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Rev Mery Kolimon, Moderator of GMIT (the Christian Evangelical Church in Timor) writes about receiving the vaccine to inspire others, the role of the church and where she sees God at work during a disaster like COVID-19.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not intended as professional medical advice. Please talk to you doctor if you have questions or concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by an official at the Nusa Tengara Timur Provincial Government Bureau to become one of the first public officials to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

I’d heard that President Jokowi had received the first vaccine, along with a number of public figures in Jakarta. I suspect that involving community leaders as recipients of the first vaccine is the government’s way of convincing the public to take part. Many of them are still caught up in the pros and cons of receiving vaccines.

We have a role to play helping overcome the doubts that still exist in the community about vaccines. I didn’t believe the government would offer a vaccine that might harm its people. But I didn’t want to just believe it. I quickly started looking for information about the safety of the vaccine, as well as thinking through a number of theological considerations that are important too.

Searching for information

I had already been looking for information about the safety of the vaccine. To be honest, I was happy to receive a vaccine shot right at the start of the campaign in Nusa Tenggara Timur province. Vaccination is part of the struggle against COVID-19 which threatens human life. But on the other hand, I also felt a little worried about the side effects of vaccines because I had heard some skewed information about their safety.

The first thing I did was contact friends who could give me good information, and I was grateful to receive their advice immediately. I also received a screening list, with a large number of issues to look into, to help determine whether I was ready to receive the vaccine.

The list explained that people who are pregnant and breastfeeding, have shortness of breath, cough and cold, a history of allergies, blood disorders, heart disease, autoimmune issues, chronic digestive tract, autoimmune hypothyroidism, cancer, blood sugar / diabetes  mellitus, or lung diseases (such as asthma and tuberculosis) should not receive vaccines.

To determine whether I could get the vaccine, I immediately consulted a number of doctors. I received tremendous support from a fellow epidemiologist, a doctor friend in Maumere, as well as doctors in Kupang and in Denpasar. I am grateful that I do health checks every six months so that my doctor friends found  it easier to analyze my condition. In times like these, check ups are critical, and  I want to encourage everyone to do routine check-ups at health facilities.

In addition, I coordinated with my fellow church and ecumenical leaders in Jakarta regarding their views on vaccines. Some of my friends were hesitant, but most of them encouraged me to receive the vaccine. Church leaders in Jakarta, the Communion of Churches in Indonesia (PGI) and a number of friends of the chairmen of the synod council of several churches in the WA group, plus the leadership of the PGI member churches, strongly supported me to receive the vaccine, provided that my health was good based on a consultation with a doctor.

My sister, who is a nurse, gave her considerations based on reports of the implementation of Sinovac vaccinations in Brazil. According to the information she received, of those vaccinated 100% did not experience severe symptoms while 78% experience mild-moderate symptoms. Those things gave me the strength to receive the vaccine. My husband and children also looked for information on the internet to be a basis for our mutual consideration.

Observing the Body’s Reaction to Vaccines

The morning after the vaccination, I woke up with  mixed feelings. There was gratitude because I slept quite soundly. There was also a feeling of anxiety: how would my body react to the COVID-19 vaccine? The night before, I went to bed with the realization that my body had been injected with a disabled coronavirus to build immunity against it.

I had heard that after the vaccine, everybody reacts differently. Some people report feeling achy, very drowsy, etc. After the vaccine, I felt sore in my hands. But my ability to concentrate was good. I chaired a meeting with fellows online and took part in an online seminar. The two events were consecutive and I was able to stay focused. To this day my health is good, and I ask for prayers for all who have been vaccinated to stay healthy and be a sign of hope for efforts to overcome the life-threatening power of COVID-19.

Theology in Disaster

We entered the beginning of the year with too much sad news and wounds.  Facebook pages are full of sad news that drains inner energy. The young and old are dying every day. The threat is now so close. We all ask: When will this end? In an online seminar we conducted at GMIT regarding service planning during the pandemic, a resource person helped us see the global map of the development of COVID-19. They said this pandemic could last until 2025. This is a pretty tough situation for everyone, including the church.

“Some claim to have God’s vision not to receive vaccines: just pray, they say, don’t take any action.”

