“Prayer is a vital discipline for me. It is talking to our father for wisdom and strength. It’s a place to take refuge.” -Pastor Dorothy Jimmy, Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union, Vanuatu.
The World Day of Prayer is a global ecumenical movement led by Christian women who welcome you to join in prayer and action for peace and justice. It is run under the motto “Informed Prayer and Prayerful Action,” and is celebrated annually in over 170 countries on the first Friday in March. The movement aims to bring together people of various races, cultures and traditions in a yearly common Day of Prayer, as well as in closer fellowship, understanding and action throughout the year.
Here are three prayer requests from our partners in Vanuatu:
Pray for those most affected by the COVID-19 crisis
Cindy Vanuaroro, General Secretary of the Presbyterian Women’s Mission Union in Vanuatu and Chair of the World Day of Prayer Committee has asked the Australian Church to pray in solidarity with the people of Vanuatu struggling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic:
“While we are thankful for achieving zero cases of COVID-19 in Vanuatu, the economic impact of the pandemic has been huge here. Thousands of people have lost jobs in Vanuatu, particularly in the travel and tourism sectors. People are living day-to-day to provide for their families. I often see newly unemployed people are walking the streets not knowing what to do.”
Pray for women and men in Vanuatu working to end violence and build equality in their communities.
Cindy has also asked us to pray for the work of the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu to help people and communities understand God’s plan of equality between women and men.
Currently, 72% of women in Vanuatu will suffer violence at the hands of men in their lifetime (double the global average), so the work of the Church is critical in creating advocates for anti-violence and equality, using he Bible to speak powerfully to hearts and minds.
Here’s a great story of change showing their work in action:
Pray for the next generation in Vanuatu: the children of today and leaders of tomorrow
Pastor Dorothy Jimmy, the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu Women’s Missionary Union asked us to pray with the PCV for wisdom in help guide their youth during so many modern social changes and uncertainties, and that they hold onto what is special and unique about their traditional cultures.
“I would like the church in Australia to pray for the church in Vanuatu as we lead our youth to uphold cultures and traditions that are important to us. The importance of family, social connectedness and all the things that unite us as a people. May we hold onto it and continue to pass it on to the next generations.”
Thank you for joining us in prayer in solidarity with our partners and neighbours in Vanuatu.
In so many places around the world, relationships between men and women can be a source of much pain, anger and suffering. Violence against women is distressingly widespread, not only in less developed nations but in our own communities. And attitudes are so deeply entrenched, in some places neither men nor women understand where their beliefs and actions come from, let alone how to change them.
In the Pacific, churches are starting with the heart, and their approach is proving incredibly successful.
Like most places in the Pacific, Vanuatu regards itself as a deeply Christian nation. The Bible is revered and on Sundays, large numbers of people attend worship. How is there such a disconnect between the love of God and record levels of gender based violence?
Pacific churches are realising how much change is needed to transform the relationship between women and men, and in partnership with UnitingWorld, are working on ways to make it happen.
The most effective tool by far?
The example and teaching of church leaders who have personally undergone huge shifts in how they understand the role of women and men. These men have the reach and influence to create change at local and national levels- and they’re up for the challenge.
Elder Jennery, pictured above with his wife Faina, is from Tanna, one of the southern islands of Vanuatu’s archipelago. People live in traditional ways and are proud of what it means to be ni-Vanuatu. Jennery took part in a Gender Equality Theology (GET) workshop back in February 2016, and his views and lifestyle were completely transformed as a result. You can hear him talk about the experience, alongside his wife, here.
“When I arrived home, I went straight to my wife and called her “Darling” and hugged her,” he relates. “She was confused because I never did this to her. I then apologised to her and told her about the GET workshop.”
So what’s a GET workshop, and does it produce more than affection for wives?
Elder Jennery and other workshop participants heard from the Scriptures that men and women are created equal in God’s sight.
They read passages that revealed Jesus’ love and inclusion of women, and heard about God’s desire that women and men work together, serving one another and the community in love.
