South Sudan is the kind of place where a sermon anecdote about gunfire draws hearty laughter. The sound of a firearm is such an everyday occurrence that South Sudanese only question whether it came from a pistol, an AK-47, or an M-16. “Many people right now are praying, ‘Thank you God for not making me South Sudanese,’ ” says the pastor.

Listening near the back of the sanctuary in Juba is Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision. He is visiting the world’s newest and most fragile state in his quest to revive the compassion American Christians had for Sudan years ago. The South gained independence from the Muslim-dominated North in 2011 with the solid backing of evangelicals. But two years later, a political power struggle engulfed the Christian-majority nation in bloody conflict.

“It’s a hard sales pitch,” he told Christianity Today as he stood among 50 mothers with malnourished children at a clinic. He said South Sudan is a perfect example of how enormously difficult it is to fulfill both the Great Commission and Great Commandment amid chronic conflict and violence.

CT joined Stearns as he toured World Vision projects in South Sudan to gather evidence to make his case. His appeal—for US churches to focus their aid on where poverty is worst, not where it is almost gone—is counterintuitive. But perhaps the best argument for it are the successes South Sudanese Christians are already achieving, far from the war- and poverty-focused eyes of the international media.

Africa’s Broken Breadbasket

The view flying into Juba is peaceful. Many metal rooftops are painted welcoming shades of blue, red, and green—the national colors. But once the plane lands, it’s clear not all is well. Parked near the terminal are cargo aircraft bearing logos of several well-known relief and crisis intervention groups, including the United Nations World Food Programme and the International Red Cross.

South Sudan is now considered the world’s No. 1 “fragile state,” according to World Vision’s own algorithm of 50 variables of human suffering. Half of South Sudanese children are malnourished. A 15-year-old girl is more likely to die while giving birth than to finish school.

The landlocked nation slightly smaller than Texas has long been one of the UN’s most expensive missions ($1 billion per year). Its rainy season renders roads impassable and requires all aid to be delivered by plane. It’s now also one of the most unstable, after a rift between the president and vice president in 2013 led to armed conflict along ethnic lines.

The problems are easy to see. But what’s difficult is raising direct aid from Christians. Only a sliver of World Vision’s $64 million emergency-response budget in South Sudan comes from private donors. It is much harder to raise relief money for manmade disasters (wars, riots, or civil conflict) than for natural disasters, explains Stearns. Donors have more empathy after crises that could happen to them than after crises that are someone’s fault.

The numbers betray the empathy gap. After Haiti’s earthquake, World Vision raised $68 million in 6 weeks. After Nepal’s earthquake, the ministry raised $8 million in 2 weeks. After 4 years of civil war in Syria, World Vision has raised only $2.7 million. After 4 years of independence in South Sudan, it has raised only $1.4 million.

US evangelicals are widely credited with motivating George W. Bush’s administration to help secure the historic peace agreement that led to South Sudan’s 2011 independence. Four years later, those evangelicals are largely absent.

“When the conflict was an Arab Muslim North versus an African Christian South, that framing resonated with many churches,” said Perry Mansfield, World Vision’s South Sudan country director. “Now we are looking at armed conflict between Christians. It doesn’t resonate as well.”

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Now Stearns is trying to get evangelicals talking about fragile states in terms of where “the most vulnerable children” live. He likens it to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa. Christians showed little interest until the fight was rebranded from a “gay disease” or a “just punishment” for sexual sin to a leading creator of widows and orphans.

“That broke the heart of the American church, and they rushed to the frontlines,” said Stearns. “What we learned on AIDS is language is everything. We are trying to do a similar thing today.”

He admits that fragile states can be a confusing term and off-putting for Christian leaders. As one pastor told him, “That sounds like a job for John Kerry, not for me.” So Stearns is mulling a rephrasing: “Join us in the margins, where the poorest
of the poor live.”

Stearns Takes a Tour

Entering the UN headquarters on the edge of Juba, Stearns drives past diplomats’ dorms, barracks full of Chinese soldiers, and duplexes with screened porches before reaching the compound’s far side.

