One night in South Sudan

October 26, 2016 § 4 Comments

squarepromo_3-2A year and a few months ago, I visited South Sudan with the Dallas-based microfinance nonprofit Seed Effect.

I wrote this story about my first night in South Sudan a while back, but wanted to share it now in anticipation of Seed Effect’s fundraising event on Thursday, Oct. 27. If you’re interested in attending this event or learning more about the organization in general, please let me know!

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When a small African country appears on the pages of an international newspaper, the news is almost certainly bad, and if that small African country is South Sudan, you don’t need to read the headline to know that the story is proclaiming horrific calamities far beyond the scope of most Western lives.

South Sudan has been in the news a lot recently, with stories coming out about rape, mass murder, and the dislocation of millions. As a result, most people who discover that I visited the country within the past year are, at first, shocked that I had the audacity to go, and then, shocked again to realize that I returned alive.

“I can’t believe you went there,” people say. Or, “Isn’t that a war zone?”

I never know quite how to respond to these questions.

After all, I was only in South Sudan for two weeks, which hardly makes me an expert on the country, and while any visit to South Sudan is somewhat dangerous, during my short stay, I remained within the confines of a small village in the south, while the violence occurred far to the north in an area only reachable by poorly maintained red dirt roads. As one of my fellow travelers put it, getting from our village in the south to the violence in the north would be like trying to drive from Dallas to Oklahoma City without a car or a road. She was exaggerating, of course, but you get the gist.

When people ask me what South Sudan was like, I usually, once again, find myself at a loss for words.

Sometimes, I describe the town where I stayed.

Kajo Keji is lush and green, I say, with rolling cornfields and leafy trees. Goats are tied to stakes along the road. Many South Sudanese live in mud huts called tukuls. Children collect well water in plastic buckets. Men ride motorcycles through town. Women cook chicken over fires with babies strapped to their backs.

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Other times, I talk about the war.

It’s caused by two tribes fighting in the country’s oil-rich north, I say, quoting what I’ve read in the paper. And while all of the atrocities you read about are true, the South Sudanese I met were fundamentally joyful. They were generous and gracious and tremendously faithful, and I admire them very much.

Usually, people want to know whether I felt safe. To which I reply: yes, and also, no.

Yes, I felt safe in Kajo Keji. It was safe enough for me, a twenty-something-year-old American woman, to wander away from my fellow travelers in the market and buy avocados from a South Sudanese woman with a baby in her lap. It was safe enough for me to eat some unknown meat prepared over a fire in an outdoor kitchen. And it was safe enough for me to walk alone amongst the tukuls on a Sunday afternoon while barefoot children skipped beside me shouting “Hieee!” and “Galatot!” – Kuku for “white person.”

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Yet, it was not safe enough for us to sleep in a concrete bunker at night without a South Sudanese man guarding the place with a bow and arrow. It was not safe enough to prevent one of my fellow travelers from observing toward the end of our stay that he was glad we were leaving soon – he’d recently heard that soldiers from the north were moving into Kajo Keji in case of a coup.

And it was not safe enough for us to cross the border from Uganda into South Sudan without being stopped in the dead of night by soldiers with vicious-looking semi-automatic rifles.

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I’d been fast asleep against the square window of the Cessna Caravan, the small propeller-powered plane flying us over the rural countryside of Uganda, when we began the descent. I awoke just in time to stare in awe at the thatched roofs of the tukuls, the smoke from the outdoor fires, and the children running through the bush.

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We landed on a bumpy grass field which served as the airport in Moyo, a small Ugandan village on the border of South Sudan. The field happened to be located beside the village school, and as soon as the propellers stopped turning, dozens of children of all ages crowded in a circle around the plane. Though many of them weren’t wearing any shoes and most of their clothes were more like filthy rags, some of the teenagers owned flip phones, and they unabashedly took photos of us as we stepped off the plane.

We’d left Dallas over forty-eight hours earlier, but Moyo wasn’t our final destination. We still had to drive over the Ugandan border into South Sudan, where the twelve of us would spend two weeks working with Seed Effect in Kajo Keji.

Originally, we’d planned to fly into Juba, the country’s capitol. But the day before our planned departure, news of possible violence and travel moratoriums in Juba caused us to change plans. We were now entering South Sudan through Uganda by bus.

