Please note: This is Part One of a three-part series on my experiences with World Concern in South Sudan. The people of South Sudan are stunning in their beauty, inspiring in their resiliency, delightful in their kindness and convicting in their abundant courage, strength and fight for their freedom and their future. South Sudan is the world's newest nation. Much of South Sudan has been isolated from the rest of the world and violently oppressed for many years by its own countrymen in the North. They have fought fiercely for their freedom and the hope that echoes and sings throughout the country today is a testament to the human spirit. Their story, like other developing nations, is complicated and should not be reduced to any other African nation's story, history or experience. For further thoughts on this, read Pastor Eugene Cho's blog (who also traveled with World Concern to Kenya and Somalia.)
This first installment is markedly sad. However- please continue reading this week. I will highlight some beautiful stories, people and the incredible work World Concern is doing in the transformation of this new nation.
In the midst of the most extreme poverty the world has perhaps ever seen, hope is rising. Possibility is everywhere. And before our lifetime is over, I believe we will look at the country of South Sudan and marvel at where they have come from.
I was 15 years old when I first encountered true poverty.
It was on a trip to care for children with AIDS and work with immigrant families in Miami, Florida. It left an indelible impression on my soul. People starting over with nothing and children suffering the sins of their fathers and mothers. It pierced my soul and became the first of many encounters with "the least of these."
17 years later, I have seen suffering around the world. Inner-city kids in Houston and homeless men in Dallas, Texas. Isolated, malnourished children in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains in Kentucky. Orphans in Bistrista, Romania. Street kids turned prostitutes in Budapest, Hungary. Families living on the side of trash heaps in Juarez, Mexico. Poverty stricken villages dotting the mountains of Slovakia. I've seen a lot.
My frequent experiences with those suffering from profound physical poverty over the years has never mitigated the pain and shock I still experience each time I lock eyes with a fellow human being in pain.
South Sudan was no different. Here are a few stories I will never forget:
Three moms tried to give me their babies this week because they cannot feed them. One mom stood at the back of our vehicle, and in front of men, she pulled her shirt down to reveal her sagging, sickly breasts. "No milk. No milk," she said with pleading eyes as she tried to hold up the lifeless skin. Her sweet baby girl, only a few months old, smiled at me. "You. You. You" the mother motioned her head toward me and lifted her baby to my hands. She didn't speak any English. But I think the signal for giving your baby away because you cannot feed her is universal. I shook my head no. I can't. We closed the doors. And the tears that started in that moment broke something deep inside of me. When poverty is so intense that your only option is to give your child away to a complete stranger- or worse- leave your child for dead; you have truly reached rock bottom.
A Lost Boy
Through the work of World Concern, I am inviting my fans, friends and family to join me in helping transform the village of Lietnhom, South Sudan. It is a lovely village! Full of chickens and cows and kids with beautiful voices and hard-working families. While in Lietnhom, we were hosted by another Christian non-profit organization, ALARM. This was too much fun because my husband, Ryan, works for ALARM so I got to meet all the people on the ground that he works with. It was like one big family reunion! One night as we sat outside sipping coffee, one of Ryan's African co-workers, Peter began to tell his life story.
"There were so many times I wondered, as a little boy, if I would ever be free," he said with a sort of content remembrance, "I wondered if I would ever sit, like we do now, and sip coffee and talk with the men."
He was 11 years old when men kidnapped him and forced him to become a child-soldier. As the sun set, Peter very quietly unfolded the horrors of his childhood. Learning to kill at 11 years old, his job was to bury the other little boys who couldn't keep up. Tears streamed down my face as he described digging mass graves and throwing in four boys at a time. This, he said, was the hardest part. He recounted the last time he saw his dad before he was murdered and what it has been like to take in one of his brother's children as his own; his brother was also murdered.
He is the second "lost boy" I have personally had the honor to meet and spend time with. Talking to him, with every broken thing he has seen and every inhumane tragedy he has carried; yet radiating hope, peace, belief and deep love for God, made me think I might just be in the presence of God himself... who carries the broken.
"When I heard the sound of the helicopters, I wondered if it could be true. I wondered if I would really be free," Peter tells his story like it is common, "I laid my head down that night in a bed. The first bed I slept in since I was 11 years old. I went to sleep as a free man. I slept like I had eaten every good food- I slept full."
Ellen works for World Concern in South Sudan. Ellen is not her real name and I won't tell you where she works because she has recently left her husband who beat her until she miscarried. After hours of translating for us as we met villagers in corn fields, Ellen opened up and began to tell me about her life. She has a 2-year-old little boy. Her legs are the victims of her husband's machete. She left him, with her little boy. "I could be killed. But it is better to face that fate than to be beat." She tells me that she believes one day women in the rural villages of South Sudan will have basic human rights, but right now, she says, they do not.
"Look at these women," she says as we sit next to a cluster of traditional tukils, "They are shared by one husband. They are not happy. They have no voice. They do not yet know that there is any other way." She confides in me that she might be "A century ahead of my own people," because she knows that being shared by a man, polygamy and the often ensuing abuse, is not acceptable human behavior. She has taken her chances and left- knowing he very well may kill her and her son.
"I will go to university," she says with quiet dignity, "I have planted a crop of sorghum and in two years time, I will raise and sell enough crop to send myself to school. To have education is the only way out. I will go, but I do not have a proper outfit to wear when the time comes."
"Sister," she grabs my hand as we walk through cornfields with little children following in front of us and behind us, "Sister, would you offer me an outfit of clothes so that I might properly attend university in two years?"
In a place where the problems seemed so big and my answers seemed so few- I came home with only the clothes on my back. You would have done the same too.
You can join Christians all over the world who are investing in the lives of our brothers and sisters in South Sudan by donating generously to the work World Concern is doing on the ground. Please join me and Witness the Transformation.