By Laura McKillip Wood
In 2013 a church in a village near Juba, the capital of South Sudan, built the only brick and mortar Christian school in the town. Before the stucco siding even dried, the local government painted red X’s on each side. They also painted X’s on the mud-walled church building nearby and the only well in the area, also owned by the church.
According to missionary Tom Kilian, the local government claimed these buildings stood in the path of road development and the X’s marked them for demolition. However the makeshift tavern nearby, also in the line of the future road, was left untouched. Tom and the Sudanese leader from the church called on Christians to pray for them as they approached the commissioner to ask for a reversal. The commissioner relented.
Today 600 students from 16 different tribes attend classes there. As Tom says, “[The building] still stands as a testimony to God’s power over political might.”
Tom’s interest in the region began in 2007, when he saw a picture of a girl running from an armed militia during the Darfur genocide. At the time he worked part-time in ministry in North Carolina and held other jobs to support his family. He enjoyed wood sculpting in his spare time and found the photo while researching an artist grant. This photo eventually led him to found the charitable humanitarian organization, Mercy Partners (www.mercy-partners.org).
To date Mercy Partners has established three areas of operation, two churches, and six deep-water boreholes, in addition to the school mentioned above. Tom states that, along with humanitarian aid, “Mercy Partners performs art therapy with children, provides spiritual counsel for commercial sex workers and abused women, and conducts prison ministry, church planting, teacher and leadership training, and medical missions.” Their work has grown to include Uganda and Ethiopia as well as South Sudan.
The Republic of South Sudan and its neighboring countries have suffered political turmoil for generations. South Sudan gained independence from Sudan to its north in 2011. For two years the country experienced peace and a feeling of hope. All of that disintegrated in 2013 when the country broke out in a tribal war.
Historically the religious climate in the country has been one of confusion and division. Sudanese people originally practiced animism, or worship of the spirits they believed were in nature. They also embraced Islam. Anglican and Catholic missionaries divided the country into evangelistic jurisdictions, adding confusion to the already muddied religious waters. During the Darfur genocide, Western forces influenced the culture, leading to ideas of tolerance, acceptance, and spiritual apathy. In addition, Western culture introduced cults, stirring up more spiritual confusion.
The Tribe of Jesus Christ
“The New Testament church is the only church that unites on biblical authority and stands as a harbor for those that seek to tear down the walls of confusion,” said Tom. “While the church has been a catalyst to unite tribes, it is also a threat to the corrupt.” The Christians Tom works with describe the church community as “the tribe of Jesus Christ” and “the church without walls” because members of any tribe or people group can come together there, united in their love for Christ.
Despite tribal conflicts and pressure from nonbelievers, Christians in South Sudan stand firm in their faith. One 15-year-old believer refused to marry the nonbeliever who had purchased her with cattle. She suffers imprisonment because of her decision not to conform to traditional tribal tradition and faith. One young man was shot in the head at a checkpoint after he said, “Praise the Lord” in his native tongue.
Tom calls himself a “bridge missionary.” Because 64 different tribes inhabit South Sudan and tribal conflict over political power can be intense, Tom finds it imperative that he partner with local evangelists. Most South Sudanese people speak at least four languages, and his partnerships with the evangelists provide the crucial cultural and language links with the people to enable effective ministry. Training local leaders enables them to start churches that do not struggle with dependency upon foreign missionaries or American churches. The churches see themselves as independent from American support.
Stopped at the Border
Not only can new converts to Christianity and established Christians in the Sudanese population face persecution, but so can missionaries and humanitarian workers. Tom and his family have faced persecution themselves. Once when Tom and his then 16-year-old son, Thomas, attempted to enter the country after an absence, they were detained, despite the visas clearly stamped on their documents. Those who detained them questioned them about why the United States government allowed a video that disrespected Mohammed to be posted on YouTube. Tom and his son knew nothing about the video and had no association with it at all. They did not know that the American government had claimed that the video had caused a riot, which in turn prompted the Bengazi attack that occurred earlier in the day.
Those who detained the two missionaries associated all Americans with Christianity, thereby falsely assuming that everything produced in America was also Christian. If all Americans are Christians and all things produced in America reflect Christian values, such a video posting must reflect the stance of all American Christians. Eventually Tom and his son were released and allowed to enter the country.
Later that month, the Kilian family witnessed the baptisms of 52 people in the Nile River, an event that strengthened their resolve to withstand any trials they face in their work.
Empowering and Encouraging
Tom’s work also involves encouraging the South Sudanese Christians to withstand pressure from tribal leaders, religious leaders, and family and friends who do not understand their commitment to God. To do this he reminds the people that in Bible times their country helped make up a region referred to as Cush, and several people in the Bible came from or were associated with that area.
Nimrod, the son of Cush, built the Syrian nation and the Persian Empire. Moses married a Cushite woman. “The South Sudanese have the blood of nation builders, heroes, and Moses himself flowing through their veins. I share this message to empower them to reveal who they belong to and what they were made for.” He goes on to say, “The Bible is not some Western invention; it is a book in which their own ancestors appear as forces for good.”
To Christians in America who would like to somehow support the persecuted church, Tom first recommends learning about the religions in the areas where Christians suffer persecution. Be familiar with what people there believe. Second, Tom recommends that we learn details about any organizations we choose to support and choose those who present the Gospel as well as provide physical aid. People in these areas need Jesus as much as they need to have their physical needs met. We should support organizations that are transparent about their work, their finances, and their methods.
Third, we can remember in prayer these brothers and sisters in Christ. Just as we would if a member of our biological families suffered trials, we should pray for those in our spiritual family as well. We need to remember to ask for relief and wisdom for those in situations of persecution but also remember to ask God to reveal ways that we can actively lighten their loads.
Laura McKillip Wood is a freelance writer in Papillion, Nebraska. www.lauramckillipwood.com