By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (January 8, 2014) — Leaders of Evangelical Covenant Church of South Sudan (ECCSS) congregations in the United States say the violence in their native country is taking an emotional toll on members, some of whom have relatives who have been killed and others whom they are unable to contact.
More than 1,000 people have been killed and more than 200,000 displaced to UN compounds. Others have fled into the bush or into refugee camps in neighboring nations.
“The congregation is being demoralized by the situation in South Sudan,” said Kueth Yul, ministry leader for the South Sudanese New Hope Covenant Church in Laveen, Arizona. “We had planned to have a fun Christmas celebration, but with such emotional impact, it was hard to redirect people’s feelings.”
Still, he says, “We have a few stronger members who encouraged our congregation to pray harder to God for forgiveness and settling of the situation in South Sudan.”
Yul said almost every person in the congregation has family members who have been impacted. “We actually have members who lost love ones, and there are members with family whose whereabouts are currently unknown.”
Yul’s brother and his children are living at the United Nations compound in the capital city of Juba. Yul’s cousins and other relatives have fled to Uganda and Kenya.
Monyroor Teng, pastor of the Sudanese Covenant Church in Manchester, New Hampshire, said at least four families in his congregation have relatives who have been killed in Jubal and Malakal. Others, including himself, have family members they have not been able to contact.
“It’s really tough sometimes to deal with all this,” Teng says.
Teng has heard that his mother is safe but has been unable to talk with her for three weeks. Phones still are operating in some areas, and the pastor says he has been able to talk with a brother in Malakal, where the situation is dire.
The brother told Teng, “Everything has been looted.” Even if people have money—and most don’t—there are no goods to purchase, Teng says.
Getting out of Malakal has become impossible because all of the roads are closed, Teng says. His brother also has no money even if he could flee.
Ten shops that the ECCSS rents to local businessmen as a way to generate income for the denomination were “burnt to ashes,” Mathew, a leader in the ECCSS, said. “Soldiers first looted the buildings. It is a big loss for the ECCSS and its members.”
Fire also destroyed the windows of the ECCSS school that was built with funds from Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton, Minnesota. “But we thank God that the school and the church which are located in the same compound did not get burned too,” Mathew said.
Like the businesses, however, “The chairs and others essential materials of the school were looted by the soldiers.”
The leader of the ECCSS who monitors the denomination’s Vulnerable and Orphaned Child project suffered a gunshot wound to his hand while he was trying to escape the fighting that has broken out between warring factions of the nation’s military. He is recovering in a Malakal hospital.
Despite their own personal struggles, the ministry leaders in the United States are spending a lot of time with families in their congregations, especially those who have lost loved ones. That work has placed extra demands on the ministers.
“I’m really, really exhausted,” says Teng.
Sudanese in the U.S. are concerned about the financial well-being of their families, including those who were able to escape to Uganda and Kenya. “They need our financial support,” Yul says. “The banks in South Sudan are being frozen, and people are dying with hunger.”
Because it is nearly impossible to get assistance to relatives and others in the country, U.S. Sudanese churches must wait to respond to the crisis. The inability to provide assistance only worsens the pain, leaders say.
Teng said he would like to find ways to get funds to family and medicines to refugee camps. International organizations have voiced concerns about the spread of disease such as cholera in the camps, where there is little food, water, sanitation, or medicine.
Fighting erupted December 15 between factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to former Vice President Dr. Riek Machar, who was ousted by the president last July. It began in the capital city of Jubal and quickly spread to Malakal, where the ECCSS offices are located, as well as to other parts of the country.
Sudanese church leaders say that for now the problem is primarily political. Kiir is Dinka, the largest ethnic group in the country, and Machar is Nuer, the second largest tribe. Like most observers around the world, ECCSS leaders fear the conflict could descend into tribal civil war if the conflict continues.
Teng notes that in many villages Dinka and Nuer have lived peacefully. Most of the ECCSS churches in South Sudan and the United States are comprised primarily of Nuer, but several predominantly Dinka congregations have been started in both countries.
Teng is Dinka, and Yul is Nuer. Their congregations include members of both tribes. Their members, as well as the denomination, are committed to living as one body in Christ, leaders say.
Evangelical Covenant Church missionaries Pete and Cindy Ekstrand, who had served as regional coordinators for Sudan, say they are saddened by the fighting in the country, where they have many friends. The couple had been to South Sudan seven weeks ago.
“They’re friends, they’re family to us,” Cindy says. “Some of these people we’ve known for quite a few years and now they’ve had to flee their homes.” To watch a video of an interview with them, click here.
Ceasefire talks between the political entities began in Ethiopia on Monday, but news organizations report that the talks appear deadlocked, and fighting continues.