A letter from Leisa Wagstaff waiting to return to South Sudan
Late Winter 2014
It has been a long time since I last communicated. So much has happened since October, but I just could not write about it. The happenings were so confusing, so painful and so difficult to express in words. Even now, after being in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, since December 21, 2013, I cry easily whenever I think of or hear news from South Sudan.
As I am sure all of you are aware, war broke out in South Sudan in mid-December, first in Juba, the capital city. Upon hearing about it from afar (in Malakal, the place where I serve), it seemed impossible that the fight for rule among the political powers-that-be could ever reach our quiet town. I thought that those who were fighting would come to their senses and some compromise would be reached. My colleagues, friends and neighbors, on the other hand, were holding their breath, remembering what had happened in the past and the decades of ethnic conflict and the fight for independence from the powerful northern country of Sudan. We were in prayer constantly that the nonsense would stop. I think that it really dawned on me that things might get worse before they got better when the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS), our partner church, informed a sister-friend and me with tears in his eyes and a voice that would break at any minute that one of our pastors and some evangelists had been killed in a church compound in Juba. They were killed because they belonged to the wrong ethnic group and had ventured out to protect their church community.
As the violence spread to other areas of the country, I still hoped and prayed that it would not reach Malakal. The PC(USA) began to work frantically to get all of its mission personnel out. They were not only concerned for our safety but they did not want the church partners to have the added responsibility of taking care of us in a time of warfare. My two PC(USA) colleagues and I, on the other hand, wanted to stay, to remain with the people alongside whom we had been called to serve.
Since mid-December, however, hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been killed or displaced, as well as traumatized throughout the country. To this date hundreds of thousands of people are still encamped in UNMISS compounds, hiding in the bush, or trekking weeks and weeks to neighboring countries. And, the dying continues.
PCOSS, however, has stood firm in its stance against the war and its leaders have stood by people who could not flee the madness or chose to shelter in place, regardless of ethnic origin, location or faith persuasion. The current moderator stood at the gate of one of the church’s compounds in his clerical attire and pleaded again and again with the soldiers who wanted to enter to slaughter particular ethnic groups, telling them that there were no enemies inside—as 2,000 of God’s people within prayed. No one within the compound was killed despite the prolonged and intense fighting in the area. This is a strong testimony to the rest of the country that God cares about God’s people, we are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers; all are welcome into the fellowship of Christ, and there is hope for the future.
South Sudan may seem to you just a place on the other side of the world where only bad things happen, but as one of my colleagues has shared, “This place on the map has become home, and the bad things are happening to people we know and care about—our neighbors, friends, and church family. So, these days of waiting, yearning for the next bit of information, hoping for good news, desiring peace, wondering when it will be possible to return home to South Sudan, and what is it that we will find when we do return, make for long, difficult days.”
Recently a peace agreement was reached, but it is not being fully adhered to by the warring groups. Those with guns continue to drag people out of their homes and kill them simply because they are suspected of supporting the opposing group or because they refuse to bear arms. It is and will continue to be a slow process with more suffering every day and stories of unbelievable atrocities against the innocent.
I have been called by God to serve in South Sudan, and I know that when I return things will be different. Most of the familiar landscape and infrastructure will be changed or nonexistent. Many of the people that I have come to love, appreciate and depend upon will not be there, either because they were killed, or their homes and livelihoods have been destroyed, or they just cannot return to the place of bad memories. Nonetheless, I must go—but I must have your prayers and support. We, together, must continue to be with these people as they pick up and start again.
Sharon Curry, a former mission worker in South Sudan, has helped me to see that like the birth story in Matthew and the Exodus story, a great leader and savior will rise from the ashes of the massacres of the innocents. Just as God raised up Moses and Jesus to be the saviors of his people, “God is now preparing someone to come forward with peace on his/her heart to raise up the people of South Sudan so they may also lead abundant lives.”
Thank you again and again for sharing in this journey with the South Sudanese.
In Ministry Together,
PC(USA) Mission Co-Worker (South Sudan)
The 2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 129