We were a group of Texans of various ages and backgrounds with one thing in common: we’d all felt a spiritual call toward South Sudan.

As for me, the decision to go had been fairly easy. Ever since I first learned about microfinancing in my high school world studies class, I’d admired how it empowers individuals in low income situations. As a budding journalist, I would be able to write a profile of the organization’s founder for my local newspaper. Plus, I love traveling, especially traveling to exotic places, and though I was wary of using this personal enjoyment as a reason to go, I must admit that it came into play. I never felt God whispering in my ear, “Go to South Sudan,” or anything like that, but I’d been told that God doesn’t always talk to you in your dreams; sometimes, the right path to take is simply the one laid out in front of you.

Now, however, I was doubting all of my reasons to come.

We’d waded through the throngs of Ugandan children to climb aboard a mud-splattered bus with the words “reaching the unreached” scrawled in faded blue paint along the side. I’d sat in a window seat toward the back with the intention of getting a good view of the African bush. It was a short distance from Moyo to Kajo Keji, and if we’d been on a paved road in the U.S., we would have reached it in less than an hour. But the roads in these parts of East Africa are not only unpaved, they are dusty and full of potholes.

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Our ride would be bumpy and slow, and we had to stop three times before we reached South Sudan: first, when a Ugandan soldier on a motorcycle with a machine gun strapped to his back gave us a ticket for breaking some mysterious law; second, at the Ugandan border, where we relieved ourselves in a shack built over a cement hole and were told by a Ugandan border guard that we needed to pay him a good deal of money for Visas to leave the country; and third, at the South Sudanese border, where we sat on hard benches in a hot room watching a monkey tied to a stake turn circles around himself while we waited for the South Sudanese border guard to finally tell us that the Visas we obtained in the U.S. were now worthless and we would need to purchase new ones – at a high price.

By then, the sun had set, and when the sun sets in South Sudan, it is pitch black. We stumbled through the dark, most of us only half lucid, and climbed back onto the bus to begin the final leg into Kajo Keji.

I was just beginning to consider using my duffel bag as a pillow – after all, I couldn’t see any of the tukuls or leafy trees or sloping hills in the dark – when lights flashed on the road ahead.

The bus pulled to a stop.

We were immediately alert. The driver and our South Sudanese escort whispered to one another in the front of the bus. Outside, I saw the outline of several tall, lanky South Sudanese men in camouflage standing in the headlights, holding semi-automatic rifles.

Our escort, a young woman in khaki slacks and a magenta button-up, got out of the bus. When she returned, her expression was unreadable.

We’d been stopped by the soldiers, she said. They wanted to search the bus. Everyone had to get out.

Oh my God, I thought to myself as I followed the rest of the group down the aisle. Today is the day I am going to die.

My mind flashed back to the many news articles I’d read in preparation for the trip, stories about mass rape and murder. We’d been assured that violence of that kind rarely happened in this part of the country, but what if we were the rare exception?

I saw us lined up against the side of the bus and shot. I saw us kidnapped for ransom. I couldn’t imagine what rape would be like, but I wondered if that might happen, too.

As we huddled together in the dark, the South Sudanese soldiers encircling us with their guns held loosely, black barrels jaunting to the side, I began to pray.

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More often than not, when I take the time to pray, my prayers are accompanied by the voice of doubt, which wonders whether prayer has any real efficacy at all. I mean, when all is said and done, sometimes it seems our prayers are answered, but other times, it seems they’re not.

Sometimes, the circumstances in our lives line up so perfectly that wonderful miracles happen. Other times, the circumstances in our lives line up so unfortunately that inconceivable tragedies occur. How can I equate one to the answer of prayer without simply turning a blind eye on the other?

But the voice of doubt was not in my head that evening as the South Sudanese soldiers forced our vulnerable group to circle the bus. It never is when you’re really in trouble. I prayed ceaselessly, relying solely on the fervency of my prayer and the hope that God was listening. After all, what else did I have to protect myself if the situation made a turn for the worse? I’m not sure I had ever really prayed in my life until then.

The soldiers wanted each of us to remove our suitcases from the back of the bus.

