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PC(USA) mission co-workers share their thoughts on a once-in-a-lifetime peace delegation


Reflections on the historic ‘Pilgrimage of Peace,’ which elicited a joyous response from the people of South Sudan

March 17, 2023

South Sudanese dancers are pictured during a Mass celebrated on Feb. 5. (Photo by Shelvis Smith-Mather)

For the first time in 500 years, an ecumenical peace pilgrimage was undertaken earlier this year to South Sudan by Catholic, Anglican and Protestant church leaders. The delegation included Pope Francis; the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury; and the Rt. Rev. Iain Greenshields, moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Also attending this event were a group of mission co-workers from the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s World Mission ministry, including Jeff Boyd, co-coordinator for Africa; Sharon Kandel, regional liaison for the Horn of Africa; the Rev. Bob Rice and Kristi Rice, mission co-workers in South Sudan; and the Rev. Shelvis Smith-Mather, mission co-worker in South Sudan.

Bob Rice called the opportunity to participate an “amazing blessing and privilege” and felt the event was a pastoral response to the people of South Sudan.

What follows are some reflections from the group on the delegation.

On Pope Francis

The Rev. Bob Rice — As [a member of] the last vehicle in a long line of cars going to the airport to welcome Pope Francis on a sultry Friday afternoon, we stopped, and I marveled at the thousands of South Sudanese lined up peacefully and joyfully along the road.  The immediate line of persons held hands, serving as a buffer, a human chain of sorts, shielding all safely behind. Those behind were beaded with drops of sweat, the unforgiving sun bearing down as they sang choruses and danced, sweet smiles from young and old greeting me.

Happy faces were everywhere on display during the Pilgrimage of Peace. (Photo by Shelvis Smith-Mather)

One group of Catholic pilgrims walked nine days to Juba; a woman from among them said, “When you have smelled and seen death and hopelessness, then you will search for peace with all the might that you have.” The true and enduring strength of South Sudan was on full display as we waited for Pope Francis.

Jeff Boyd — In his message during the Ecumenical Prayer, Pope Francis reminded us of what happened to Moses and the people of Israel. They were taking their first steps toward freedom when they found themselves in a hopeless situation: impassable water in front and an army closing in behind them. Moses told the people: “Fear not, stand firm, and you will see the salvation of the Lord.” (Exodus 14:13) “Fear not” is much easier said than done. But God heard the cries of the people and provided a way to safety. Shortly after independence from Sudan, the people of South Sudan likewise experience the threat of attack by armies, and also the dangers of flood waters due to unprecedented climatic changes not of their doing.

The South Sudanese people

Sharon Kandel — I was struck by the crowds in the streets, the excitement in the air, the dancing and singing, the joy of something new and good happening in South Sudan. (Watch a video by the Rev. Shelvis Smith-Mather here.)

The Rev. Bob Rice — By Sunday afternoon, all the notable visitors had left, but a palpable sense of hope continued to fill the landscape. The following Friday we spent time with Bishop Paride Taban, a notable Catholic bishop best known for his peacemaking efforts over the last 40 years. When asked about the Pope’s visit, the aged and wizened bishop said to us in characteristic African proverbial fashion, “The pope’s visit is like a bee which came to us, stung us, and has left us. We trust and pray that the ‘itch of peace’ left by his sting will remain.”

Moving forward

Jeff Boyd — Against a backdrop of dire news reports, which generally do not reach the international press, this Pilgrimage of Peace is a statement of faith and hope. It was, and is, an act of faith which becomes a prayer: that God might heal the land and people of South Sudan. It has been a statement of hope to and with the people of South Sudan as we worshiped together and imagined what can be. The Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis [Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly] often said with deep compassion in her voice, “I see you.” For a people traumatized and retraumatized daily, an invisible people in a largely forgotten continent, this affirmed that they are seen, they are recognized, and their pain is shared.

To view images from this event, visit the World Mission Facebook page.

Joining the mission co-workers in South Sudan were the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis and Dr. Dianna Wright, director of ecumenical and interreligious relations with the Office of the General Assembly. Click here to read more about their experience leading up to the Pilgrimage of Peace.

 Scott O’Neill, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus: PC(USA) mission co-workers share reflections

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Joel Townsend, IT Help Desk Specialist, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)
Tonia Trice, HR Generalist, Human Resources, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)

Let us pray

With all the saints, we pray that we all may have the wisdom to comprehend the breadth, the length, the height and the depth of the love of Christ. We pray that we may all know this love that surpasses understanding, so that all may be filled with the fullness of God. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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