Ahead of him are two sets of gates, barb-wired and guarded. Below him lies the UN’s second-largest POC (“protection of civilians” site), a dense array of refugee tents made out of tree trunks, tarp walls, and corrugated metal roofs. The dwellings are half the size of a typical American garage. Showers and toilets are communal. Small stores and a few gardens line the roads.

Along with UN soldiers from Nepal, Stearns observes Day 3 of World Vision’s 4-day food distribution, where 21,000 people will receive a one-month ration of sorghum, beans, salt, and oil. Last summer, this POC had 5,000 residents. Now it has 29,000.

The next day, Stearns examines the development side of World Vision’s work. In Tambura, he visits a beekeeping cooperative whose one-room processing plant boasts honeycomb-shaped window grates. Along one wall are the iconic yellow jugs made famous by Charity:Water, here used to store honey instead of well water. Driving through the village, where families build domed tombs alongside the dirt road, Stearns next visits a pineapple cooperative where 300 farmers have joined together to market their harvest.

The following day, Stearns visits the relief side of World Vision’s work. In Kuajok, where many of the mud huts have tall thatch peaks topped with crosses or cow figurines, he tours the state hospital. Seven feet tall, the head doctor towers over Stearns (as do many South Sudanese). The doctor explains how 100 patients come each day—mostly for diarrhea in the dry season and for malaria in the rainy season. On a happier note, Stearns is invited to the operating theater to see a mother who has just given birth to twins via cesarean section. A wedding parade passes by, escorting the bride over to the groom’s house accompanied by drummers and several languid cows.

Overflowing Churches

Back in Juba, the scene is quite different. The capital is urbanizing fast, explains a pastor in a rickshaw caught up in a new phenomenon: rush hour.

Most churches in South Sudan are now overflowing, thanks to the approximately 700,000 refugees who have returned from Khartoum or East Africa since 2011 independence. But that’s not as good as it sounds.

“All are Christians, but culturally they are very different,” said Samuel Galuak Marial, principal of the Bishop Gwynne College in Juba. Former Northerners are now Arabic in culture and bolder in practicing their faith than Southerners, while former East Africans are now more educated and affluent than most Southerners. These differences can threaten Southern Christians, he said.

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Freedom has actually fragmented South Sudanese Christians, multiple church leaders told CT. “The church was stronger before the peace agreement, because we had to depend on faith to meet our needs under Arab pressure,” said George Taban Tawad, the Lausanne Movement’s representative in South Sudan. “Now that we have all this freedom, many influences have come and people are getting lost.”

The first influence is tribalism. South Sudan has about 60 ethnic groups, with the two largest—the Dinka and Nuer—composing only half the population. “In the North, we didn’t differentiate ourselves by tribes, because we were Christians against Muslims,” said Taban. “But everything here is based on tribe: jobs, social activities, even churches.”

Second, many ministries have arrived from Uganda, Kenya, and other countries, introducing new ideas, including prosperity gospel teachings. “Evangelical churches are guarding against the bad practices that have come,” said Arkanjelo Wani Lemi, leader of the Evangelical Alliance in South Sudan (EASS). “There is a clash of incoming cultures—some beneficial, some not.”

The upside of the population influx: Northern pastors are rejuvenating Christianity in South Sudan, multiple leaders told CT. Many Christians who returned from Khartoum are highly committed to their faith, having lived under constant challenge from Islam. By contrast, many Christians who returned from East Africa are more nominal after living in more peaceful Christian-majority countries.

“To live as a Christian in the North was not easy,” said Joseph Noel Sati, general secretary of FOCUS, the South Sudanese affiliate of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. “You were discriminated against and always bombarded with questions that pushed you to read your Bible or else you became a Muslim,” he said. “That context teaches Christians to be bold, to do things now, instead of waiting until things are good.”