The first member of our group to bravely step forward was a lady who loved Disney more than almost anything in the world, and when the young soldier aimed his flashlight down at her bag, the barrel of his gun swinging precariously, we saw that the suitcase was shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. And when the soldier gestured for her to open it, we saw that the insides were chalk full of blow-up balls and candy bracelets – gifts she’d planned to give to the South Sudanese children.

There we were in the dark, in the middle of South Sudan, with Mickey Mouse grinning up at us and the soldiers with guns leering down at the candy inside his head. If the situation hadn’t been so terrifyingly surreal, I would have laughed. As it was, I was too busy praying.

So it went. One by one, each of us opened our suitcases on the dirt road while the South Sudanese soldiers loomed over us with flashlights blazing, guns ominously clanking. After about the fourth suitcase, the soldiers decided they’d had enough and waved us back onto the bus.

I did not feel safe again until we were barreling down the road away from them. Another half an hour later, we pulled into the compound at Kajo Keji, which would be our home for the next two weeks.

Later, after a solid night’s sleep and a breakfast of scrambled eggs and a thick flatbread called chapati, we would speculate on why the soldiers stopped us, finally deciding on what seemed the most plausible answer: the soldiers in the south were bored and jealous of their compatriots in the north, who got to see all the action.

Scaring us was a way to pass the time.

*

When people ask me about South Sudan, I am always wary of sharing this story of our crossing the border because I fear my telling of it will come across flippant or opportunistic: flippant, because the event was so frighteningly strange any retelling of it becomes comical, and opportunistic, because it was a brush with danger that makes a great adventure story for me, the American who made it home to her house in the suburbs, while for the South Sudanese I left behind, the life-threatening dangers remain.

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Though I only spent two weeks with my South Sudanese hosts in Kajo Keji, I feel close to them. I am Facebook friends with a number of them, and every time they post prayer requests about friends who have been bitten by black mambas, relatives who’ve been injured in motorcycle accidents, or nearby villagers who’ve been wounded in violent massacres, I feel a combination of powerlessness and a desire to do something, anything, to help. I care about them, I guess is what I mean, and I want every story I share about my time in South Sudan to reflect that.

Yet, I’ve felt compelled to share this story nonetheless, seeing that I add the above caveat, because it’s an example of what it’s like to live a life so obviously prey to forces outside one’s control.

The South Sudanese live at the mercy of so much: unstable political forces like those which caused the soldiers to stop us in the night, as well as every unpredictable force of nature you can imagine, including illnesses like malaria, wild animals like the poisonous black mamba, and even the rain, which they rely on to water their crops and fill their wells.

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Reading articles about South Sudan these days, I often feel a chill, partly because, in some small way, I experienced what it’s like be at the mercy of these forces, and partly because I wonder if our Western lives are much less under control than we’d like to think. In many ways, the South Sudanese know this truth – that we are fragile and dependent creatures – better than we do, simply by virtue of where they live.

I suppose that’s why, when I listened to them pray again and again during those two weeks, praying over bowls of fried chicken, praying inside overheated churches, and praying under the shade of leafy palm trees, I always felt the voice of doubt had little air to breathe.

After all, when faced with your own vulnerability, it hardly ever does.

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Church beneath a tree

October 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

A little while ago, I wrote about my experience attending a tree church in South Sudan over on Seed Effect’s blog. I’m finally getting around to posting it: you can read the story at this link or below.

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Sunday morning, we pile into two SUVs and drive down the bumpy dirt roads of Kajo Keji to attend a church beneath a tree.

The church is made out of a blue tarp hung over sticks. We sit on a combination of wooden pews and broken plastic lawn chairs. It is a small space, hot inside, but with the early morning sunlight shining through tears in the tarp, a slight breeze, and the sound of birds in the trees, it is peaceful.

Children dressed in colorful patterned clothes sit on the dirt floor. Some of the girls, as young as elementary school children, have babies swaddled on their backs.

The South Sudanese in this church worship by playing drums and colorful shakers, singing, dancing, and clapping. They immediately welcome us into the worship, some of the women clasping our hands and jumping up and down with us. The music changes, and they are singing slow and deep, “I surrender my problems. I surrender my sickness. I surrender my weakness.”