With vaccination starting, the debate continues: Is this vaccine useful or will it damage the human body? There has been a lot of news circulating.  Some claim to have God’s vision not to receive vaccines: just pray, they say, don’t take any action. I personally see this as a psychological reaction to the threat we feel as humans. But at the same time, it is very important for us to train ourselves to find information from reliable sources. God gave us the intellect to test all news and information, to test all voices that claim to hear God’s voice. The church learns to understand God’s voice (theology) first and foremost from the Bible.  Another source of theology is the conscience of every believer, as well as from the revelation of God in history, in culture, science, and in the experience of human life, including the experience of suffering.

The Spirit of God Blows Over the Dry Bones

This year, Ezekiel 37:14 is the text guiding GMIT services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

God brought Ezekiel into the valley of suffering that was full of dry bones that were scattered, the symbol of a life cut off from God and a loss for the future. God told Ezekiel to speak with the bones. God also told him to call the spirits from the four winds into the dry bones that give life.

“God did not allow the Church to avoid disaster.”

God did not allow the Church to avoid disaster. Instead, God led the church into and struggled in the midst of the valley of life’s threats. But the church’s task does not stop in the midst of suffering. The church is called to testify of the living power of God’s Spirit. Ezekiel has the authority to prophesy to the Holy Spirit to bring to life those dry bones.

I see the task of the church at this time is to learn to understand the reality of “dry bones”, namely the threats to life caused by this pandemic.

“We must not lose hope. Instead, the church is called upon to proclaim and work the good news in the midst of disaster”

We must open our eyes to hear and study the findings of scientists about the development of this virus around the world. We also need to be realistic about the dangers and threats we face. But we must not lose hope. Instead, the church is called upon to proclaim and work the good news in the midst of disaster situations. Within this framework, vaccination by the government needs to be positively accepted as the church’s involvement in God’s work for the restoration of human life. At the same time we need to remain critical of practices that can injure humanity where people resist vaccination or it is unavailable.

I believe that in all situations, our God is Immanuel; He is with us. The Trinity God with us is not passive, but God is with us actively. He acted for the salvation of the world He created. The power of sin destroys human life and the universe, but God does not stop helping humans and the fragile world. I believe that God has given humans the power to work together to fight the power of pain and death amidst the current threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 vaccine is part of God’s gift for human minds to process knowledge into a safety tool. Receiving vaccines is part of a commitment to caring for life.

Rev Mery Kolimon is the Moderator of our partner GMIT (Christian Evangelical Church in Timor). Read more about our projects in West Timor.

The world is turning to Lent in record numbers. But why? Isn’t it just an outdated Catholic attempt to demonise chocolate?  As enlightened people who live by grace, why would we get involved?

Lent provides an opportunity for us to reset.

It’s a call to refocus, reflect and refresh our souls. A 40-day commitment to the “time out” we need.

And this is not just a religious yearning. “Lenten” practises have grown in popularity over the past couple of years – Mindfulness May focuses on mental health; Ocsober, Dry July and FebFast suggest giving up alcohol or sugar to kickstart body and mind while raising funds for others.

Lent, though, is unique in that it combines body and soul to concentrate on spiritual growth. Like its Islamic counterpart, Ramadan, Lent emphasises reflection and generosity, driven by a conscious turning to God and others. It calls us to slow down; to become aware of our bodies as well as our hearts and minds.

At the end of Lent, we’re different. We’ve tended the soil ready for new life.

Lent is as old as the Church itself. In 300AD, the Nicaean Council (from which the Nicaean Creed developed) referred to the forty days leading up to Holy Week as a special time of preparation for Jesus’ death and resurrection. Commemorating the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, it imagined that people would pray, fast, give and celebrate.

The preface written to the very first Lenten Mass puts it nicely:

Each year you give us this joyful season
when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery
with mind and heart renewed.

You give us a spirit of loving reverence for you, our Father,
and of willing service to our neighbor.

As we recall the great events that gave us a new life in Christ,
you bring to perfection within us the image of your Son.

And while Lent is most often associated with the Catholic tradition, it’s always been an Ecumenical practise. The Church of East and West were united at the time of the Nicaean Council that gave it life, and more than a billion Christians worldwide are on board every year. Some Evangelicals and Pentecostals have been suspicious of spiritual disciplines as an attempt to buy God’s favour, but Lent has evolved with us to represent far more than empty rule keeping. It’s an increasingly well recognised part of the Christian calendar, and growing in popularity as secularism and commercialism continue to cannibalise the meaning of Christmas and Easter.

What could you do for Lent?

Reflect: Set time aside to meet with others and explore the Scriptures using some of the many excellent resources available.

