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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

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

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

LOUISVILLE — For the first time in 500 years, an ecumenical peace pilgrimage was undertaken earlier this month 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 historic 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 in the pilgrimage an “amazing blessing and privilege” and felt the event was a pastoral response to the people of South Sudan.

What follows are some brief reflections from the group on the ecumenical peace delegation.

On Pope Francis

Mission Co-Workers the Rev. Bob and Kristi Rice

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.

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.)

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

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.”

Saturday’s ecumenical prayer service

Kristi Rice — There were thousands of people at all the events, but everything was peaceful and well-organized. Armed soldiers were not visible at the prayer events or with the pope, which is a contrast to what we usually see with politicians and contributed to the peaceful atmosphere.


Sharon Kandel

Sharon Kandel — It was amazing how quiet a crowd of thousands could be as they leaned in to hear what each speaker had to say.

Kristi Rice — An ecumenical choir rehearsed for several weeks ahead of the visit. I was impressed at the joyful welcome song that they sang during the ecumenical prayer service on Saturday evening, including the names “Pope Francis, Bishop Justin, and Moderator Iain.”

Interacting with the Presbyterian Church in South Sudan

Kristi Rice — The leaders of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church really appreciated the presence of both the Church of Scotland and the PC(USA) and recognized our shared history of the church. We read Ephesians 5:8-14 together in English and Arabic and discussed how it spoke to us in the call to live in the light. I was encouraged to hear the Word come alive through the different lenses of cultures and experiences.

Jeff Boyd — We gathered to pray together and to demonstrate unity across Christian traditions. We all belong to the Prince of Peace. This visit was also a moment to fulfill the prophetic tradition and to speak words of truth to the political leaders and to chastise them for their lack of commitment to peace and justice.

Jeff Boyd is pictured with his wife and fellow mission co-worker, Christi.

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.

Kristi Rice ­— After the visit, one man I met in a tea shop in Juba expressed that there was a “different spirit” among people, that people were more friendly and considerate of each other than they had been before.

Sharon Kandel — The hope for a change mixed with the feeling that nothing will change.

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.

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