They begin to pray out loud. One young woman closes her eyes and tilts her head back, fervently whispering her petitions to the sky. I can’t understand her, or any of them, but as the praying ends I hear, “Thank you, Lord, thank you, my father,” and I think, whoever told me South Sudan was a place of suffering had it wrong. These people are filled with the Spirit. They are blessed.

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But after the service, when we are mulling about beneath the leafy tree, Rachel, one of our team members, relates a story: one of the churchgoers, a 19-year-old woman without a husband, has just asked Rachel to take her baby back to the United States.

Rachel suggests the mother would miss her daughter, but it is clear the mother realizes the life she can give her baby in South Sudan is not the life any mother would want for a child.

There is sickness here, and little medication. There is poverty. There is war. There is death.

*

A man comes up to our group and asks for a Bible. He says his name is John. He’s already drunk two two-liter bottles of beer that day. He is barefooted, wearing torn and dirty clothes, his eyes red and bleary, his breath rank.

Before giving him a Bible, we ask why he wants it.

He says God told him to read Psalm 31. We ask him if he believes in God, in Jesus. He says he knows who Jesus is, but does not believe in Him. There is shame and hurt in his eyes.

John’s friend stands beside him, a friend who was formerly a drunk but changed after converting. This friend urges John to accept Christ, to give up drinking, but John does not want to. He says the drinking helps him forget his pain. When we ask what pain he wants to forget, he does not answer, but he does let us pray with him. He kneels on the ground as we place hands upon him.

All I can do is whisper, over and over, the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on this man, John, a sinner.” Why would John be so moved to speak with us, to ask for a Bible, to read a powerful verse like that? I am saddened at his state, the loneliness and hurt in his eyes, the inability to find peace.

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Before I came to South Sudan, many people who had been here before told me that South Sudan has the same darkness and light as the rest of the world, it is simply exaggerated. I think they are correct. There is joy and poverty in Dallas, too, but the joy of the South Sudanese against the stark poverty of their lives throws sin and grace in a bright light, revealing both our need for the Lord and His presence with us.

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Over the weekend

October 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

I shared these on all of the usual social media sites this weekend, but in case you missed them, I had the privilege of writing two stories for The Dallas Morning News which appeared in Sunday’s paper.

The first was this profile of Missy Williams, cofounder of Seed Effect, the organization I traveled to South Sudan with last August (which, if you read this blog, you haven’t heard enough about lately!).

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Missy went from being an interior designer to cofounding this remarkable microfinance organization with her husband. I recommend Seed Effect to anyone looking for a charity in which to invest.

“Our hope would be that Seed Effect would be a light in South Sudan, a place of stability, as much as we can, in an unstable environment.”  – Missy Williams

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The second is this photo essay of 15 women facing breast cancer, which I worked on with one of The Dallas Morning News photographers.

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This is one of the more powerful stories I’ve worked on. I interviewed 12 of these women back-to-back, and hearing about their illness, how it’s affected their lives, how they’ve found peace and strength in the hardest of times, it was nothing short of remarkable.

“Breast cancer was honestly one of the best things that ever happened to me. Although I hate [that] it happened, I really am thankful for my perspective on life changing to where I don’t stress about the small things.  – Erika Young

Hoping you enjoy these stories and have a happy start to your week!

Seed Effect in South Sudan

September 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

As if I haven’t written enough about my recent trip to South Sudan…here’s another post!

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This one’s a bit different than my usual reflective ramblings, however. I wrote this short piece for my church, All Saints Church Dallas (a church I love, for any Dallasites looking for a place to go). It’s a straightforward explanation of what Seed Effect is doing in South Sudan. You can read it on All Saints’ blog. I’ve also pasted it below.

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In August, I traveled to South Sudan on a mission trip with Seed Effect, a Christian microfinance nonprofit based in Dallas.

From what you might hear on the news, South Sudan is the last place in the world an American woman should go. Two tribes in the country’s oil-rich north are fighting. Recently, The New York Times reported such atrocities as gang-raping women, burning families in their huts, and kidnapping elementary-aged boys to train as child soldiers.

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Despite all of this, each of us who went felt a call from God, a call to go, a call to serve. After all, He calls us to make disciples everywhere, including the hardest of places, places like South Sudan.

So, we packed our bags and traveled the two-day journey to Kajo Keji, one of three towns in South Sudan where Seed Effect operates.

