Following is a recent update as sent by the Rev. Canon Britt Olson, currently on sabbatical from her duties as canon to the ordinary. Additional updates to follow as received...
Dear Friends and Family,
Now that I am fully rested and comfortable in England, I want to send you a summary of my time and experiences in S. Sudan. Of course I will be talking about this trip for years and showing my photos to anyone who remotely expresses interest (click here to view a few taken thus far)!
If you have been following me via Facebook, you will be aware of some of this information. The first day we arrived and checked into the Confident Children out of Conflict (CCC, www.confidentchildren.org) guest house I met the director, Cathy Groenendijk, and was immediately riveted by her compassion, her advocacy for the very least of God's children, and her fabulous smile. Cathy I think I fell in love with you right away! She and the staff and volunteers had rescued an infant from the squatter's shack in the nearby graveyard where her mother, four older children and her recently deceased twin brother were "living." The brother was buried in the dirt floor of the shack and the baby had to be taken immediately to the hospital. Cathy named her 'Zoe' which is the Greek word for life and my mother's name. Zoe had been struggling with starvation, pneumonia and many other problems but was eager to suck on a bottle. I held her for a few hours, sang to her, fed her and watched her tiny, desperate eyes search out my eyes (see photo at right). That night as she lay bundled beside Cathy in bed, her breathing slowed and she died at 4 am. Cathy got up early to return her to her mother who, along with all of us had hoped and prayed that she would make it against all odds. It was devastating. Zoe's mother was already weak, unable or unwilling to eat, grief-stricken and sleeping on bare ground in the rainy season which turned the floor to mud.
Cathy and another volunteer, Sonja from Holland, sprang into action. In the midst of their own grief, they found builders who arrived the next day to set up a tin shack with a roof and even a door that could be locked (see photo at left). They procured a bed to raise the family up off the ground. We brought food and distributed donated warm baby outfits to everyone in the graveyard. Cathy wouldn't let this tragedy deter her. In Zoe's memory, she found other ways to ease some of the suffering you encounter every day. Later that week at a Rotary meeting, I watched as she managed to goad the members into having a blood drive for infants and children who are patients at the local hospital. All of this was done in Zoe's memory. I think without this, I would have fallen into despair in grief over Zoe and all the others who are suffering.
Sonja said something that was so helpful. She has felt a call from God to Africa since she was 12 and, like Cathie who is Ugandan and her husband, Wim, who is Dutch, she and her husband have made S. Sudan their home. She asks God to show her which needs she is to meet and then she prays to have the resources to meet just those, hoping and trusting that God will use others to meet the ones that are not her responsibility. Since Sonja and Eljer (her husband) spent four years in Darfur during the worst difficulty there, her words carried authority, wisdom and compassion and were a great guide for me.
Some of my time in Juba was spent with CCC and the street girls (photo at right) that they have taken in, given food, shelter and education to and created hope and a community for. The girls have incredible challenges to overcome and each day brings a new crisis including while I was there a 13 year old girl who had gone back to the brothel, been made pregnant before even her first period began, and tried to induce an abortion, which nearly killed her. There were also discipline issues, cerebral malaria, and the ongoing needs of fund-raising and management. If you stay close to Cathy you will find out what Jesus would be doing in S. Sudan and you will never be bored!
When I wasn't with CCC in Juba, I spent time at Bishop Gwynne College which is the best three-year theological college in S. Sudan although it nearly closed a few years ago during all the difficulties. Currently there is a wonderful Principal, the Rev. Joseph Taban who recently studied at Duke University. I met the staff and sat in on the first year student's classes. I also got to know many of the students --in particular, the two women who are training there. Catherine and Martha are remarkable individuals and my plan is to work to fund their school fees for the next two years for Martha and three for Catherine. This is not a great hardship since they are only $800 per term but for them it will make an incredible difference. Some of you will be hearing more about them as I ask you to partner with me in this opportunity to support women clergy development.
Finally, we were able to make the trip to Western Equatoria and the dioceses of Ezo and Yambio. It was an amazing time and I immediately felt deeply connected to a number of people in Ezo. This diocese is at the border of S. Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. It is very remote and the Lord's Resistance Army has terrorized them in the past. They are also in danger of the spreading Ebola virus from Congo. In the midst of unimaginably difficult circumstances they have carved out a diocesan compound with a church, school, and health clinic along with housing for a number of people. They are training and deploying clergy and had asked Robin Denney (former Episcopal church missionary for agriculture) to lead a workshop in agricultural methods and me to lead a workshop on evangelism. Because of a delay in our travel many of them had been waiting for days for our arrival and were avid in their attention and willingness to learn. The next day we participated in Sunday worship and I preached at the main service. By the time we had exchanged gifts (see photo at left, with some of the vestments donated by the clergy of Northern California) and speeches had been made, I was so sad to be leaving. There is definitely a heart connection to the folks there that I hope to maintain and they are adamant that I must return.
If you have read on to the end of this, thank you. The people and experiences from this trip are still so fresh and full inside me and I am longing to share them with those of you who care. Please feel free to forward this to anyone who might be interested. S. Sudan is the newest country in the world. There are tremendous opportunities for development and unbelievable challenges. Everyone there is very aware of the U.S. and how our politics and actions affect them but many Americans are completely unaware of S. Sudan. We can change that because we have met now face to face and because you care about me, you also care about S. Sudan. Thank you for your concern and your good wishes and your prayers.
And also a big THANK YOU to Robin Denney, who brought me to this country and people whom she loves and who love her deeply. Without her kindness, courage and faithfulness, this trip would not have been possible. I was a babe in the woods and she kept me safe and comfortable every step of the way.
With faith, hope and love,