Say sorry: Repentance is a central part of the Lenten tradition. Most of us aren’t great at apologising, but there’s bound to be someone who would benefit from our confessing where we’ve failed. At the same time, take the opportunity to forgive someone. It’s good for everyone.

Sit with grief: The lead up to Jesus’ death saw his friends and family grappling with the vacuum soon to be left in their lives. While most of us prefer to ‘move on’ from difficulty, our loss, sorrow and suffering are no less real for our efforts to distract ourselves. Setting aside time to acknowledge our grief nurtures self awareness, gratitude and compassion for ourselves and others.

Fast: early Lenten practices encouraged fasting with the idea that hunger increased our awareness of our bodies and cultivated a sense of gratitude. These days, people fast from all sorts of things, from impatience to social media to caffeine. It’s the impact of fasting that matters – how does it stimulate our awareness of ourselves and our world? Find ideas about what to give or take up here.

Be generous: Lent is designed to sharpen our focus and extend it beyond ourselves and our own concerns. It’s about making space in your mind and heart for those around you. Extending generosity by setting aside some of your financial resources for others can have a big impact.

UnitingWorld is the part of the Uniting Church with the privilege of nurturing relationships with our global church family, and we love the season of Lent! Through Lent Event, we provide a Bible Study series to help you think through what it means to be a global neighbour, and encourage you to take action with a 40-day challenge to give or take up something that helps make the world a better place. With stories that show how your prayers and gifts are building hope and ending poverty around the world, we aim to cultivate generosity, compassion and awareness of others.

If you’re ready to take a new look at Lent, go for a deep dive online to find resources, and check out www.lentevent.com.au for simple ways to get involved.

Recently I stood among others and hummed the tune (COVID-19 protocols didn’t allow me to sing) to that great hymn, ‘It is well with my soul.’

“When peace like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

Given the current state of the world, that’s a level of assurance I often find difficult. My soul is more likely to cower and quake; to rollercoaster between many different emotions, perhaps even within the course of a day. Maybe yours does too.

It lifts and steadies, though, when I look around at those who are standing here beside me – physically and in spirit. Within my own congregation, I receive an email from a faithful woman who shares her steadfast compassion and love with us in the most encouraging prose imaginable. At work I join a conversation with the global church in support of human rights in the Philippines, hearing the stories of courageous men and women on the frontline of the work to protect others and fight for justice. Online, I talk with a staff member in Bali, a doctor who has seen members of her church die of COVID-19 and yet who presses on with new ideas to safely serve her community.

Being part of this global conversation is not just a privilege, it’s truly mind-blowing. Indeed, we have a great cloud of witnesses, people of incredible courage and steadfast faith who fight for justice for the oppressed, and risk violence and death. No need to look to history for heroes of the faith.

This Christmas, I pray that you too will find steadfastness and inspiration among your family, friends and faith community. Tell the stories. Share the encouragement, the love and the joy. I’m so grateful that you’ve committed another year beside us as collaborators in the Kingdom.

With love and hope,

Sureka

Dr Sureka Goringe
National Director
UnitingWorld

Sending our Christmas cards to your friends, family and loved ones is a great way to fight poverty, build hope and inspire others about the work of our overseas partners. The sale of our Christmas cards represent a donation to support our work helping people lift themselves out of poverty in the Pacific, Asia and Africa. Order while stocks last!

Just $12 for a pack of eight

✅ Christmas greetings to your loved ones

✅ Send joy to the world

Fight poverty!

Click here to order online

or call 1800 998 122 (9am-5pm, Mon-Fri)

Christmas card sales represent a donation to UnitingWorld and are tax deductible in Australia.

 

New Everything in Common Catalogue 2020 

Every Christmas, we release a catalogue of gifts that represent many of our projects with overseas partners. It’s called Everything in Common.

In it you can find great poverty-fighting gifts like goats, pigs, clean water, education and livelihood opportunities, as well as gifts that support gender equality and care for creation. Check out our new gifts and shop online!

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear … though the waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” (Psalm 46)

Flooding ravages South Sudan

For the past week, families in Jonglei state, South Sudan, have watched the waters around their homes rise and rise. They’re the product of early rains that fell even before the previous flood waters receded, and once again the deluge has stolen homes and crops. An extra 700,000 people – already vulnerable to hunger – have been impacted.