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Kajo Keji is a beautiful dirt road town in the southern part of South Sudan, where the violence in the north hasn’t reached. It is lush and green, with rolling cornfields and leafy trees. Goats are tied to stakes along the road. Many South Sudanese live in mud huts with thatched roofs. Children collect well water in plastic buckets. Women cook on clay stoves with babies strapped to their backs. Men ride motorcycles through the center of town.

Seed Effect is a microfinance organization, which provides low-interest loans of around $150 each to South Sudanese entrepreneurs to invest in their businesses. These businesses are rudimentary. Many consist of selling produce like dry beans, avocados, and cabbages on tarps in the market.IMG_0043

The loans provide capital for these entrepreneurs to purchase the goods they sell, empowering them to lift themselves out of poverty. As a Christian nonprofit, Seed Effect couples this with evangelism. Their clients hear the gospel every time they meet with a loan officer, which is about once a week. Through Seed Effect, many South Sudanese have come to know the Lord.

In Kajo Keji, we interviewed these clients and prayed with them. Their stories are incredible. The first woman we met had malaria; another had typhoid; another had a three-year-old granddaughter with malaria. Indeed, in South Sudan these diseases are rather like the common cold.

It’s hard to imagine extreme poverty, violence, and disease existing alongside strong faith, generosity, and joy, but that’s how the South Sudanese are. They are hardworking, and they love God. They praise Him and thank Him more than almost anyone I know, with fewer reasons than anyone I know.

It was a privilege to serve them, and let them serve us in return. I would recommend Seed Effect to anyone looking for a way to become involved in evangelism, feeding the hungry, and clothing the poor.

For more information, visit their website www.seedeffect.org.

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*Photos by fellow Seed Effect volunteers.

Reflections on South Sudan (III)

September 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

Since returning from my trip to South Sudan several weeks ago, a number of people have asked me how visiting one of the poorest, most violent countries in the world has affected my belief in God. The question usually comes around to the problem of evil: if God is wholly good and wholly powerful, how could he allow so much suffering among so many innocent people, the people of South Sudan?

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That the people of South Sudan have suffered in ways unimaginable to most Westerners is undoubtably true. There are rampant diseases like malaria, typhoid, and cholera, and the South Sudanese have little access to affordable healthcare. Many of those living in villages in northern South Sudan have been raped, displaced, taken as child soldiers, or brutally murdered. There is not a South Sudanese person over the age of 30 who does not have a story to tell about the civil war that ravished their country in the 80s and 90s, forcing many of them to become refugees (for a look at the effects of this war, may I suggest Dave Eggers What is the What, which tells the story of one of the Lost Boys).

How can anyone possibly believe in a good and powerful God when evil like this happens? How can anyone believe in Providence, in God’s love and protection? How can anyone trust God for deliverance when He so clearly is not present in this place that needs Him most?

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I don’t claim to be an expert on the problem of evil, by any means. Nor have I experienced the kind of suffering the South Sudanese have. Nevertheless, I’m not entirely ignorant on the subject. Like all of us, I have suffered; I know what it’s like. And since I have always found the problem of evil to be the most powerful objection to belief in God, I’ve read a bit about it for myself (in fact, my senior thesis was going to be on the problem of evil until I decided senior year would be a lot more fun if I dropped the whole writing thirty pages of philosophy thing).

I’ve found the most powerful answer in a slim book by the philosopher Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering (for another good book that I won’t talk about here, see C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain).

In it, Kreeft asks the essential question: how do we get God off the hook for all the evil in the world?

His answer: the only way for God to be off the hook is for him to hang on the hook. In other words, the answer is Christ’s death and ressurection.

I can’t address the entire problem of evil in a blog post, of course, but I think there are a few things that can be said here about Kreeft’s answer.

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Say a child is suffering. The suffering child looks up with tears in her eyes and asks God, “Why? Why me? Why are you not helping me, even when I cry out to you, even when I am faithful and brave?”

Sometimes, God does intervene, he plucks the child up out of harm’s way, He saves her from suffering.

Other times, He does not.

But when He does not, He is not laughing down at her pain. He is not ignorant or indifferent to it. No. Instead, He knows intimately what it feels like to be in the suffering child’s position because He knows what it was like to die on the cross. He cries with her because He knows her pain. He cries for her because He knows what it is like to suffer. In fact, He died on the cross because He does not want her to suffer so.

