Study Team Faces Turmoil in Sudan

April 03, 2009

By Mark L. Barden*

March 30, 2009 | NEW YORK (UMNS)


Several days of unrest and tension in Southern Sudan opened the door for mutual ministry between members of a United Methodist Board of Global Ministries mission travel study team and the local people in the city of Yei who struggled to keep them safe.


As team members prepared to leave for a meeting with local governmental officials on the morning of March 18, chaos erupted outside their hotel. Disgruntled military veterans fired shots while attempting to raid the Bank of Southern Sudan located across the street.


For the past five months, soldiers disabled in the war and veterans entitled to pension payments had not received due funds. Building frustration and lack of food fueled the response to break into the bank, where they thought their funds were being held.


As shots rang out, Caroline Njuki, a board executive and one of the team leaders, shouted to her colleagues to "hit the floor and lock yourselves in your rooms." As the team scrambled to secure areas, a barrage of gunfire convinced many of the severity of the situation.


"At first I was not afraid because I thought, 'Everybody lie low, and in 20 or 30 minutes the police will get it under control and everything will be fine,'" said the Rev. Ruby Nelson, a pastor from Beaumont, Texas. "Then it dawned on me that this is not the way it works in a war-torn country. The people who were upset had guns and were also angry and drunk. I thought, 'This is totally out of control,' and I was terrified."


"I was thinking, 'O God, don't let anyone get hurt; just cover us, and even if any bullets fly through this hotel, let nobody get hit,'" said Giuseppina Avitia, co-leader of the team. "I sat there and thought, 'We're in the safest place we can be. There are these huge walls between the street and us. As long as nobody is in that little open section, the bullets can fly all they want and they won't hit any of us.'"


Staff assesses situation

The hotel staff quickly assessed the seriousness of the situation and feared for the safety of the Americans. They requested "all white faces to stay in their rooms" because they understood the potential for a hostage situation.


Local authorities reported to the team that those involved did not succeed in breaking into the bank. However, one guard was wounded with non-life-threatening injuries. They requested that the team remain sequestered in the hotel until security could be ensured.


In the midst of the turmoil, an opportunity developed for team members and hotel staff to minister to one another and deepen their relationships. Soon after the shooting ended, the young hotel staff gathered the team in the common meeting area in the hotel's center courtyard. They preoccupied themselves by telling stories, singing songs, and answering questions about their lives.


The team discovered the hotel staff did not own Bibles but desperately wanted them. So the team gave their personal Bibles to the staff. "When we brought out the Bibles, they were praising and jumping," said Avitia. "It let us see how hungry they were for the Word of God. They were so overjoyed, it gave me chills."


From that point on, solidarity in Christ with their African brothers and sisters added a new dimension to their relationship with the staff.


Throughout the night and into the next day, uncertainty about violence breaking out again fueled apprehension. Team leaders communicated with both the Board of Global Ministries and the American Embassy in Sudan trying to arrange an evacuation. However, the government closed all roads and the airspace to quell further unrest. This kept the team from leaving Sudan until its scheduled departure to Uganda on Saturday.


Calm returns

On the morning of March 19, Salva Kiir, leader of Southern Sudan and the nation's vice president, arrived in Yei to negotiate a settlement with the soldiers who were due payment. An agreement was reached, and Kiir addressed the people during a rally at the town's Freedom Square. Calm began to return to the provincial town, located less than 30 miles north of the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Despite a volatile situation that heightened anxiety, team members experienced Sudan in a way that will enhance their teaching in the Schools of Christian Mission. During the next two years of the study, and in speaking to church groups, they will add a unique dimension to their presentations.


"Perhaps that was God's way of allowing us to experience in some measure the terror they go through," said the Rev. Lynn Borgeson, a pastor from Glyndon, Minnesota.


Avitia said: "It really impressed me that even though the people are living in this situation, having gone through war their entire lives, they still can go to church and praise, dance, and sing at the top of their lungs. Such joy in their hearts is a confirmation of a true relationship with Jesus Christ."


*Barden, a member of the mission travel study team, is Director of Communications for the Western North Carolina Annual Conference.