Many of you have been keeping up to date with our recent campaign, and you’ll know that floods are only the most recent complication in a disastrous year. Earlier, a locust plague wiped out millions of sorghum and cereal crops; COVID-19 lockdowns closed borders and choked food, water and fuel supplies; conflict between tribal groups robbed thousands of their loved ones, homes or livelihoods. Officially reported COVID-19 cases remain low, a miracle in a country where almost six million people live in refugee camps either inside or just beyond the borders with Ethiopia and Egypt.

 

Still standing strong

In the midst of suffering, the courage and faith of South Sudan’s mostly Christian population stands firm.

“We will not fear,” our partners from the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan say. “God is with us.”

Rev Peter Gai, the Moderator of the Church, tells us that he clings to the words of the Apostle Paul, who learnt the secret of being content no matter what his circumstances.

“In times when Paul had nothing, he was happy. When he had enough, he was happy,” Peter says. “Being content is the secret to being able to serve others.”

It’s a humbling perspective from someone who lives with the critical challenges of everyday life in South Sudan.

What now?

Always looking outward, the leaders of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan are pressing on with their plans for peace and stability – plans you helped make possible through your compassionate, generous response to our South Sudan appeal last month.

  • Two more peace workshops are being organised for the coming six months, in places the leadership has assessed as being of great need and able to be accessed safely.
  • The upcoming National Assembly will be an opportunity to bring together church leaders from throughout the country to pray, elect new leaders, implement new policies on child protection and learn peacebuilding skills. A third of Presbyterian Church members live in refugee camps outside the city, making the gathering in Juba particularly challenging and vital.
  • Your funds continue to be used to help provide critical health information, food and water to people at risk of hunger.
  • Always with their eyes on the horizon, the leaders of the Church are training young ministers through Nile Theological College, which UnitingWorld supports with a small grant to help provide theological resources. The students are learning peace studies alongside their theological curriculum, and there’s an emphasis on engaging women like Rev Paska, who has served the church for many years in practical ways, supporting other women to engage in income generation and providing trauma counselling.

“The one thing we can all do is pray,” Rev Paska says passionately. “We need you to pray for us, brothers and sisters in Australia.”

Your gifts have helped us raise $103,908 so far for the work of the Church in South Sudan and beyond. THANK YOU SO MUCH! To find out more, including an updated list of prayer requests, click here.

Do you consider yourself a visionary? 

Maybe it sounds a bit lofty and idealistic, beyond your pay grade… And yet, people with vision are probably just those who can keep the big picture front of mindthe destinationamid the weeds of the journey.

I see it all the time in the work of our partners, who keep their eyes fixed on their hopes for the future, their faith in God and their capacity to bring about change. Rev John in South Sudan is only one example of the way perspective shapes our daily action and behaviour. He’s not impatient for change. He believes, like Martin Luther King Jr, that the “moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

He’s in it for the long haul, and he’s weathering the storm. I see the same vision among our partners right across the globe as they adapt to new realities born of the terrible, heart-rending impact of COVID-19. They’re down in the weeds discussing how to sell products without being able to travel to physical marketplaces; accessing available government grants and subsidies; re-training people to sew masks and distribute them. But their eyes are always fixed on the bigger picture: the promise of a better world for all, where God’s love is known and made known.

That same perspective has always animated you too, and it gives the whole team and I here at UnitingWorld great encouragement. The last few months have been difficult, yet I’ve been blown away by your continuing love, dedication and generosity.

Thank you. Let’s keep holding the vision high.

Dr Sureka Goringe
National Director
UnitingWorld

“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only come through understanding.”
-Albert Einstein.

One of my favourite moments as a kid was blowing out my birthday candles. It wasn’t just the seductive sight of tiny flames snuffed out in an instant – very early on, I’d heard that if you made a wish while you blew, it would come true. Every year I asked for the same thing, more or less: world peace. For people everywhere. Just peace. (Once or twice I may have also requested a guinea pig, which came to fruition).

Still hoping for peace.

In a world where we often feel powerless, here are four practical steps to move beyond wishful thinking.

1. Learn

Understanding is at the heart of peace – peace in the heart, peace in the home, peace in the nation. But where does understanding come from? It’s the intersection of listening, experience and knowledge – all of which has never been more accessible. We’re flooded with opportunity – an internet that opens the worlds of others to our gaze; self development in the form of talks, groups, courses; news that’s instant and graphic and not always reliable. As the lines between fact and fiction blur, it’s tempting to opt out altogether in the quest for genuine understanding – of others, ourselves and the world. Hang in there. Keep learning. Keep seeking. This is where peace begins.