He went to the cross to be able to enter into her suffering with her, to take her suffering onto Himself, to let her participate more fully in His divine life.

As Kreeft writes:

Henceforth, when we feel the hammers of life beating on our heads or on our hearts, we can know — we must know — that he is here with us, taking our blows. Every tear we shed becomes his tear. He may not yet wipe them away, but he makes them his. Would we rather have our own dry eyes, or his tear-filled ones? He came. He is here. That is the salient fact. If he does not heal all our broken bones and loves and lives now, he comes into them and is broken, like bread, and we are nourished.

I have come to think God does not merely give us what we want, He makes us holy, and suffering is one of the ways He works within us to make us more like Him, the holiest of all. When we suffer, we become more like Him, and when we are more like Him, we find joy.

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Suffering often appears senseless. I can’t count the number of times I have cried out to God to relieve me from my suffering. That is one reason I have always loved the Psalms: they are real cries by real people for real help. Perhaps sometimes suffering is senseless. Perhaps the suffering of the South Sudanese is.

Yet Christ’s death on the cross is what redeems their suffering and ours, letting us cry out and cling to Him as our tears mingle. This gives those who suffer strength and comfort in this life, and hope of peace in the life to come.

In South Sudan, I have witnessed great faith in God, greater than I’ve ever seen in the U.S. I can’t help but wonder if it is in some part due to the suffering they endure. Their faith is a gift of grace from God in a place where gifts (at least from an outsider’s perspective) seem few and far, a gift we Westerners might take into account.

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*Photos by fellow Seed Effect volunteers.

Reflections on South Sudan (II)

August 25, 2015 § 2 Comments

Last week, a friend of mine invited me over for tea, wanting to hear all about my recent trip to South Sudan with Seed Effect.

I expected her to ask me what it was like in South Sudan, what kind of work we did, whether we had running water (which, we did, on occasion). I did not expect her to pause between bites of scone, look me in the eyes, and say, “So, what insights did you have on this trip?”

Usually, I bristle away from any suggestion that I volunteered in a third world country for myself.

“It’s about the people we serve!” I want to say, “It’s not about me!”

The truth is, more often than not, the people we serve actually serve us instead. And I did have a great insight during my trip to South Sudan, though I only realized it when my friend asked, providing me with the space to think and answer.

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After tossing back two cups of tea and four adorable cucumber sandwiches, this is what I said:

For most of my life, I’ve wanted to be a writer, and nothing else. I began writing stories when I was about eight years old as a way to pass the time during my brother’s piano lessons, and I’ve been writing stories ever since.

As I got older, I stopped wanting to be any old writer. I wanted to be a Capital W. Writer. A writer who wrote for famous publications. A writer whose books appeared on The New York Times bestseller list. I loved writing, that was true, but even more than writing, I loved the idea of being a writer, and I only wanted to write if it meant I was the best.

When I graduated college, I began working toward that goal. I got a job writing for a small newspaper, and immediately began looking for a better job at a more prestigious publication. I got a fellowship at a big newspaper, and immediately began making plans to leave and publish my soon-to-be-bestselling novel.

If only people could see what a great writer I am, I thought. If only my book were published.

Then I would be happy. Then I would be fulfilled.

Of course, this writing for the sake of publication and praise, this requiring my work to make me happy, to save me from despair, it’s the quickest way to kill any joy and creativity in it.

As Anne Lamott writes wonderfully in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “The problem that comes up over and over again is that these people [we writers, that is] want to be published. They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published. You’ll never get where you want to be that way.”

She’s quite right. Writing for the point of publication, which, at its root, is writing for the point of praise (which, at its root, is writing out of a deep desire to be loved), will never satisfy anyone, no matter how great a writer he or she may be.

I have known this for some time, I probably could have articulated it to you, but I didn’t believe it, not really, until I traveled to South Sudan.

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In South Sudan, I had the opportunity to interview dozens of South Sudanese. Their stories are incredible. They are stories of violence, sickness, and poverty; they are stories of generosity, healing, and faith. Listening to them speak, watching their lips move and their hands gesture, I lost myself. I wanted to capture each and every word they spoke, not for myself, not for my byline, but for them, because their stories moved me, because they were stories that needed to be heard.

