Here for a Reason

A Letter from Bob and Kristi Rice, serving in South Sudan

July 2020

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In Matthew 25, Jesus tells three parables – the parable of the ten virgins, the parable of the talents, and the parable of the sheep and the goats. Within these three parables, Jesus interweaves themes worthy of reflection, instructing his disciples to “keep watch” and be ready, to be faithful with what they have been given, and to care for the “least of these” in their midst. Perhaps, in the final analysis, our faith will be authenticated or invalidated according to these themes. Such ponderings can arouse soul-searching questions in us, such as “Am I a sheep or a goat? Am I a wise or a foolish virgin? Do I use my resources and gifts to serve our world better?”

The day before Kristi and I were requested by our mission leadership to leave South Sudan for the United States in late March, the government of South Sudan issued a declaration to close all schools. A few days later, the government issued a lockdown that limited movement, prohibited public gatherings, and forced many businesses to close temporarily. While Nile Theological College (NTC), where I teach, closed during this lockdown, members of the faculty continued to meet in a safe way, praying about the situation, and seeking ways to remain engaged with the students. Their first action was to create a Facebook Messenger group to communicate easily with each other. The second action was to request students to come individually to the college to pick up notes and assignments from their teachers so that they could study from home. The third action NTC took was to gather students in small groups, socially distanced, to listen to teachers lecture from a remote location via WhatsApp on their phone. Sadly, the weak internet connection in South Sudan foiled this plan. Lastly and most recently, the administration of NTC solicited the help of two larger churches in Juba, requesting the use of space so that students could safely social distance while being instructed in an intensive format so that they could finish the semester.

I have been impressed by Rev. Santino Odong, the principal, and members of the faculty who have persisted in their efforts to serve the students and to remain faithful to the calling of preparing leaders to serve the peoples of South Sudan. Despite limitations and grave challenges, they kept hope alive and found creative solutions to intense problems. Like the wise virgins, they kept “enough oil” on hand to accomplish their task. Like the shrewd holders of talents, they took risks and expanded their influence by finding partners who could help them. Like the sheep, they were aware of their students’ needs, a group often marginalized and forgotten. I am inspired by Rev. Santino and my NTC colleagues, who remain in Juba.

Kristi and I feel challenged by these parables of Jesus as we have had to leave our home, our ministry, and our life in South Sudan. We wept and rebelled in our spirits as we left our beloved country of service. Had we buried our talent? Had we abandoned our post? Upon our return to the United States, there were many days when we felt divided in spirit, recognizing the wisdom in our return but feeling grief over leaving. Over time, we have come to realize that God has us here for a reason. We have had unique opportunities to connect virtually with colleagues, family, and friends, which have sustained and strengthened us during the pandemic.

We have been able to support others and be supported during these tumultuous months. We have had opportunities to reflect more deeply upon the challenges we find in the U.S. regarding systemic racism. We have been challenged by the protests over the death of George Floyd and other African American men and women and the continued police brutality against people of color. There is an ongoing need for repentance, healing, restoration, reconciliation, and peace.

We have read, listened, and engaged with African American and other concerned and prophetic voices who are helping us understand what it means in our United States context to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). We will keep learning, keep growing, keeping asking, and keep seeking to know how to stand with the poor, the marginalized, the stigmatized, the oppressed, the harassed and harangued persons, and peoples of color, for that is where Jesus dwells. Are we sheep? Are we watchful and ready? Are we taking risks in our faith journey? Only God knows, but we are trying, we are hoping, we are praying, and we are taking steps towards action. We trust that God has us here for a reason.

Friends, we want to express to you from the bottom of our hearts how grateful we are for your ongoing prayers and financial support, which sustains us and our ministry. We do not know when we will return to South Sudan, but we invite you to pray with us for that “window” to open so that we can return home. May God grant you strength, wisdom, courage, love, and compassion for the days ahead.

In Christ,

Bob and Kristi

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