2. Pray

 “While I follow closely all  your stories and updates, I want you all to know that I am particularly and prayerfully aware right now of Rev John Yor,” a beautiful donor wrote to us recently.  “Just ‘knowing about’ these people and communities touches me deeply – I find myself praying for Rev Yor throughout the day as I go about the activities with the people who are part of my day.”

The Apostle Paul suggested to the Church at Thessalonica that they should pray without ceasing. Is it practical? Is it possible? Many of our supporters say yes, extending their knowledge of people and places into their daily prayer routines.

  • Scroll down here for our prayer points for the people of South Sudan, who are desperately in need of peace
  • Set an alarm that reminds you to pray during the day; take time to write a short prayer and send it to us to pass on to our partners peacebuilding on the front lines at info@unitingworld.org.au

3. Give

John Wesley flipped the idea of giving on his head when, as a young minister, he set a budget for his annual needs and regarded any extra as belonging to God and others. In the first year he earned 32 pounds, lived on 28 and gave the rest away. As his income increased, doubled and then tripled, he continued to live on 28 pounds. Wesley began a school, a sewing co-op, a free health clinic and a lending agency for the poor: he preached that using financial resources for others was a central part of faith. In a world where poverty and gross inequality drives a huge amount of conflict, what’s your approach to giving? How are you passing on your approach to others, and are you planning to leave a legacy?

4. Speak & act

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
-Matthew 5:9

While most of us like to think of ourselves as peacemakers, often what we’re really doing is avoiding or delaying conflict. Genuine peacemakers are pro-active, not re-active. They have a strategy – they observe, they listen, and they act to help restore shalom – the wholeness of God – wherever they can. What are your personal peacemaking skills like? How much do you understand about the process and how committed to it are you in your everyday relationships?

  • Read up on resources like this one: How to be a peacemaker
  • Write a letter to your local MP about your commitment to building wholeness for everyone, not simply for the affluent here in Australia. Ask what financial resources are being put into developing relationships with our neighbours and what Australia’s vision is as a peace building nation in our region.

Can faith really heal a nation?

If you tried to make a plate of bean stew in South Sudan right now, you’d spend up to 201% of your daily wage simply on ingredients. The same meal here would absorb less than 1% of a typical income.

South Sudan’s food crisis is just one swirl in the vortex of a perfect storm. Drought, locusts and flooding have decimated crops. COVID-19 lockdowns have slammed borders shut and are choking off food, fuel and water supplies. An economic crisis has sent the cost of living through the roof. And simmering away beneath it all, conflict has driven 1.4 million people into makeshift refugee camps and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

And it’s not a new problem. Sometimes, when we share news on Facebook of South Sudan and other places in conflict, we attract comments that are scathing about the ‘dysfunction of African countries.’ While there’s often not much insight behind the sentiments, they tap a frustration with the devastating long term disorder that seems to characterise life in places like South Sudan.

Why? Why is famine and war and corruption so deeply entrenched? Why does foreign aid seem to leak through such places like a sieve?

The answers aren’t simple, but you don’t have to look that far to find them.

It’s history: the impact of decades of colonial rule stunting the development of good leadership and allowing corruption to prosper.

It’s poverty, crippling everything from education, healthcare and hope.

It’s living in some of the most volatile places in the world in terms of climate and natural disaster.

And it’s the heart breaking normalisation of violence among people who are desperate for land and stock for food.

If these are the problems, what are the solutions? Those living in South Sudan itself say the most critical underlying need is for peace: stability in government and society from which to build a better future. But peace requires a movement – a deeply committed, organised base from among local people themselves. And in the context of such long term deprivation, where is the leadership for such a movement to be found?

A recent study by the US Institute of Peace found that faith-based people and organisations in South Sudan are the most important peace actors in the country*. Since independence in 2011, and indeed well before, it’s the churches who’ve stood at the forefront of peace negotiations and trauma healing. It’s people of faith who’ve risked their lives to travel to places where rape is a routine weapon of war against women and girls. It’s people of faith who are restoring unity, one by one, amongst people tired and suspicious of government efforts.

Many people, of course, find that hard to believe. Isn’t religion divisive? Doesn’t it tend toward the submissive, preferring to rely on the heart of God rather than the hands of people?

Sure, sometimes. As in most developing regions, religion is central to life in South Sudan, and the way theology is applied differs from place to place.

