Studying, praying and taking steps toward action

Mission co-workers pray for a window to return to South Sudan

by Kathy Melvin| Presbyterian News Service

Before the pandemic, the Rev. Bob and Kristi Rice were pictured in Juba, South Sudan. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Mission co-workers the Rev. Bob and Kristi Rice firmly believe that God has a reason for them to be in the United States at this time.

Forced to leave South Sudan during the early stages of the pandemic, they have used the time not only to continue their work, but to also reflect more deeply on the challenges the U.S. faces around systemic racism, continued brutality against people of color and the need for 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),” the Rices wrote in a recent mission letter. “We will keep learning, keep growing, keeping asking, and keep seeking to know how to stand with the poor, the marginalized, the stigmatized and the oppressed, 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.”

The Rices have also spent time studying and reflecting on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Matthew 25 invitation.

“In Matthew 25, Jesus tells three parables — the parable of the 10 virgins, the parable of the talents and the parable of the sheep and the goats,” Bob said. “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?’”

Before the Rices left South Sudan in late March, the government issued an order closing all schools. A few days later, a lockdown order limited movement, prohibited public gatherings, and forced temporary closure of many businesses. While Nile Theological College (NTC), where Bob teaches a broad range of courses in theology and biblical studies, closed during this lockdown, members of the faculty continued to meet in a safe way, praying and exploring ways to remain engaged with students.

First, they created a Facebook Messenger group so they could communicate easily with each other. Secondly, they requested students come individually to the college to pick up notes and assignments from their teachers so that they could study from home. NTC also gathered students in small, socially distanced groups to listen to teachers lecture from a remote location via the WhatsApp on their phones. Unfortunately, that step failed because of South Sudan’s weak internet connections. NTC also solicited the help of two larger churches in Juba, requesting space so that students could safely socially distance while learning 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,” Bob said. “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.”

Bob said he and his wife wept as they left the country they have grown to love since they moved to South Sudan in 2017 to serve at the invitation of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Of course, the Rices do not know when it will be safe for them to return to South Sudan, but they are asking for prayers for that window to open so they can return to the country they now call home.


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