The Director for Theological Education in the Anglican Communion, the Revd Canon Dr Stephen Spencer, recounts a recent visit to an Anglican church in the South Sudanese Diocese of Kajo-Keji, in exile in Uganda.
In January 2017 the people of Kajo-Keji in South Sudan fled from fighting between rebels and government forces. They crossed the border with Uganda and were settled in refugee camps by the UNHCR. There were many Anglicans among them and they set up three churches in the camps. One of them now meets in a large shelter constructed with a wooden frame and covered in UNHCR tarpaulin.
The congregation had constructed the frame themselves, adding sections one by one and then persuading the UN agency to let them have enough tarpaulin, normally used for tents and shelters, to cover the frame. I was invited to preach at their Sunday morning service. When it started the shelter was less than half full. By the time it ended three hours later the place was full.
In classic Anglican fashion the backbone of the service came from Book of Common Prayer Mattins, though in the Bari vernacular, with introductory sentences, confession, responses, Bible reading, creed, collects, sermon and grace. But within this structure there were hymns and songs accompanied by a sonorous variety of drums and much exuberant singing and dancing.
The young people’s choir sang in English and Bari, the Mothers’ Union choir sang in gentle harmonies about resisting the attacks of the devil, and individuals came forward for prayers of blessing, healing and reconciliation (including, movingly, an abusive son and his elderly mother).
The offertory was a moment of sheer exuberance with great lines of people bringing forward their gifts while dancing, singing and sometimes just jumping around. It went on for around twenty minutes with the drumming raising the temperature all the while.
The Sunday School had their turn at the end, leading the recessional song, with the only issue being that their procession involved taking three steps forward and then two steps back with each line of the song. At this rate it seemed they would never actually leave!
The clergy looked around worriedly at each other wondering when on earth they would get out. But the joy of the congregation was triumphant and a wonder to behold.
The profound paradox of the Christian life was plain to see: here was a community of people who had been traumatised by flight from their homes and exile in another country. Yet here they were lifting hearts and souls to God in praise and thanksgiving. It was moving beyond words.
As I prepared the sermon I had looked at the set passage of scripture and was taken aback. It was the first part of Isaiah 54, written by the prophet when he and the people of Judah were in exile in Babylon. They had suffered the destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon and had been forced into exile.
As I read through its words of consolation and hope it came alive in a remarkable way. Here were words that spoke directly to the people of Kajo-Keji living in their own exile. As the preacher all I had to do was convey these words in a clear and direct way. I began by telling the story of the people of Israel, from their good times when David and Solomon were kings and they were settled in the own land, through the bitter division of the tribes under King Rehoboam, which connected with the tragic divisions of the tribes of South Sudan, to the disaster of the invasion of foreign powers and exile.
Having set the scene the words and images of Isaiah 54 then spoke for themselves, images of the people’s tent being enlarged to accommodate others, of God being their husband and redeemer, of his great compassion that would gather them together, of these days being like the days of hope for Noah after the flood, of God‘s covenant of peace that shall not be removed, and of how he would rebuild their houses to be more beautiful than before, with the ringing conclusion ‘in righteousness you shall be established, you shall be far from oppression, you shall not fear, terror shall not come near you’ (54:14).
Finally I was able to add that Isaiah’s hopefulness was later vindicated when the people did indeed return home, rebuild their houses and plant their fields. This was the Lord’s promise to all his people including this congregation. With the help of a passionate interpreter it became clear that the sermon was being taken to heart by the congregation. It was exciting for me to see scripture come alive and speak into such a challenging situation in this way.
It was also clear from all this that being a disciple does not remove the hardships and traumas of life but, with the help of scripture and a community of faith, wonderfully finds the gift of hope and encouragement within them. The greater the hardship, it seems, the greater the potential for life transforming joy and love. The people of Kajo-Keji diocese in exile in the refugee camp in Uganda had become light and salt to the world.