But right at the heart of religion is the unshakeable belief that transformation is possible, that love wins over death. And that’s a powerful force. Ask any of the faith leaders why they stay, and it’s a rock solid sense of call. “God hasn’t left us orphans,” they say. “God is at work in the world, healing and renewing. And we are part of it.”

It’s a shared conviction. Religion in South Sudan isn’t the major flash point of conflict – it’s cultural differences between tribal groups that go back centuries. While Christianity is the majority faith (around 60% of the population), since 2011 there’s been relative harmony between Christians, Muslims and followers of traditional African religions. From city cathedrals to mosques and village chapels, the leadership of faith communities have the confidence of the people and are united in their desire for peace. But is it enough? Why isn’t change happening faster?

The South Sudan Council of Churches, the country’s largest unifying faith-based body, is working on it. With more than six million members from seven denominations, they’ve developed a strategic plan which represents South Sudan’s most comprehensive road map out of conflict – nothing quite like it exists even within government. Based on four pillars – advocacy, neutral forums for negotiation, reconciliation and organisational strengthening – the Council of Churches’ Action Plan for Peace was officially adopted in 2015. But what does it look like in practise?

Rolling out a peace action plan

The Uniting Church in Australia, through UnitingWorld, has some insight into the process. In 2012, it developed a partnership with the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS), a pivotal member of the Council with networks that reach well beyond the cities into regional areas and places ravaged by conflict, including refugee camps outside the country. Simply put, the Action Plan for Peace is the sending of ministers to teach, preach, counsel and care – treacherous journeys to communities where hunger and despair are woven into the fabric of life. It’s developing leadership skills and training theological students in Juba. It’s women marching for peace, month after month, in the capital, Juba. And it’s working alongside government to advocate for change in a context where deliberate neglect of certain groups – sometimes to the point of starvation- is seen a legitimate tactic in quelling dissent.

Christian women marching for peace in South Sudan, 2017

It’s clear that the wisdom and spiritual care of church leaders really matters: 82% of Peace Institute Survey respondents, when asked where they would turn for help aside from immediate family, mentioned their religious leaders. Research found that 39% of people regarded their community and religious leaders as their main source of information – combined with the fact that only 8% of people have internet and 20% have mobile phones, the equipping of leaders with accurate, harmonising and life giving messages is critical. These messages often come direct from the pulpit – 54% said the most useful contribution of the faith community towards peace is through sermons and prayers*, and UnitingWorld’s partners are certainly hands-on in terms of changing hearts and minds at the local level. But it’s not their only tactic.

25% of survey respondents said that more important than spiritual care was the organisation by faith groups of peace conferences and workshops. These are the teaching moments – often in hard to reach, conflict ridden places – that bring together the leaders of warring tribes to negotiate, listen, learn conflict resolution skills and support trauma healing.

A UnitingWorld-funded conference took place earlier this year in Cairo, Egypt. It was a tough assignment, drawing on refugees from different tribal groups who’ve traditionally resisted reconciliation. A second workshop in Juba, attended by church leaders, led to the resolution of a conflict between groups in one community. Three trained ministers intervened after negotiations about leadership became heated; they were able to bring the groups together and the leadership appointment went ahead without violence.

It’s these local leaders who’ll go back to their tribal groups, one by one, to share the skills that underpin peace. Without them, the movement can’t gain momentum. Very little will change.

What makes the critical difference?

The churches’ ability to capitalise on this reach and influence depends very much on developing their own capacity. Within the Nile Theological College, students are learning not just theological ideas but practical skills like peace building and fundamental human rights values that have gone undeveloped for decades. National Assemblies of various denominations strive to bring together their members to seek spiritual guidance and encourage one another. And leaders are being invited to advise government and demonstrate their negotiation skills in forums as significant as the 2018 Peace Negotiations in Addis Ababa, Egypt.

Right now, all eyes are on the need to safeguard South Sudan from the likely ravages of COVID-19, providing food, water and medicine to stave off hunger – and the need is huge. But in addition, the churches haven’t wavered from the big picture. They’re fiercely committed to investing in the peace process and the nurture of leaders who’ll shepherd their nation toward long term stability.

It’s incredibly difficult work. In Juba, members of the PCOSS leadership are hungry, without reliable food supplies, electricity, water or internet. Their own day to day existence is absolutely precarious, even as they care for others.