And, as I began to let go of myself and listen, I began to rekindle a joy for powerful stories and writing them down, not publishing them, but writing them and sharing them with whoever might listen.

I began to understand, really understand, why so many people say joy doesn’t come from achievement. No matter how much we achieve, none of it will fulfill us in the way we want to be fulfilled. I began to think, yes, I love writing, yes, I am a writer, but writing isn’t a strong enough vessel to contain all of my hopes and fears and shortcomings; it will crack under the pressure of all that weight.

Real fulfillment is found in God, or, as I like to think of God, the deep mysterious being which is never-ending love.

Once we have learned this, we are free to look at ourselves, see the gifts and desires placed in our hearts, and act boldly upon them. We can be unafraid of appearing egotistical because the gifts we’re given are meant to be used. We can be unafraid of failing because our ultimate joy does not reside in our success (indeed, it may reside in its failure, as another writer put it recently).

By the time I’d finally found my way through this realization, my tea was cold. I spread a thick layer of fig jam on a cookie and slipped another cucumber sandwich onto my plate. My friend opened up an old red book she’d been reading, My Utmost for His Highest, a daily devotional by the early twentieth century Scottish theologian Oswald Chambers.

“I think this applies to you,” she said, and began reading an excerpt from Aug. 5.

“If we are in communion with God and recognize that He is taking us into His purposes, we shall no longer try to find out what His purposes are. As we go on in the Christian life it gets simpler, because we are less inclined to say — Now why did God allow this and that? Behind the whole thing lies the compelling of God.”

How freeing to be able to let go of oneself and trust that one’s fulfillment lies not in what one does, but in the sturdy love of God. It’s a powerful realization. Something worth writing down, I think.

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Reflections on South Sudan

August 21, 2015 § 1 Comment

During the first two weeks of August, I traveled to South Sudan as a volunteer with a Christian microfinance nonprofit called Seed Effect (I wrote more about the experience here and here). Since returning to Dallas, I can’t count the number of times my family and friends have asked in amazement, “How was your trip?!”

I am glad for the question. I want to answer it. I really do. But it feels like the hardest question in the world. The experience was different than anything I ever experienced before, so profound that a passing description could never do it justice, so powerful that I’m still trying to figure out what exactly happened, what it all meant.

Usually, I wind up saying something like, “It was amazing!” and then word vomit a bunch of disjointed sentences about malaria pills causing nightmares, soldiers with AKs searching our bags, rice and beans, giant cockroaches, the guy with the bow and arrow who guarded our compound at night, and the stars, oh those beautiful stars!

Afterwards, I’m usually wishing I said something else, something that actually made sense, something that explains why a country so full of generous and faithful people could also be so violent and poor, something that explains why traveling to one of the poorest countries in the world could fill me not with doubt or despair, but a faith in God stronger than ever.

The truth is, there is no simple way to describe South Sudan or my experience there. Its political situation is complex. Its people are nuanced. My experience was colored by my own stage in life, my own desires, my own fears.

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As we began making the journey home, our team leader warned us not to make any big life decisions until at least a month after the trip. In other words, don’t quit your six-figure job and buy a one-way ticket to Africa, don’t shave your head in solidarity with the South Sudanese (who often wear buzz cuts to keep their hair clean), don’t judge your friends when they want to go shopping and all you can think about are the South Sudanese children without any shoes.

I think I’m starting to understand why.

I know something big happened to me on that trip, even if I can’t explain it, even if I don’t yet know what it is. There are moments in our lives which we can (and should) recognize as special, experiences that direct our way forward, that set us in movement toward a new start. If traveling to South Sudan isn’t one of those experiences, I don’t know what is.

Sometimes, we understand their meanings in sudden flashes of light. More often, the meaning of an experience reveals itself over time, seeping up slowly to fill from within. I prefer the former (I’m impatient, after all), but the latter often means a deeper understanding that really sticks.

And so, I’ll keep sharing about the mosquito nets and the tree church and the African hymns, all the while discovering what really happened, and what it all means.

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P.S. I’m still raising funds for the trip until Aug. 23! If you are or anyone you know might be interested in donating, you can visit my fundraising website.

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