Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Rebuilt Church is Standing Strong

By Randy Bishop, a staff writer who recently traveled to South Sudan to cover the completion of the church rebuilding project

I met Pastor Andrew Lowong at the Akuem Cathedral on May 19 as we joined hundreds to celebrate what God has done through the rebuilding of 512 churches, each originally destroyed as a result of Sudan’s decades-long civil war. Most of the honored guests were pastors from across the new country of South Sudan whose churches had been rebuilt in partnership with Samaritan’s Purse via our church reconstruction program.

Pastor Lowong, a husband and father to seven children, pastors a small rural congregation of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. His church is in the village of Kuda, not far from the capital city of Juba. He was born there and suffered with his people when forces loyal to the Islamic government in Khartoum came to burn down the church and village in 1989. They occupied the area until 2005, when a peace agreement was signed. Pastor Lowong and his people had to hide in the bush, fearful for their lives, for those 16 years. Access to food, medicine, salt, and money was limited since travel was perilous. To avoid land mines and warring factions, what takes a little over an hour today may have taken three or four days.

When the people finally returned to their land, they had little. They tried to rebuild their church, but they simply ran out of resources. In 2008, Samaritan’s Purse worked with them to build the church building they now use.

Greeted with Joy and Thanksgiving

The day after the celebration in Akuem, I went with photographer David Uttley to visit Pastor Lowong at his church in Kuda. Have you ever had the sensation of the top half of your body trying to separate from the bottom half? That’s how I felt several times as we bumped along a red dirt track strewn with massive potholes.

The rough ride was quickly forgotten when a few dozen children and teenagers joyfully welcomed us to their village with singing and dancing.

“Hallelujah! We welcome you in the name of our Lord Jesus,” they said in the Bari language.

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Young children sing with joy at the church in Kuda, one of 512 churches rebuilt in partnership with Samaritan’s Purse following decades of civil war in Sudan.

The rest of the way to the church we slowed down to enjoy the sounds of their praises filling the African countryside.

We arrived at the church, rebuilt in 2008 complete with benches and a pulpit, to find we would be honored guests for a sort of unofficial celebration. Many local Christians had gathered, including more formal church leaders, and there were several local officials in attendance as well. I was ushered to the front of the church while David somehow was allowed to keep taking photos. This was all a bit of a shock to us, but it is hard to argue when you’re welcomed so graciously.

There were some brief speeches, the children sang again, and we were told about the work the church had done on the windows and doors, which were now fully installed and nicely painted. We also learned the church now offers Sunday school classes, and they had bought their own church table, choir uniforms, and a generator to facilitate holding services at night.

Many thanks were extended to Samaritan’s Purse. Our rebuilt church buildings should last 100 years, as opposed to typical temporary shelters made from local materials, which last only one to five years. These stable structures reduce certain hazards, shine as a beacon of hope, allow for larger meetings in all types of weather, and give believers the freedom to do other things—mainly the ministries of teaching, evangelism, and discipleship, which will produce results flowing into eternity.

“We have been many years without help from anyone,” said Paul Michael Lukudu, the local chief. “Only Samaritan’s Purse has come to help. We knew that God wouldn’t forget us.”

Running the Race with Perseverance

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While visiting, Randy taught a message from Hebrews 12. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1, ESV).

At some point, I was given a five-gallon jar of local honey, which I remember being very heavy. I was also asked to speak not once but twice. The first time I just said a few words in praise of the church, specifically the spirit of the children, and emphasized how the building of the building was truly a partnership between supporters of Samaritan’s Purse and the local Christians. I told the audience that our supporters bless others because God has blessed them. I then encouraged this local church to bless others in their area.

The latter time I was asked to speak, my instructions were clearly defined: let us hear from the Word of God. I was surprised they wanted me to speak again, and I found their directive a little intimidating, to say the least. First, I had not prepared anything—I’d gone there to conduct an interview, not preach a sermon—and I didn’t even have a Bible with me. Second, I was standing before men, women, and children who had stood strong for their faith despite intense hardships and persecution, sometimes over decades. I felt very inadequate—what could I say to these heroes of the faith?

I believe God directed me to Hebrews 11:37-12:2, a passage I’d thought about earlier in the trip. These verses describe the sufferings of the prophets of old and then encourage us as Christians to run the race set before us with Jesus as our example and goal. I can’t remember much of what I told them, but I know I told them they were an encouragement to us. After all, they had experienced destitution, affliction, wanderings, and hiding in caves—like the prophets—and had persevered. I urged them to keep running, to put all their faith in Jesus, and to run into His arms.

After more speeches, the meeting ended with an invitation to lunch. We were told they’d killed an antelope for our visit, and we were not disappointed—it was fall-off-the-bone delicious!

Thank You, Church in Kuda

We were sad to leave that day, yet greatly encouraged. Samaritan’s Purse has played and continues to play a vital role in supporting South Sudan’s churches during times of great need. I wish everyone who supported the Church Reconstruction Program through their time, talents, resources, or prayers had the chance David and I did:

  • To see and feel and touch the hospitality of the church in South Sudan.
  • To witness their strength mixed with grace and dignity, despite having suffered through decades of terror and war.
  • To be drawn into the joy on the children’s faces.
  • To understand their hunger for the Word of God.
  • To be blessed by brothers and sisters in Christ who are living, breathing testimonies to God’s goodness and faithfulness, regardless of circumstances.
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After long years of war, the men, women, and children of Kuda can now worship freely and without fear. Their building was constructed in partnership with Samaritan’s Purse in 2008.

I am deeply grateful to the church of God in Kuda, South Sudan. Thank you, Pastor Lowong. May God bless you and may His people around the globe continue in prayer for your church and for the congregations of all the churches rebuilt in South Sudan and Sudan.