By United Methodist News Service - Linda Bloom
As continuing violence has increased tensions across South Sudan, United Methodist congregations there are providing both haven and hope.
An email from Sebit Issaac, the assistant district superintendent for Yei, to the denomination’s Holston Annual (regional) Conference in the United States, noted that five people had been baptized on New Year’s Day. Issaac’s email said the church has remained strong during three weeks of violence in other parts of the fledgling nation, which has resulted in at least 1,000 people and displaced some 200,000.
The message, said Danny Howe, Holston missions secretary, in a Jan. 6 interview, is that in middle of their darkest hour “the church is still persevering and bringing life and Christ to people in South Sudan.”
Reuters reported that the first face-to-face session of peace talks between the South Sudanese government and rebels was Tuesday in Ethiopia after a delay of several days. The conflict that has sprouted between government forces of President Salva Kiir and rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar touches on long-time ethnic tensions.
Peace still exists in the regions where Holston helped to establish United Methodist churches in the southwestern part of the young nation near the borders of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, said Howe and the Rev. Fred Dearing, a missionary who serves as the Yei district superintendent. There are now 20 churches, 15 of which sponsor schools.
An outbreak of violence in Yei Jan. 4 at the army barracks prompted about 1,500 nearby residents to seek refuge in Giru United Methodist Church, constructed recently through funding from Holston Conference’s Kingsport District.
Since the violence at the barracks has subsided, those seeking shelter are starting to move back to their homes, Dearing reported. In addition, some 20,000 to 30,000 people have come to Yei to flee the turbulence of the north. Dearing was unsure whether more would arrive when the road between Juba and Yei re-opened.
The situation now, he noted, is an example of South Sudan’s most divisive issue: tribalism. “We just need to be there as a church and stand with them,” Dearing said.
That’s why he and his wife, Libby — who have lived and worked in South Sudan since 2011, have been in the U.S. for a holiday visit — still plan to return later this week. The Dearings expect to fly to Entebbe, Uganda, on Jan. 9 and then catch a local flight on Eagle Air, arriving in Yei on Jan. 11.
Howe said he is considering whether to take a conference team to South Sudan at the end of January, as originally scheduled. “We will be back as soon as we can be safely back,” he added. “The opportunity for the United Methodist Church to be strong at their (South Sudan’s) weakest hour is important.”
A similar assessment will be made for other missionaries on leave who are scheduled to return to South Sudan at the end of the month.
United Methodists in South Sudan are praying for peace. “For many of them, they see this as fighting an unnecessary fight…a fight that will have no winner,” Dearing explained. “They’re just tired of violence, they’re tired of war. They want peace.”
The United Methodist Church in South Sudan is part of the denomination’s East Africa Annual Conference. The Rev. Fred Dearing is the Yei district superintendent. The United Methodist Committee on Relief has been working in the South Sudan region since 2006, along with partners such as Ginghamsburg (Ohio) United Methodist Church. Recently, Imagine No Malaria has provided funds for malaria projects in South Sudan.
**Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.or contact her at (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Annette Spence, editor of “The Call,” the Holston Conference newspaper, contributed to this report.