That’s why over the coming year, UnitingWorld is even more committed to supporting our partners. We’re funding two more peace workshops, the training of theological students through the Nile College, upgrades of vital transport to allow travel to remote area and investment into helping the Presbyterian Church bring together people for its General Assembly. All of this is in addition to humanitarian work in response to the pandemic. It’s long term, painstaking work and it often lacks the immediate punch of livelihood investment, or water and sanitation projects. But it’s also exactly consistent with the way transformation happens – incrementally, in small steps. Most significantly? The church is investing in individuals who drive change.

If faith really can heal a nation, this is how it happens.

UnitingWorld is looking for people with a heart for nurturing Christian leadership to bring lasting change in South Sudan and other places around the world. You can contribute by praying and sending messages of solidarity to partners in South Sudan, or help meet some of the long term costs of the project. If this project is your call, please be in touch with our Partnerships Team on 1800 998 122 or email us on info@unitingworld.org.au.
You can donate here

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven…
A time for war, a time for peace… A time for mourning and a time for rejoicing…”

They’re words from the writer of Ecclesiastes, but like a lot of people, I heard them first in the classic song ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ by The Byrds. I was 16, devouring all the classics from the 50’s and 60’s. Pete Seeger’s melodic conjuring of the seasons – nothing out of place, nothing unexpected – was reassuring. It was also biblical: a win win.

Fast forward to the chaos facing so many around the world – an estimated 265 million people are facing acute food insecurity due to COVID-19, for example – and I’m not so sure.

This is a season of suffering, and I want it to end.

I spoke recently to Rev John Yor in South Sudan. The line was terrible – electricity is reliable for only a few hours each morning in the capital Juba – and he’s softly spoken, with an undercurrent of strength that makes you think of the tallest tree in a silent forest. I had trouble hearing everything he said, but what I heard was enough.

He’s put aside two pieces of bread for his dinner, he tells me when I ask about hunger, and will look for more food in the markets with hundreds of others. Food prices, he says, are through the roof. Local crops have been destroyed this year by drought, a locust plague and now flooding; border closures, lockdowns and conflict have choked supplies coming in from Kenya and Ethiopia. In his church compound, he finds people who have walked for days to beg for food, water and shelter. His heart is breaking as he struggles to respond. “We have little but prayer,” he says.

South Sudan’s long season of suffering is well past it’s due date. Her people are vibrant and her land a diamond in the rough, but the country holds the dual honour of being the site of Africa’s longest running civil war and its worst refugee crisis. The causes of this tragedy reach deep into history – Egyptian and British rulers who favoured the north (known simply as Sudan since the South won independence in 2012) and provided basic infrastructure like roads, hospitals and water systems that the South still lacks; brazen raiding of the South for slaves; tribal groups warring over access to land and livestock to feed themselves as natural disasters constantly push the country to the brink of famine.

And now COVID-19. Last year the World Food Bank fed five million people in South Sudan; this year the numbers are expected to double. Mask wearing, soap and water for hand washing – these things are far beyond the reach of ordinary people, even if they had access to the televisions, radios and social media that carry public health messages. In rural areas where Rev John and his team from the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan work, people look to the skies for food drops from the UNHCR. They live in tents and shacks thrown together in places where tribal fighting hasn’t yet left homes looted and burnt. They’ve fled with the clothes on their back and little else. Since 2013, 1.4 million people have become refugees inside the country and another two million live in camps across the border in Kenya and Ethiopia.

I watched a report from Al Jazeera on YouTube that brought the painful reality of life in South Sudan into agonizing focus. And I looked at images sent to us by John and his team of their time in a refugee camp, giving out food, masks, hand sanitiser and clean water. The people they meet simply cannot believe that on top of everything else, a deadly virus stalks their country. South Sudan has 80 beds in its new infectious unit facility, and only one COVID-19 testing center in the capital. John and the Presbyterian Church have been out in communities teaching about social distancing, a massive challenge in place where hundreds of people touch the same bore handle for water and families live shoulder to shoulder under tarps.

“John,” I said to him, heart as low in my chest as it’s been in a long time, “How do you maintain your hope through all this?”

His reply was both as strong and as gentle as his description of South Sudan’s pain.

“I hold close the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes,” he said. “For everything there is a season – a time to be born, a time to die. A time for war, a time for peace; a time to mourn and a time to rejoice. And God has made all things beautiful and set eternity in our hearts.”

This is no wishful thinking – no glib quote to justify an indulgent life backed by the belief that God has everything under control and there’s no need to act.

