By God’s grace and the blessing of His Beatitude Theodoros II, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, we set out earlier this year on a tour of the inaccessible region of South Sudan.
For decades a fierce civil war had been raging and was still continuing unabated, which created continuous frustration and despair on the indigenous people.
I started without knowing where I was going, my destination was undetermined as all information and instructions were confusing and instead of clarifying things for me, in fact they confused me even more. Certainly the invariable advice was “be careful”.
Those moments I remembered what I had read in the Bible and had not fully understood. In Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 11: by faith, Abraham, when he was called, obeyed to go out to the place which he was to receive for an inheritance. He went out, not knowing where he went. The personal experience of access to an unknown place, showed me how difficult it is humanly to set out for someplace without knowing where you are going. And here even the best information for the South was disheartening.
However, there occurred the miracle of faith and everything went on very well: the churches that had been closed for many years were reopened; the Divine Liturgy was served again, filling the congregation with pious emotion and unspeakable joy. All those that remained in the region of the capital of South Sudan like real heroes —literally risking their lives keeping alight the flame of Orthodoxy— received holy communion. The next day we blessed and shared out the Vasilopita and then we sat in the church yard, with relief and spiritual invigoration written over the faces of all the participants.
We also laid the foundation stone of the St. Mark new missionary center in Mogala region in the eastern end of the capital city Juba. There, for the blessing of water service we had no censer available, so looking for one around to give a rough and ready solution, the only thing I could find handy was a magazine of bullets from a kalashnikov. I lit the charcoal briquettes at the one end of the magazine, placed the incense on top of them, held the magazine from the other end and censed the people accompanying me. I could not help thinking that with that magazine of the kalashnikov which had scattered death, I was meant to cense at the sacred service for the laying of the foundation stone of Saint Mark’s first missionary center. Within me, I was praying that those tools of war and destruction would be transformed into God-worship utensils. Only then could peace and unity of the people reign in this country.
The second trip two days later involved my moving to the western tropical city of Wau in South Sudan. It was a revelation to me to find there people who are pure, sincere, genuine, and unfortunately absolutely poor without electricity or water. Imagine how many essential things are lacking there, while for us in the western world they are unquestionably taken for granted. A pleasant discovery, however, was the fact that lack of electrical power could turn into something good… One can see the stars at night and feel like they are in a spacious place.
By the grace of God we baptized ten children and reopened Prophet Elijah church, which had been built by Greeks around the beginning of the previous century; the church bell rang again after many decades. I also read them the forgiveness prayer and they all received Holy Communion.
There, one night in the humble dinner which they so nobly prepared for me, where everyone ate with their hands from the same big plate on the table, they told me around the brazier with the lit fire stories about how they lived in the days of the civil war… They tore off the tin from the roofs of their huts to cook on it in order to eat something, while at the same time food was scarce and disease was treated without even the basics, such as medicines or doctors.
Meanwhile, malaria has ravaged half the population. There is not a single person who has not got sick with malaria. The stronger organisms withstand, whereas the weaker die out, especially children. Everyone’s life is on the razor’s edge and anyone may die at any time. Life is uncertain, death is a daily routine, whether it comes from cholera or malaria or Ebola; and if one manages to escape all these, the civil war awaits around the corner, which is why whoever survives there, is a champion of life.
Our Greek community in Wau consists of descendants of Greeks who got there at the beginning of the twentieth century, circa 1910. It was a great thrill for me to get there and find out that their first concern was to call me to go and conduct a Trisagion memorial service over their Greek fathers and ancestors that are buried in the Greek cemetery, which happened before I even had time to arrange my things. I put on my vestments, lit the censer and while chanting during the service , I was thinking about the bravery of those people to be forced to leave their homeland, i.e., the Greek islands of Lesbos, Lemnos and others to come here at the edge of the world to make families and work under unfavorable living conditions, outside of civilization and amenities. A rough estimate would say that this region of the world has always been 100 years behind. So it was a great feat then in 1910 that they created the community, a Greek club, a school, they built a church, in other words, they created a small Greece out of Greece to live in and keep it alive inside of them. I noticed that on their graves they had elaborately carved the marble with nostalgic words for the homeland, which could make even a stone-hearted man shed tears. They were really admirable people.
Finally the day of return to the capital city Juba came due to an earlier meeting arrangement with the country’s Foreign Minister. At the airport I felt that I did not want to leave, so when I had to say goodbye to the people and head to the plane, I felt my heart bleed, as if it did not want to be separated from them. However, I was comforted as this little death, separation, will bring resurrection one day, since my return there is a given.
Dear members of the Orthodox Missionary Fraternity, as sadness when shared decreases and joy is multiplied, I have the pleasure of contacting you and making you partakers of our missionary efforts in Africa. We plant the seed, you water it and God makes it grow; therefore, I pray feverishly for the success of our joint efforts so that the holy name of God is praised in every place now and forever.
May His Grace keep you strong.
Narcissus (Gammoh) of Nubia