Almost every Christian leader CT interviewed named the same thing—leadership training—as their church’s and nation’s greatest need. Marial cited the biblical example of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar in Mark 10 who beseeches Jesus outside Jericho. “He did not ask Jesus for money. He asked for sight.

“At the moment we have a quantity church. What we need is a quality church,” said Marial. “We have to ignore our differences and emphasize our identity is not our culture; it is the mind of Christ. Those who left have more education, but they lost touch. Those who stayed know the context ministry needs to be done in. We need one another to be complete.”

Starting with Students

If South Sudan’s biggest need is trained Christian leadership, the starting point is its youth. About 6 in 10 South Sudanese are under 18.

This illustrates the strategic position of FOCUS, which had 10,000 students pass through its ranks during its two decades in Khartoum. Now, Noel says, the ministry is rebooting at South Sudan’s 10 public and private universities.

At the entrance to Juba University, a tall sculpture surrounded by orange flowers with long stamens bears the school’s motto: “relevance and excellence.” Near the library gather the student leaders of FOCUS’s Bible study, which draws 20 to 100 students every Friday afternoon.

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Three students agreed to meet with CT. Samson is Pentecostal, Victoria is Anglican, and Sylvia is Catholic. All are sophomores. And like college students anywhere, their cell phones keep going off as they talk. But they also speak fluent Arabic because they belong to the first generation of students who returned from Khartoum. And all are thinking about how “God-fearing leaders” can help South Sudan.

They discuss the many foreign ministries now operating in their new nation. “So many churches are coming now, sometimes you get confused which teachings are good,” said Victoria, an animal production major. White butterflies flit between her and four cows grazing next to the basketball court.

“People shallowly believe in Christianity, but they are not rooted in the Word,” said Samson, an industrial chemistry major. “People don’t know what direction to turn.”

“The biggest problem is that we love our tribe more than Christianity,” said Sylvia, also an animal production major. “If we can love each other, we can do the best for our country.” The student leaders hail from three different tribes. “See, we can unite.”

Offering (Not Seeking) Refuge

Most Americans have heard of the hundreds of thousands of displaced people living in UN refugee camps in South Sudan. What they haven’t heard is that South Sudanese Christians actually run 2 of the 26 camps. The success of the camps is more evidence that South Sudanese can work together despite ethnic tensions.

ACROSS, an indigenous Christian nonprofit with 260 employees, runs a camp near Juba for 2,300 Ethiopians who fled a 2003 conflict, as well as a camp near Yei (one of the nation’s largest cities) for 8,300 Congolese who fled the Lord’s Resistance Army.

“It is biblical to look after aliens,” said executive director Elisama Wani Daniel. “When foreigners come into your home, the Bible says to take care of them. It is our Christian duty.”

Gorom, the Ethiopian camp, sits right where the paved road ends on the way from Juba to Yei. On the horizon sits South Sudan’s main military barracks—a mixed blessing, offering protection when soldiers are sober, and trouble when they are not.

In one of the camp’s two churches, 11 men and 8 women (5 of whom are nursing children) gather to meet Daniel for the first time. Nearby, children rehearse a dance for an upcoming Juba parade celebrating World Refugee Day.

“Being here is not our will,” said Margaret Ariet, a church leader whose green-striped sleeves emerge from beneath a tiger-print shawl. “But we worship God when we have problems and when we don’t. If there are no tests, you cannot be a good prayer.”

When they fled Ethiopia, the church’s 400 attendees came from different denominations. Yet when they reached Juba, they agreed to form a new denomination: Gambella Refugee Evangelical Church, or GREC, which they pronounce like the word grace. They hope to replant it in Ethiopia. “And when God releases us from here and takes us back to our land,” said Ariet, “we will still pray for South Sudan.”

Secluded Success Story

The dirt road that continues past Gorom eventually leads to South Sudan’s biggest evangelical success story: Emmanuel Christian College (ECC).

The nation’s only interdenominational college, ECC was built in a lush, remote corner of South Sudan years before peace came in 2005. It trains hundreds of pastors and public school teachers from all ten states and the neighboring Nuba Mountains.