It’s the lifeblood of a faith that drives a man to risk his life daily for others, alone in a city too dangerous for his family to make their home. It’s the steely heart of a commitment to God’s world and God’s people no matter what; a rock-solid anthem that life can and will be redeemed. It’s the language of call and conviction and all the weight of intimately knowing an unshakeable love that transforms.

It leaves me, to be honest, a bit torn apart. My own faith is a pale shadow in comparison; I have questions and doubts and anger that simmers. I have no doubt John does too.

But John is the man in the moment, the person for whom all this is more than simply a phone call. His eyes are on eternity and his hands and heart are raw from the ruthless realities of here, of now – and still he hopes. Still he proves the presence of Christ, alive and at work in the world, forever faithful.

If that isn’t enough to galvanise us to action, then what is?

Life in Australia has its own share of sorrows right now: there’s a breath-holding claustrophobia as case numbers rise and fall and many of us remain locked away from each other and our ordinary dreams of work, family, future. Part of the antidote to this suffering is opening the window to a bigger picture, a wider world into which we’re woven through our shared experiences of loss and love. John’s voice, the steadfastness of Christian people scattered throughout South Sudan, India, Zimbabwe, Indonesia – these are the flickers of hope that warm us, the places where we see God’s presence in the midst of absolutely ordinary people like us.

We might long for a new season, but the truth John and others reveal is that whatever our pain, whatever our joys – God is present and God’s people are faithful. Our brothers and sisters in South Sudan call us to a season of steady determination, the bending of our hands and hearts to give and pray and reflect, the quiet faith that grows with solidarity. It feels familiar, but with each story we collect of ordinary people caught up in the extraordinary, it becomes new. There’s strength in that. It’s enough.

Our church partners in South Sudan are racing against the clock to get food and water to people in lockdown and in refugee camps, and providing masks, sanitiser and health messaging. Please give, pray and learn from our Christian brothers and sisters in South Sudan here: www.unitingworld.org.au/southsudancrisis

Brooklyn Distephano blogs on life as a student in Ambon during COVID-19. Brooklyn is a 17-year-old Ambonese high school student and UnitingWorld Peace Workshop participant.

The COVID-19 pandemic first spread to Indonesia on 2 March 2020 when a dance instructor and her mother were infected by a Japanese national. By 9 April, the pandemic had spread to all 34 provinces in the country after Gorontalo confirmed its first case, with JakartaEast Java, and West Java being the worst-hit.  Today, there are almost 49,000 cases with 2,500 deaths.

On 19 March 2020 I went to school, and when I arrived there was an announcement saying that there was going to be a teachers’ meeting. After the meeting our teachers went to each class to give assignments to the student because we were going to be learning from home due to Covid-19.

When I first heard that I felt so happy! In my mind I could sleep late, wake up late and go on vacation etc. After our teachers finished giving the assignment, we were allowed to go home. Within the first week all my assignments were finished and I thought, “During this learning from home I’m going to be so happy!”

It didn’t turn out like that.  Everyday, there’s more bad news than good news. Everybody has become sad, and so am I. My life has became very boring because all I can do is wake up, eat, and play on my phone until I got to bed again. Also I can’t meet my friends so that has made the situation even worse.

In the middle of this pandemic, things in Ambon have become very different. Most of the places that are usually crowded have become very quiet. The Government has said to the people that we must always wear a mask if we want to go outside. But still there are a lot of people who do not obey the rules. That’s why there’s so many police and authorities patrolling in Ambon. If they catch people who don’t wear a mask when they go outside, usually they get punished. If a man is caught and he doesn’t have a mask, he will be asked to open his t shirt and use that as his mask. But many people can’t stay home because they have to work – if they don’t work they will have no food. So it is very hard for us here.

I’m afraid that if we don’t obey the Government and wear masks then this pandemic will end with so many casualties. And I also worry for the people who can’t stay at home and be safe. I appreciate so much the people that are fighting Covid-19 at the forefront. Please respect them because while we are able to sit down in our house and talk to our family, they can’t. So let’s give these fighters big respect and appreciation.

Thank you for reading my story of being a student in Ambon during this pandemic. All I want is to go back to school, to see my friends and be part of building a better future for Ambon.

-Brooklyn.

Lent Event 2020

A huge thank you to everyone who has been supporting Brooklyn, other young leaders, women’s groups and small business start-ups through gifts to this year’s Lent Event.