After a three-week spell of teaching an intensive course at Nile Theological College today I depart from Juba. With mixed emotions – inspired by the community life of the College yet daunted by the scale and complexity of the challenges facing the young nation of South Sudan.
With hindsight it is apparent that the SPLM/A, which spearheaded the independence struggle, was primarily a military movement, little prepared in 2011 for the task of building a new nation. As professionals came back home to South Sudan after independence they came from many different contexts where they had grown accustomed to different languages and different ways of doing things. It proved very difficult to build a common culture and begin to work together, a challenging task already in a country with 64 different ethnic communities.
Fragmentation set in early and divided leaders exploited old fault-lines in a resort to violence. It is estimated that some 400,000 have lost their lives since 2013, mostly defenceless civilians. Around half of the population are refugees – internally displaced within the country or accommodated in camps in neighbouring countries or further scattered into diaspora. Many have been through traumatic experiences of violent attack, loss of loved ones and destruction of their homes. A generation of young people have grown up without the opportunity for much education or formation, including some who were conscripted as child soldiers and have been traumatised from an early age.
A surprising development in these adverse circumstances is that the church has grown. One of the ironies of history is that it was after the missionaries left that Christianity really took off in South Sudan. Take the case of the Uduk people in the Blue Nile District. Decades of missionary work seemed to end in failure when the missionaries were expelled in 1963. The infrastructure of the missionary institutions soon began to crumble. But at the very same time the Uduk themselves began to do mission in their own way and many were baptised, leading to the emergence of growing churches. As Jonathan Arensen points out:
These Uduk were not becoming Christians because of the benefits of western medicine, employment or education. These benefits did not exist. They were becoming Christians because there were aspects of Christianity that met their spiritual needs.Jonathan E. Arensen, “Conversion among the Uduk: Continuity versus Discontinuity”, in Andrew Wheeler ed., Land of Promise: Church Growth in a Sudan at War, Nairobi: Paulines, 1997, 82-83.
It is a story that has been replicated among many of the peoples of South Sudan. The result is that there are vibrant church movements today, giving hope in a context where there are so many challenges to be surmounted. The students of Nile Theological College are a vital expression of this hope and it has been an inspiration to spend time with them.