A letter from Sharon Curry in South Sudan
January 5, 2012
I just looked at the calendar on my computer in astonishment as I read the date. I wanted to ask the question that I have been asked on a regular basis since I arrived in South Sudan, “Is it really? Are you sure?” I can’t believe it has been only five days since this year began!
If the saying, “So starts the year, so goes the rest” is true, it is going to be one heck of a ride this year. Hang on tight! We are all in for the ride of our lives!
Can you imagine my surprise when I received a copy of the following press release yesterday?
Mission Co-worker Sharon Curry Is Safe
Please continue to pray for South Sudan
I was hoping to tell you stories of Christmas and New Year in Akobo. Instead, I have a much different story to tell. I have been told that I am a pretty good storyteller. I’ve been told that I have an over–the-top imagination, but nothing in my wildest dreams could have prepared me for my first two and a half weeks in Akobo.
This story begins shortly after Christmas with reports of intertribal fighting between the Lou Nuer and the Murle, two rival tribes in the Jonglei State in South Sudan. The Lou Nuer are from Akobo, where I am living and the Murle are from an area maybe 100 miles south, if my finger measures on the map correctly. Approximately 6,000 Lou Nuer descended on the Murle territory near Pibor, the place where I landed on my way to Akobo. The Nuer burned one entire village to the ground, women and children were kidnapped, and the youth headed on to Pibor.
A few days later we heard reports that the Murle were involved in a revenge attack in West Akobo, about a day's walk for me. That is when things got, shall we say, interesting. There was much discussion back and forth between the PC(USA) and Presbyterian Church of Sudan (PCOS) staff in Louisville, Juba, Malakal, and Ethiopia, along with me and the general secretary of the Akobo Presbytery in Akobo. There were reports of where the latest battles were taking place. There were reports of which NGOs were evacuating, when, how and who. Everyone was worried about my safety.
I should say “everyone” but me! I was having the time of my life getting to know everyone in Akobo and finding my way around. I have been busy meeting with church leaders, learning the language, getting to know people, proving that this American girl really can cook with a wood fire and trying to find my way to the latrine in the dark and to bale water for “showers” with a flashlight sticking out of my mouth! I have been getting to know the women and we have been learning to communicate with each other through a whole lot of laughing over my blundering efforts to learn their language.
I had visited the hospital and chosen the location for my new house/office. I stood with the pastors and elders of the church as they excitedly discussed the merits of the two locations they had chosen. It was with great joy in my heart that I watched hope bloom in the middle of this hard, dry, cracked ground that will someday be my home as the men discussed the location to the river, where the shade fell so the women could have their tea, pointed out where “we” would sit for our lessons. I think it was then that I realized this was going to be much more than my office/home. It was going to be a beacon for the future.
I spent Christmas Eve with my future neighbors as I watched them butcher some kind of animal—I am not sure what it was since it didn’t have a head or hide any more, but I was told “it is for the Kreeesstmasss Dinner” as they shared their excitement with me. I had marched through the town with the elders, leaders and youth of the church, singing and dancing, and we gathered on Christmas morning to worship the “the new baby Jesus” through song, dancing, prayer and worship.
I celebrated the New Year surrounded by their love as we all joined in prayer the morning of New Year’s Day. I was a part of their annual baptism—of 158 people, from teeny, tiny newborn twins to an elderly lady leaning on her walking stick. Much to my surprise, I was called on to offer the closing prayer.
They taught me so much in such a short time, especially that a woman NEVER goes to church without her lu-all—a pretty sheet wrapped around her and her head completely covered. If you do the elders will stand you up in front of the church at the Christmas Eve prayer service and dress you appropriately, in front of God and everyone!
I was learning their hymns and trying to sing along with them. I even learned to recognize the Lord’s Prayer and Apostle’s Creed during worship so I could say both along with the congregation and feel a part of worship. I didn’t realize how important it was to them until people stopped me on the road, for the entire week after I tried, to say, “I saw you singing.”
The kids and I all along the road and down by the river were learning to communicate by playing football and sitting and watching each other, through waves from the water as the boys in the cattle camps across the way started to trust me enough to come close, and the girls laughed as they braided my hair one afternoon. The shoeshine boys even knew my routine well enough to say “late” when I came down the road in the afternoon instead of the morning one day.
And that is how in such a short time the people of Akobo came to be such an important part of my life and my heart. And in the midst of my business, there were emails and phone calls and Skype conversations flying back and forth. There were news reports and location reports and meetings with other NGOs (non-government organizations) working in the area.
After much discussion, it was determined that Rev. Peter, the general secretary of Akobo Presbytery, and I would go and visit the commissioner for a security update. I think I sat there in numbed shock as I heard the words he said to Rev. Peter and then turned to me and said, “It is time. You should go. You should go now. We can’t guarantee we can keep you safe. You should go now, while we can get you out.” Those words were followed by a flurry of activity as people began to swarm his office and I sat trying to hold back tears and comprehend that this was really happening.
It is a swirl in my memory of words like “charter tomorrow” and “he is with IRC (International Red Cross)” and a flurry of words I didn’t understand followed by “it is not possible,” a scribbled note on a piece of paper handed across the desk and the word “UNIMISS” as a person left the office in a hurry. Now I know that UNIMISS stands for United Nations Mission in South Sudan, and I know that I had met with them early in my time in Akobo to greet them and make my introductions. I knew they said they would make sure I was safe, but I never thought I would need them! "It is OK, they had all left!" (I should qualify that statement with, they didn’t leave me, they were busy elsewhere saving way more lives than mine!)
