Can Faith Survive

A letter by Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather, serving in South Sudan

November 2017

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Lately, I’ve been feeling distant. Distant from God, distant from family, distant from friends. When I look back on my faith journey, I can recognize certain times when God’s presence feels so near and the words of Scripture speak purposefully into my life. At other times, the same text seems unrelated to my reality and God seems quite far away.

I’m not sure what usually causes the shift, yet in my current situation, I have a good guess. I am feeling overwhelmed by the amount of suffering around me. When shaking the hands of children living in makeshift tents, longing for school, watching their own bodies grow thin … I can’t help but wonder, “God where are you?”

Meeting people plagued by life-wrenching tragedy could cause one to lose faith completely. Feelings of helplessness in the midst of such tremendous need could also cause a person to give up, go numb, or sink into depression. These would be reasonable responses.

Yet, for some purpose, thus far, God has not let me go that route. A divine grip still holds onto the frail hand of my faith … not allowing me to fall away. Towards some end, God is actually using the very people whose circumstances beg the question “Can faith really survive in these conditions?” to remind me that God remains good.

On October 9, 2017, tangible support for God’s goodness found me. With the plan of meeting some Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS) leaders, I visited an “informal settlement” or “internally displaced persons (IDP)” camp in Juba, South Sudan’s capital. Before entering, however, we needed approval from the official camp authority. So, at the entrance to the temporary neighborhood, we sat in a building made of thin sticks, which allow the sunlight to shine through. Two tall gentleman came in after us, one taking a seat behind the desk. They greeted our group of five visitors. Then, from behind the desk, the camp chairman began speaking quickly and strongly in a mix of Juba and Khartoum Arabic.

He said, “7,752 people are living here … We know we are still alive today because of Almighty God, and through Him we can still survive. …

“You heard that those people are fighting outside there (in other parts of the country), but if you come here in this camp, you will find that (the different ethnic groups) are eating together and laughing together, but their family is fighting outside there. It is not our power, but it is the knowledge of God that was passed to them, and then they have been able to live in harmony, peacefully in this camp.

“One time there were some visitors from Italy. And they asked me here, with many people around me, ‘What do you want us to do for you?’ They said, ‘We saw that your people have no clean water, your people are hungry, your people are sick, there is no school teacher. What do you want us to do?’

“I said to them, if you do all those things (meeting those needs), you will feel tired and leave, but you go and pray so that the fighting in South Sudan can stop. If this fighting will stop, people will go back to their original places. People will go back and cultivate their own land. …

“We want to give thanks to God also, because the more you come and give us the Word of God, that is the powerful food that you are giving to us. Because the word you are giving us from the Bible is more powerful than the food you have eaten. …”

The second camp administrator then added: “It is now our symbol or motto that we use here (in the camp) that a human being or a man cannot live only with the bread, but through our God.”

We thanked the camp administrators, took a photo together, and then began a “tour” of this displaced community. The camp was home to at least four different ethnic groups, and most residents were women and children. The children quickly circled to greet us, with big smiles, thin bodies, torn clothes, and dirty feet. The women also passed a kind greeting as they washed clothes, cared for babies, prepared food, and fixed hair.

The conditions of the camp were horrible. Five functioning pit latrines (outdoor toilets) for over 7,000 people. Ten other latrines locked up, not useable, overflowing into a pool of waste. Yet, a grandfather sat reading his Bible, under a tarp overhang, and a grandmother proclaimed to us, “Even though we are living in a hard situation here in Juba, God who created us did not leave us.”

Their faith was sustaining them at their core. Their faith was their food, their water, their comfort, their motto.

May the larger church body lift them up in prayer, as they requested. Let us labor for their nation to find peace, so people can return home and cultivate their land. And in the present time, let us not grow tired of supporting their physical needs.

God, please don’t let go of the hand of our frail faith, shaking in the midst of such immense tragedy. Inspire strength through the witness of those we encounter in South Sudan. Give us eyes to see Your goodness during difficult times, like the camp chairman. Grow in us a deep commitment to study Your word, like the grandfather under the tarp. Like the displaced grandmother, create in us an unwavering sense of Your presence in this broken world. And bless us with the unique ability to surround ourselves with laughter and love even when the context in which we live is heartbreaking. In the name of Christ, who suffered greatly and remained faithful, I pray. Amen.

Thank you for supporting our family’s call to work alongside the people of South Sudan. We are humbled by the opportunity to serve, and we could not do so without your support. Thank you.

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