test of times, and if it has to continue to be relevant and credible, it has to be a church of hope- a hope that encompasses a balanced tension of historical and eschatological hope. This means a church that hopes for things in a future that God has promised beyond history. And in return these promised things determine the present dynamics of the contingent history of the people of South Sudan. In this way, the church will be truly a community of the people of Faith, since hope is closely linked to faith or actually equivalent to it. For Christian faith cannot but have hope for the future that God has promised, and it is this hope which is the source of strength and courage to live a life of witness in the present.
The Christian hope that we have received influences and shapes our lives and makes us to lead a life different from others around us. In the face of the same or similar situation of suffering and misfortunes, our spirit and vigour for life is not crushed. We keep our head above the tide! This does not therefore mean passivity in the face or ordeals, but being active with a kind of dynamism that stirs in us not only resilience but an audacity that makes us swim across the currents of the waves because we have the assurance that the Lord Jesus is on board sailing with us.
I consider that the task of the Church now in South Sudan ought to consist first and foremost in fostering of a life of hope in the promises of Christ who promised to abide with us until the ends of time. This demands a well thought out and planned evangelisation programs that puts the church in a state of mission. Secondly, a church that commits itself to noble actions that announce the kingdom of God in the present, and thereby subverting the negative forces that abounds in South Sudan. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church has to undertake projects and actions that offer hope for a better future. But the question however is, does the Church in South Sudan have the means and resources to initiate and accomplish historical projects that announce the coming of the kingdom here on earth? Does the local church have the capacity to set up health centres for restoring the health and wholeness of the poor people? Does she have the means to establish and run colleges and universities to illumine the minds and hearts and contribute to the development of the communities? Does it have the abilities to open new missions or expand its pastoral and administrative structures, etc?
There is no doubt that the challenges in front of the church in fulfilling its vocation and mission in South Sudan are daunting and unless seen from the prism of faith and hope, they only elicit anxiety and powerlessness. However, in submission to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the church faces everything with an attitude not of timidity but of power, love and self-control ((Tim 1:7) and ventures into activities without even a fair estimation of the costs involved and the projection of their sustainability. Unlike the apostles, the primary concern of the church in South Sudan in desperate situations is not first about the sufficiency of resources, but to settle down the people (Lk 9:13-17). It is only in this way that it opens up every day to the miraculous workings of God in its life.
* nota sull'autore
priest of the Catholic diocese of Tombura-Yambio (South Sudan)