For many men, this is completely eye opening information. The insights have never been presented in quite this way before – and certainly never really heard. The casual superiority of men, and their abuse of this power in the form of violence, was entirely debunked. There could be no justification of the treatment of women as possessions, or of the way they are systematically repressed within many Pacific cultures.
Elder Jennery took the new information to heart.
Keen that his wife understand the full extent of his transformation, he encouraged her to attend a five-day workshop, run by the Presbyterian Women’s Mission Union (PWMU), “so that she could develop her understanding and knowledge, and especially take a break from the housework.”
In response to her concerns that the housework would go untended and the children neglected if she were to attend, he made good on his new values.
“I told her that I would take care of the children, bought her a new dress and took out from my pocket 2,000 vatu for her needs,” Elder Jennery says.
“For the first time for both of us, we did something new. I took care of the children during the absence of my wife, did the cooking, washing of plate and clothes, preparing the children’s lunch box, and my wife left the housewife responsibilities and attended a workshop…
Friday, the end of the week, I was in the kitchen peeling the tapioca [root crop] when she came back from her five days’ workshop. She sat outside the kitchen and started to talk about her experience and what she had learned. She was so excited.”
For good reason. This is how change begins – in the hearts and lives of ordinary people.
Church communities are by no means exempt from the darker aspects of the patriarchal culture they’ve inherited. It’s commonplace for men to discipline their wives with violence of all forms. Women are mostly left in sole charge of household duties and care of their children, meaning they can’t work outside the home or create any economic independence.
Even a simple change in the way men and women relate will have far reaching consequences both now and for the next generation.
“My husband started to help me with the responsibilities at home and with the children and also looked after them when I went to work,” says Jennery’s wife, Faina. “After he did the training I realised he loves me and loves the children – that’s when I saw change.”
Confidence in the love of men for children, too, is critical. Children learn quickly from their parents and community what their culture permits and restricts – and violence has long been condoned.
In a study on Vanuatu by UNICEF in 2015, 17% of women who experienced violence from their partner said their children were beaten at the same time.
They reported that their children:
experience nightmares (16% increase)
display aggressive behaviour (19% increase)
need to repeat a year of school (12% increase)
drop out of school (14% increase).
Elder Jennery has become aware of these statistics and their implications for the future of his people.
“I really want my children to live this kind of life, with women and men equal,” he says. I want my children to follow a new path. We need more of this program, to help run more courses.”
For Elder Jennery, the commitment to a better way for his children has meant exerting his influence as a leader within his community. He travels with his wife more often and they share their educative work. One area of practical change has been in the way their community now involves women in decision making.
Women in Tanna have been traditionally excluded from a direct role in village decision-making through the ‘nakamal’ (meeting place). Every day at 4pm, all the men and boys have to be at the nakamal to have men’s talk. This exclusion is echoed in higher levels of leadership where Church, provincial and national governance structures remain male-dominated.
Due to the influence of Elder Jennery and others, men in his community now accept that women can take leadership roles and have the right to speak in a public place. Since 2018 they have ordained six women as Elders in his session.
Jennery also encouraged his wife to learn Bislama and go to a midwife workshop – she is now the village midwife and has helped reduce the number of maternal deaths and stillbirths in the area. More children are in school, too: both girls and boys.
The community has also seen a reduction in violence against women. Elder Jennery and others have continued to run GET workshops, and the outcomes have been significant.
“On the second day of the workshop I realised that I was abusing my wife and children,” one prominent village Elder admitted after he attended the training.
“My community know about me and knew that I am an Elder, but I am abusive. I have used knife, axe and physical force to abuse my wife, but this workshop helped me to realise that my actions are wrong and I would like to openly confess to my community that I will never again practice violence in my home. The GET workshop has helped me understand that we men and women are equal because we are created in the image of God and we must love and treat each other well.”
Perhaps most significantly, the change is being recognised as necessary not simply because some men behave badly, but because of deeply entrenched cultural attitudes that require an overhaul. Opening the Scriptures, and with them the hearts of both men and women, holds real potential to make it happen.
“I think we need to admit that this part of our culture is not in line with God’s word,” a significant village leader declared after attending the Gender Equality Theology workshop. “It is time for us to start to choose God’s way instead.”
