The Story of Joseph

A Letter from Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather, serving in South Sudan

July 2018

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I think his story hit me so hard because I could see my son in him. He was a small, thin boy named Joseph, probably ten years old, but not much bigger than my five-year-old.

“I had two goats,” he shared with the group of eight children and two adults, “and one gave birth, so they were three. I left them in Yei,” he said, dropping his head down towards his bent knees, hiding tears.

The picture of young Joseph following his small flock down the dusty roads of Yei, searching for a good spot of grass, was easy to imagine. As was the day that his goat gave birth to a wobbly little kid. Joseph must have held it in his arms many times.

Joseph was not alone as he mourned the loss of something close to his heart. The children living in Bidi Bidi refugee camp left many things behind in South Sudan: “my house, my garden, my cows, my bicycle, my mattress, my school uniform, my clothes, my sandals…” Each child at the trauma healing workshop had a long list.

Many lamented the loss of their “good” school back home. While statistics clearly show the low quality of formal education in South Sudan, these students preferred their former schools to the even more crowded ones in the camp. “Two or three hundred pupils are in a class, and if you are late, you sit outside and try to learn through the window,” they grieved.

A child’s school community plays a large role in his or her life, as does a church family. “My daughters refuse to go to church in the camp,” explained a concerned mother. Her children miss their favorite Sunday School teacher from their home church. “Give us money, and we will go back to Yei and go to church,” her teenage daughters plead.

This mother, along with twenty other church leaders, attended a two-day training on trauma healing before the children’s workshop began. The adults learned the theory, then put it into practice, facilitating a three-day workshop for seventy-two children.

During the training, church leaders began to recognize trauma in their own lives. “When I came, I came without anything in my hand. Then I reached here (the camp), and I did not eat for two days. I was not hungry,” one pastor explained, understanding his behavior as an effect of trauma.

The adults also realized the impact of trauma on their families. “This training helps me know how to help my daughter,” one participant shared. “We keep taking her to the hospital, thinking she is sick, but at the hospital they don’t find any sickness. From the teaching here, now I know it is a problem of trauma.”

After walking from various “blocks” or “villages” in the refugee camp, the children arrived at the hosting church. They represented ten different congregations, and consequently found many new faces at the workshop. They began to build trust in their small groups, as they shared the things bothering them and drew pictures of what the war forced them to leave behind.

While listening to tragic stories is a regular part of my life in Uganda, this was the first time I heard from children. The sadness felt overwhelming. The secondary trauma caused by listening to their stories tangibly pressed down on me.

As time passed, though, songs, games and laughter pushed out the heaviness hovering under the church’s grass thatched roof. The children learned that the killing, hatred and hunger they witness is contrary to God’s original creation design, then they transformed the sanctuary into a beautiful garden. With toilet paper, string and sticks, they made white-petal flowers, reminding them that God made things good and made each child beautiful.

Many wanted to pose for a picture with their handmade craft and their new friends. The conflict scattered friendships across the country. Best friends forever landed in separate, distant places of refuge, yet blossoming relationships captured on camera showed children standing back-to-back or with arms around each other’s shoulders, grateful for companions.

In their last session, the children sketched the things that would make their lives happy again, their dreams. Joseph’s response convinced me that something special took place in those few days. “I am going to work hard to finish school, make money, and buy more goats. Then, I want to become a teacher,” he said with a beaming smile, a testimony to newly found hope.
The church leaders invited me to offer the final devotion. I shared from 1 Corinthians 12, which compares the body of the church to the human body, many parts connected by the same spirit. “You are connected to all the other churches here in Bidi Bidi,” I stated. “By God’s spirit, you are connected to all the churches in Uganda, in South Sudan, in Kenya, in the United States and around the world.”

“Each of you has a unique purpose in the body. God allows me to play the role of a messenger, to carry stories from one part of the church to another. I will tell churches in the US about you, about a group of children who have gone through many difficulties, yet they are helping each other to heal, and allowing God to give them hope. Your testimonies will inspire the followers of Christ in my country to listen to each other and to help each other heal.”

With the power of the Holy Spirit, let it be so. May we gain courage from these young survivors to acknowledge our own brokenness and start the process of healing. May we remain connected to the wounded healers around the world, as we try to follow the One who also fled from violence as a child, and endured the suffering of this world so we might have hope in the midst of ours. Amen

Thank you for your support of our family that allows us to live in Uganda, alongside our displaced South Sudanese sisters and brothers. We are so grateful for you.

Nancy and Shelvis


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