I remember walking back to the compound in this dazed fog, trying very hard and not succeeding to not cry in this surreal wave of emotion as my heart tried to grasp what my head already knew. I was leaving. The commissioner had really said I had to leave! I am not quite sure how I made that phone call to Michael Weller, PC(USA)’s regional liaison for the Horn of Africa. He answered the phone, “How’s your day?” “Not good.” I replied, “The Commissioner said I have to leave.”
From there life becomes one huge, giant blur of activity. I know there were phone calls to the U.N., the U.S. Embassy, and God only know who else. I know that throughout this whole situation there were at least a dozen, and I am sure more, people involved in the planning and monitoring of the situation. I know that many, many PC(USA) staff members gave up their vacations and holiday time to take care of me, and watch out for me, and to make a number of plans and backup plans and counter plans to make sure that all of the bases were covered. If there was a possibility that a base could be covered, it was covered, from the best scenario—that I was able to get on a U.N. flight—to the most obscure, in my mind at least, that I had to escape across the river and what would happen if I did.
Fortunately, the best-case scenario happened and I was on a U.N. flight out of Akobo the next morning. It took some fast talking on my part and the amazing compassion and grace of two U.N. pilots who said “Yes” to get me on that plane. I know that when I made that final phone call to Michael and said the words, “I am on the plane” there was a huge sigh of relief that was heard around the world.
I looked around the room where I was staying Wednesday night in Juba, at my suitcases, my computer cases lined up by the door, and my shoes kicked off on the floor, and thought, “Where is the sheet? And, don’t forget to close that bag before you go to bed.” Then I remembered my “go” bag was gone. It came with me. I remembered I didn’t have to repack the food bags into my market bag tonight. My nightly routine had become so routine I didn’t even think about it.
I always knew there was a possibility of evacuation from Akobo. I kept my “go” bag hanging by the door with all my extra IDs and copies of important papers in it, along with some food and water and a change of clothes. I took my shoes off and placed them underneath it, open and ready to slide my feet in. In the last few days, after the attack on West Akobo and I knew the fighting was getting closer, I had added a “bush go bag” in case I had to make a hasty retreat in the middle of the night. It was lightweight and held the bare essentials, a few food bags and a couple of bottles of water along with my flashlight. Draped over the top of it, my brown sheet and my black pants—something to give me a little more camouflage in the dark if I needed it. I had routes planned for every direction I might have to go and knew the hazards of open spaces and barbed wire fences that would hide in the dark. My Girl Scout leaders should be proud I was prepared, and thank God, I didn’t need it!
I was sitting in the sanctuary of the church next to the guesthouse I am staying in just as the sun was beginning to set. I was offering up prayers of thanksgiving for all the ways I have been blessed during the past two weeks and for all the prayers that have been and continue to be lifted up for me and the people of Akobo and Pibor. I picked up a songbook and found “Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary.” I thought, “How fitting,” as a slideshow of all the sanctuaries in my life went flashing through my head. Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas, where I grew up and spent my summer days in the refuge of the sanctuary watching the sun dance off the stained glass windows. I remembered Dr. Elliot stopping to talk, or just sit a while with me, and thinking he was as close to God as you can get. I thought of my home church sanctuary and the Lord’s table that I love so much because of the massive size and strength is symbolizes. I thought of St. Stephen and the white dove in the stained glass window that if I looked just right, in the early morning light, seemed to glow, just for me.
I thought of all the people that are sanctuaries for me—the pastors, the friends, the family who give me strength and courage and who are the refuge in the face of storms, the wings that lift me, and the hearts that hold me in love, support and prayer. And I thought of the amazing, amazing job that the PC(USA) and PCOS staff have done in keeping me safe, in preparing for any possible scenario and all their prayers along with so many others that I probably don’t even know about. They and you all represent “sanctuary” to me.
So, as I sat in the quiet and peace of the sanctuary tonight, I prayed, “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary” for the people of Akobo if they need refuge from the storms of the intertribal violence they are facing when I return. Lord, let me be the sanctuary to them that others have been for me.
Thank you is just not enough for everything that has been done for me in the last two weeks. I am very humbled, and very grateful for all the time, energy, effort and love and support that have come my way. Thank you all for being my sanctuary.
- For a peaceful resolution for the intertribal violence between the Nuer and Murle
- For safety and security for the friends I had to leave behind
- Prayers of gratitude for the amazing church we have and the World Mission and Presbyterian Church of Sudan staff members who worked so hard to make sure I was safe and well cared for
- For the blessings of fellow mission co-worker Debbie Blane who said “Sure! Come and stay with me!”
Hey Sharon, Neet to be reaching Oscar's Daughter! There is NO TELLING, world wide, how many you reach? At first, Chris (Boots) said, when you went to Dembi Dolo, >You will touch EVERY PERSON YOU MEET". That has a whole new meaning to me now, you are touching family, we rarely if ever see, states in this country, you visited once for a class or presentation, plus all the people you know and the people they know, that you inspire, and they share with....Your circles, over lap and entertwine, and multiply...You amaze me, not like a big sister does from her little sisters eyes, but woman to woman, CHRISTian to CHRISTian, and human to humanitarian. I love and support you, where ever you are, whenever you need. God Bless YOU and EVERYONE YOU TOUCH.
Dear Sharon, I am Oscar Culps daughter. I believe we may have met at sometime in the past. Dad sent this to me to read. I just want to tell you I am glad you are safe & what you are doing is wonderful. I've added you & your prayer request to my churches prayer list. I just recently went on my first mission trip & was so inspired by it. I am going again in April. We are building a Calvary Chapel in Algadonis, Mexico. I am involved with the childrens ministry. We are going to an Orphanage on our next trip. Anyway, just wanted to drop you a note & thank you for speading Gods word. God Bless Kimi