This is the life changing, deeply transformative work that your gifts are helping to fund. Thank you!
So what makes the difference in terms of changing minds on controversial matters like vaccination? Good information, or good friends?
Many people are surprised to know that the most important factor in shaping beliefs and decisions isn’t necessarily the supply of good information. It’s good relationships. And that’s because decisions are driven by a complex range of factors, with emotion top of the list.
When a person contemplates taking up a particular position or belief, she’s considering what makes her feel safest. Will a different view threaten her position among like-minded people who’ve given her a sense of belonging? If so, there’s little chance she’ll risk it – unless she has another safe place to take refuge.
That’s why listening and providing reassurance is the most effective way to engage with those who are cautious or opposed to the vaccine (or anything else, for that matter.) If you know people who are sceptical or fearful, hear them out. If you have a good relationship with them, they’ll likely ask your opinion – the perfect time to share reliable information. Avoid handwringing, scorn or contempt about someone else’s views – you’ve instantly lost the emotional airwaves.
This approach is critical in places around the world where COVID-19 cases are sky rocketing.
In many communities, faith in government is low and fear is high. Hearing information from people who are known and trusted makes all the difference, and following the example of high-profile leaders can be especially influential.
The Indonesian Government is delivering an intensive education campaign to help improve knowledge and confidence. But it also plans to implement fines and restrict access to social services in some regions for those who refuse the vaccination. Its ambitious plan is to vaccinate 181.5 million people in the next five months.
How do we win the emotional air waves and create community?
In Bali, UnitingWorld’s partner staff have already built strong relationships through training and support on the issues people care about – health, sanitation, opportunities to earn a living . They’ve often gone to remote areas where people feel forgotten by the authorities.
Years of work have laid the foundation for their information to be taken seriously, and for people to feel a part of a supportive community. With special permission to move within communities impacted by lockdowns, they find people open to reassurance and willing to listen. Their innovations include a new 24/7 hotline for people to call with questions, intensive face to face conversations about the safety of the vaccine as well as social and traditional media drops. With movement largely shut down because of the pandemic, they’ve also developed a website that matches suppliers in remote areas with those who need their products in the cities.
All this firms up people’s sense of belonging and security. In this emotional context, people are far more likely to be open to the new information that vaccination represents.
Relational influence from the top is important too.
Rev Mery Kolimon, Moderator of our partner church in West Timor, was contacted by government officials to be among the first to take the vaccine. While happy to get the shot, Rev Mery was still anxious about possible side effects. Unlike many parts of the West where vaccines have become an accepted part of life, millions of people around the world are completely unfamiliar with the concept. Their fears are understandable, and the role our partners play in providing reassurance is significant.
Rev Kolimon writes openly here about her fact-finding mission to determine the safety of the vaccine, the feeling of waking up the morning after the shot, and her conviction that the church has an important role to play in helping people understand not only the science of disease, but the role of God in suffering.
“We entered the beginning of the year with too many wounds,” Rev Kolimon writes.
“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 naming the context and articulating her own anxiety and quest for accurate knowledge, Rev Kolimon helps people feel heard rather than dismissed when they doubt.
It’s one of the reasons our church partners are particularly useful in the war on COVID-19. As people of faith, they have a natural bias toward a relational approach and are well networked in some of the areas others can’t reach. They’re able to develop influential communities who stick together ‘on message’ – an important factor given how much we’re influenced by our ‘herd’.
Please continue to pray for the work of all our partners. They’re constantly innovating while under pressure, and they need our continued love, prayer and financial support. You can make a gift to this work during Lent at www.lentevent.com.au
If you have concerns about the COVID-19 vaccination, talk to your local General Practitioner.
You can find information about the safety, testing protocols, expected side effects and more HERE from the Australian Department of Health.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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 mind—the destination—amid 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.
“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only come through understanding.”
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.
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.
Subscribe to a podcast like this one to hear about the inspirational contribution of women to creating and keeping peace around the world
“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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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?
Check out this site to see where your annual income places you in relation to the rest of the people on our planet
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
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?
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.
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 email@example.com.
You can donate here