A letter from Sharon Curry in South Sudan
Marching in to Christmas
"Christmas is more than trees and twinkling lights, more than toys and gifts and baubles of a hundred varieties.
"It is love. It is the love of the Son of God for all mankind. It is magnificent and beautiful."
—Gordon B. Hinckley, A Season for Gratitude.
I bring you greetings in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior and from the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan and the Presbyterian Church of Akobo.
As we begin our season of Advent and looking forward to the coming holiday season, I am like a kid waiting for the joy of Christmas to come marching through. I am holding a huge present just tempting me to take a “little” peek. But, since I can’t take a “little” peek, I invite you to join me in a very different Christmas story that is more than trees and twinkling lights, more than toys and gifts and baubles of a hundred varieties. It is the story of love—magnificent and beautiful love.
The celebrations began on Christmas Eve on the side of a dusty road in a tiny village located along the banks of a river in South Sudan. There were no glittering Christmas trees, no twinkling lights. Not a toy or gift or bauble was to be found, and yet it was one of the most beautiful, magnificent Christmases of my life.
As I watched the days unfold, in my mind I was transported back in time to that very first Christmas. I stood in awe in the middle of a dusty road with a few trees on either side, flanked by traditional round mud huts with grass roofs. I watched the women gather, dressed in their lowallas (long scarves wrapped and tied over one shoulder). Some were brightly colored, the church elders in white, the deacons in robin's egg blue. Children were dancing excitedly and waiting for the festivities to begin. The men were dressed in suits and ties in spite of the blistering heat.
I took a deep breath, my eyes wide with excitement and the wonder of the unknown celebration that was to come. It was beautiful. It was magnificent. It was love. I watched as the people gathered on the road and lined up, in military precision. The young adults and teens in front, carrying banners, flags and beautiful native drums made from the trunks of trees with animal hides stretched across the top and tied with sinew. The younger children in the middle and the adults bringing up the rear, with men sporting megaphones on either side to keep the lines in order. It was a sight to behold.
We took off for my first view of Akobo beyond the road to the church and the road to the market. This was the beginning of the annual Christmas march. As I watched, the people began to march and sing out praises to God, singing at the top of their lungs, celebrating the coming of the “new Christ baby.”
We marched up and down the roads. Wide roads that made me wonder, were they left from the war and built for tanks to have easier access? I saw groups of houses, some were mud and straw homes, some strong and new, others bits of crumbling mud showing through the sticks that held them together, some no more than a few sheets of plastic wrapped around sticks propped up to offer a little shelter in the night.
A peak through the gates showed a scene very different from our Christmas Eves at home. No houses glistening in lights, no decorated lawns, no holly, no “traditional” Christmas finery. It was a beautiful sight to behold. Fires were burning in the middle of some, bubbling pots filled with delicious smells pouring from them in others. Women were busy sorting the grains that would become tomorrow’s Christmas dinners; others were wondering if they would even eat. Children were running and playing, laughing; men were gathered talking.
All up and down the roads the celebrations and singing continued. There was so much joy in the air that it felt like it was bouncing all the way up to heaven and back again as it spread God’s blessings all around. Children came running from behind fences made from sticks tied together with bits of string and plastic, excited to be a part of the parade. Then they stopped dead in their tracks, faces full of surprise to see a white person walking down their road. Their shock was relayed through loud, excited voices shouting out to others behind the fences. Small hands reached out in wonder to touch my skin, others ran shrieking for the safety of older sisters or mothers. We marched on with joy in our hearts and my eyes were as full of wonder as those of the children who came to greet me.
As the march continued we came to an intersection and were met by other churches on their Christmas march. Each group standing on its road, facing each other, and in turn, each one began to sing their songs. They crossed at the intersection and each one went their own way, marching into Christmas.
A short time later we returned to the church, the lines narrowing to a single line marching through the gate. The lines were a snapshot of the people of Akobo. Some were dressed in nice, clean, freshly ironed clothes. Others dressed in clothes that showed lots of signs of wear. Some wore nice shoes, most were in worn plastic sandals or barefoot. Some showed signs of good health and plenty, while others showed signs of hunger or malnutrition that is prevalent throughout the area. All their faces were beaming and this glorious, magnificent love shown through.
The scene had changed since we left earlier in the day. The “ushers,” armed SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) soldiers, now lined the fences inside and out. They guarded the gate and watched as each person entered. We gathered under the trees and celebrated in worship and prayer and singing. After worship, the families began to return to their homes for dinner as I returned to mine. Shortly after dark the sounds of drums began calling, and people began making their way back to church. They celebrated with songs and worship, the sounds of joy cries filling the night skies as everyone gathered to wait for midnight and the coming of the “new Christ baby.”
Christmas morning dawned bright and beautiful, the sky a beautiful cyan blue. The women came to get me, waiting excitedly outside my door, ready to take me back to the church. Everyone was gathered in preparation to worship God for sending his Christ baby to them. There was much singing and celebration, joy overflowed, and I sat among them with tears on my face as I prayed in deep gratitude for being there, for the gift of the “new Christ baby” in my life and so very grateful that I had answered the call and came marching into Christmas with him as he answered the call of my heart to work in a small village in “Africa.”
As we go marching into the Christmas season this year I am overwhelmed by contrasts; the contrasts between the holiday movies and displays and advertisements that have started long before Halloween was over and the contrast of my memories of celebrating Christmas in Akobo last year.
I am overwhelmed by the contrasts that come with a year that was very different than I originally expected and I am overwhelmed by the contrasts between the rush to complete my packing last year and the packing that is beginning this year as I prepare to return to Akobo.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the churches and people who are a part of this mission with me. You are the ones who make it possible for me to go. You are the ones who give me wings to fly. Through your love, your support and your prayers, I look forward to my return to Akobo in the coming year and the beginning of our work together.
As we go marching into Christmas my prayer for you is that
God grant you the light in Christmas, which is faith;
the warmth of Christmas, which is love;
the radiance of Christmas, which is purity;
the righteousness of Christmas, which is justice;
the belief in Christmas, which is truth;
the all of Christmas, which is Christ.
May the blessing of Christ’s light twinkle with as many blessings as you bless me with,
May the love of Christ surround you with all that is magnificent and beautiful;
May the peace of Christ be with you as you go marching into your Christmas celebrations.
Community Health Evangelism facilitator, South Sudan
Web page: http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/missionconnections/curry-sharon/ (or use the "Read more" link below).
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 94
The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 103
Read more about Sharon Curry's ministry
From my heard to all of you are doing great, nice work christmas celebration in Southern Sudan. God always with you!! And bless you with all you might ask for.
Truly you have given me a blessed Christmas. May the Lord continue to bless you and the wonderful people you've gone to serve.
Merry Christmas. Go with God.
Just a beautiful vision of what Christmas is, stripped down to its wonderful simplicity. God bless you as you return to "your" beloved people and place. Thanks for these vibrant images that carrry us along with you. Linda, Saint Paul Presbyterian