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While driving from Juba to Yei to ECC, the number of tukuls (cone-shaped mud huts) in each family compound increases, as do the size of the subsistence fields of maize and other crops. An ECC driver explains that this land could be “the breadbasket of the world.” Even the termites seem to be thriving, as their red mounds approach six feet tall.

Idyllic is not too strong a word to describe the ECC campus. Children play on neatly mown lawns under an expansive cloud-studded African sky. Pigs and chickens graze freely, evidence of the college’s own food production.

One of ECC’s biggest achievements: getting its 350 students from different tribes and religions to accept one another, even the Dinka and Nuer, whose tribes are currently fighting.

Walking the campus under a full moon as thunder suggests the rainy season may finally begin, the student body president, Kafi Abdelkheir Kafi, explains how students are intentionally intermixed for housing, classes, meals, and activities. Tribes separate out for only one purpose: to pray for their home states.

“Christianity binds us together as brother and sister,” says the 31-year-old Muslim convert from the Nuba Mountains. “Otherwise I could not have been president here, because there is only one of my tribe. I see this as a sign of God.”

Tribes are distinguished by names, but also different patterns of facial scars. This prevented Mayak Andrew from graduating last year. When fighting broke out in Juba, Nuer were targeted by Dinkas. So the 32-year-old student from Unity State fled to the POC at the UN, where he lived for one year.

“My wife and children are still in the POC,” he said. “But it was important to come back and finish my diploma. I can help my family and my country.

“When I travel, I fear something could happen to me,” said Andrew, pointing to the six parallel scar lines that span his forehead. “But here I feel at home. I don’t fear anything. They are training us to unite South Sudan. I have to teach children not to accept tribal division.”

“After decades of conflict, the South Sudanese heart is full of war,” said Mwaka David John, a 29-year-old student from Eastern Equatoria who spent high school in a Ugandan refugee camp. “Many people see the gun as their savior; they don’t know there is something better than the gun: Jesus.”

He is grateful ECC has given him a nationwide network of new “brothers.” “We can spread the Word of God into every state,” he said. “What we are getting here, we will not keep for ourselves.”

Message for America

On his last day in South Sudan, Stearns attends the Trinity Sunday service of All Saints Anglican Church in Juba. The sermon title—“Unity in Purpose”—is appropriate, given this is essentially Stearns’s own mantra.

“My dream is that we Christians would astound the world by expressing our faith in action,” said Stearns. “Let’s show people the Jesus whom everybody loves.”

All Saints’ priest concludes the service by having everyone, including Stearns, turn to their neighbor, grasp their left hand, then their right, look into their eyes, and pledge, “I promise to be in fellowship with you.”

Overall, church leaders in South Sudan welcome the ongoing support of US churches. Most asked CT to tell American evangelicals to stay engaged and not worry about the complexity of South Sudan’s problems or fears about heavy-handed neocolonialism.

“Do not abandon us now that we are fighting ourselves,” said EASS leader Lemi. “Forty percent of South Sudan may be cancerous, but 60 percent is okay. Remain patient in the gospel with us, working together for peace.

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“Listen to us when we say: Even with this situation, there is hope,” he continued. “All is not lost. The good work done, the support you have given us, has yielded good fruit. We are hopeful that the God who has brought us this far has not gone on holiday.”

Christian leaders have not been waiting in vain. The EASS recently relocated from Yei to Juba in a bid for more influence. This summer, hundreds of people from 10 denominations gathered in Juba for prayer and fasting. On August 26, South Sudan President Salva Kiir signed a new power-sharing agreement that may bring an end to violence.

“The future will be hopeful if the church is committed to the teaching of Scripture and to discipleship,” said Taban. “The hope of this country lies in the church. Our tribe is now the tribe of Judah.”

“The Great Commission is not tomorrow, it is today,” said Marial. “The church cannot wait for things to get better. The church is what will make things better.”

Jeremy Weber is CT associate editor, news.

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