A letter from Leisa Wagstaff in South Sudan
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Dear Partners in Mission,
I was born in war.
I grew in war.
I got snatches of simple schooling in war.
I slept in mango groves to hide from war.
I wore leaves as clothes in war because there was nothing else.
I married in war and bore children in war.
From birth till now,
I’m still in war.
I probably will die in war.
One of my dear sister friends gave this testimony during a recent leadership development training. However, the account wasn’t uniquely hers, for anyone under or over her age of 47 could lay claim to it. Maybe some of their accounts differ slightly in that they can include being a child soldier or war slave, or perhaps they can say that they witnessed the murder of every member of their family or saw their entire village burned to ashes. Nonetheless, she and so many others state that this inhumanity to humanity is something they can never wish upon another or forget, and they all long for the day when peace reigns in their homeland. They each say they are tired of living without peace and being Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) or refugees in neighboring countries. They ask why war continues.
My sister friend is a fortunate one who has not forgotten how far she has come or what has been laid upon her heart. Her father wanted two things for his eight children, all girls: to have a deep abiding faith in Christ and to be educated so as to be able to care for themselves no matter the socio-political and economic climate and challenging traditional attitudes. This was envisioning thinking at a time when the only way he had of being a leader for his family during the long years of war was steering them through the thick bush in the darkest of night while commanding quietness so as to avoid detection by the Sudan’s Khartoum-based government and/or divisive liberation rebels. Today she has become a leader as a caring pastor whose heart is for the strengthening of communities, opportunities for women, the care of children, and the vibrancy of the church. She no longer wants people, especially women, to “just keep [their] complaints in [their] heart” or to know nothing but war.
I am glad to have met this lady and to be encouraged, enlightened and challenged by her commitment, understanding of and love for people, experience, hospitality and gentle disposition. Sometimes when I am feeling as if I am not making progress in my work because I cannot check anything off of an ever-increasing “To Do” list, she reminds me that often hurting and struggling people do not necessarily want or need another to do anything, but just to be with them in spirit through prayer and understanding of what it is to walk under the relentless hot sun along dusty paths, and to join in the cries of heartache and disappointment as well as the ululations and dance of pride, celebration and victory. Just as important is nurturing the time and protecting the space for people to envision what they want their future to be like.
It is in the small pockets of peace in the country that the education component of the South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project (SSEPP), a partnership initiative of the PC(USA) and the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS), is engaged. Though the calm in these areas are sometimes fragile and tenuous, communities have started to resettle themselves in the land they fled. Our ministry is to walk alongside our brothers, sisters and children wherever they are and join them in their looking forward to going home and rebuilding their lives.
When listening to the residents over a period of time (sometimes months and months) as they engage in dialogue on what they want their communities and schools to look like and what they must be about, I hear them move closer and closer to feelings of empowerment and say very simple but profound truths about themselves, education and the Church. Among them: “Our tribe is the Church, not an ethnic group. … You may see us as weak, but it is due to our lack of education. … Our young girls only wait for marriage because there are no other options. … Education cannot wait, WE must get started! … Quality education is not just dependent upon a good building, but upon what happens inside the hearts, minds and souls of those inside of it. … This is what we are capable of and are bringing to the effort. … No one has to do for us, only partnership with us. If sand is needed, we know where the best sand is and will dig it and the men will carry it on their backs and the women on their heads; we don’t mind the labor. … We must change our future and the futures of those to follow.”
There may not be categories on my “To Do” list to record these declarations, but they are important indicators that the PC(USA)’s important “holistic approach” to its mission ministry is changing “the whole person and whole community [and] creating meaningful relationships and authentic change.”
Let us pray together that the same peace found in these few areas grows stronger and spreads until every South Sudanese’s testimony is, “Once upon a time we lived in a land of discord, fear and lack of basic needs on a daily basis and wondered why there was war; now I live in peace and prosper from it.” In the meantime, no matter how many reports I read, news broadcasts I hear or sufferings I witness, I cannot answer why the war continues. Like them, I too am tired of the interruption of lives—from a person’s birth to his/her death—and long and pray for peace and recommit myself to doing my part.
As the number of children ageing out of the primary school range increases and the number of children enrolling in primary school decreases, “education cannot wait.” I invite your prayers, correspondence and financial support of this ministry for another year. Thank you for your partnership as you join the people of South Sudan in their longing for and preparation for peace.
In Ministry Together,
Leisa TonieAnn Wagstaff
Juba, Central Equatoria State, South Sudan
The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 139
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