A letter from Sharon Curry in South Sudan
God’s Amazing Surprises
”God’s surprises are so unexpected they will take your breath away.”
Today I am sitting in the guesthouse in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I know! Not where I am supposed to be, right? That is one surprise. My heart is in Akobo, my body is in Addis, recovering from a second bout of malaria in two months. That is not the surprise…
The surprise came this morning while I was sitting and reading a sermon from a friend and doing my morning Bible study. I heard a familiar voice outside the door. I couldn’t quite place it, it wasn’t where it belonged. The voice was followed by a face as our eyes caught across the room in complete and total surprise. It was Pastor Weiching! He is the pastor at the Nuer church I attend in Hurst, Texas!! What a beautiful blessing from God, to see him here, in Addis, of all places, as he is on his way to South Sudan and Akobo to build a new church.
Once again I was reminded of the amazing place that is the guesthouse, besides being a refugee for the tired, the weary, the traveler… It is a place where new friends are made, where old friends are reunited, and where God’s mercy and grace bless each one who enters with exactly what they need. Even if it is the smiling face of an unexpected friend, or friends, as the case may be. Two of my old friends from when I was teaching English in Dembi Dollo, Ethiopia, arrived this afternoon—another one of God’s amazing surprises.
My heart is full of God’s amazing surprises that have blessed my life over the past month. I am surprised at how quickly I fell back into the life and routines that are my life in Akobo. I am surprised at the moments of complete and sheer joy and laughter that have blessed my work with the women as we begin to learn to work together to build a program that will allow them to take the words of God and the lessons out to others.
I am amazed at their passionate craving to learn. It is like being thirsty for a long time and finally getting a drink of water—you pour it in because you are so thirsty you can’t get enough. That is the way the ladies react to learning; they are sponges and can’t soak up enough. We have come to an unspoken “agreement.” I will teach English and they will teach me Nuer, the local language. I find I am amazed at their willingness to compromise. My first lesson in compromise came early in our lessons.
They proudly announced one day that I should provide them with exercise books (notebooks) and pens for their learning. I explained I don’t have a budget. I am in Akobo because people just like them believe in God’s work in Akobo enough to give a portion of their offering to support our work here. They thought for a moment, talked among themselves and decided that if I could get the cardboard like I write on, they would buy their own pens. I am happy to get their cardboard; we are recycling old medication boxes from the hospital. Compromise—one of God’s amazing surprises! Instead of being upset about what I can’t give them, they came to their own solution.
One day I was sitting at the church working on training aids for the next women’s group meeting. Two men were sitting nearby watching me draw pictures on cardboard and write the words to describe them in English so I could go back and add the words in Nuer later. They were pictures that the women had identified as their priorities for developing programs. Sometimes the men will talk to women and sometimes not. I had my language teacher, Elizabeth, with me, and she could translate. They were interested in what I was doing, so I said I had heard the women’s priorities for the community and I wondered if they would tell me theirs.
They were both older men, faces lined with the six long lines across their foreheads that are the mark of a boy’s transition into manhood. Their faces lined with the lines that age brings that tells the stories of hard-lived lives and worry, along with the lines that are reminders of times when laughter and smiles were a part of their lives. They leaned forward on their family sticks—the elders sometimes carry a stick that represents their family—and thought for so long I was afraid they wouldn’t answer. Occasionally they talked among themselves, quietly, in deep thought and discussion.
Finally, when they were satisfied, they began to speak. Once again I was blessed with one of God’s amazing surprises and given a glimpse into their lives and the fears they live with. They told of a time when they were young men, full of hopes and dreams. They built up their cattle and they built their lives with their wives and their children, and then the war came. They lost some of their friends and family, they didn’t talk about that much, they lost their cattle. As time went by they were able to rebuild. They had prosperous farms and enough cattle to live comfortable lives and be able to provide for their families. Then the inter-tribal fighting, cattle raiding, kidnapping women and children and killings came.
Now, they said as sadness filled their faces, the others come and take our cattle, so we are left with nothing. We left our land because we are afraid to send our women and our children to the fields to work. If we do, they will be kidnapped or killed. They are hungry and we can’t provide for them anymore. What shall we do? If we have to ask for one thing we ask that you teach women how to grow food without going to the fields so our children don’t die. I sat for a long time without saying a word, contemplating their words and their stories. All I could say was “With God’s help we will learn together.”
That night I lay in my bed, looking out at this amazing star-filled sky, listening to the cattle making their night sounds, smelling the smoke from the village fires. All I could do was pray. “Thank you, God, for the amazing opportunities you have given me by allowing me to be here and hear their stories. Thank you, God, for the people who have enough faith to support our work with people they don’t even know. Thank you, God, for allowing me to be a bridge between the two and, Lord, please help me help them.” And one of God’s amazing surprises that night was a quiet night in which to ponder the ways I have been surprised and blessed during my short time in Akobo.
There is one more story of God’s amazing surprises that will stay with me the rest of my life. It is the story of a young woman who lives in the bush with other women and their children. Their house is made of reeds gathered along the river and lashed together. There are sticks in the yard where they tie their “tents” (mosquito nets) at night when they sleep. Three rocks are their kitchen. The bush is their latrine. I stopped for a visit one day and once again God blessed me with an amazing surprise: the opportunity to talk with them about God. It began with a story about the woman being ill and told by the local women she was cursed for taking a stone from the “river witch.” It progressed to the stone being a gift from God and then on to how she could pray even though her husband refused to let her go to church or he would beat her. When I left I didn’t have one woman listening, I had six. As I rose from the dirt I had been sitting on while we talked, the woman told me that God didn’t just send you to the church, he sent you to come and sit in the dirt with people like us.
There are moments in life when we touch the lives of others and there are moments when we are touched by others. I don’t know why I am often surprised when I encounter God’s amazing grace and power in the simple acts of sitting in the dirt talking with women, experiencing the fear of the people through their stories, or seeing the joy on the faces of those who have learned to compromise by choosing to do for themselves rather than taking yet another handout.
I read that “God’s surprises will catch you off guard with their goodness.” And ”God’s surprises are so unexpected they will take your breath away.” I pray that God’s surprises will catch you off guard and take your breath away as they have mine.
Thanks be to God for your love, your prayers and your financial support that make this work and ministry possible and allow me to be the bridge that connects two worlds so very far apart.
Write to Sharon Curry