Five years ago today….
The weather today was gorgeous. Cool with a crisp breeze that hinted at autumn, just over a month away. My social media feeds were full of comments from excited Georgians, basking in the 70 degree day that is nearly unheard of for Atlanta in August.
My morning walk with Biscuit conjured up different images than crunchy leaves, apple picking, and warm cider around a campfire. It reminded me of a journey I took five years ago today. It reminded me of the first day I stepped foot onto the dry, red soil of Southern Sudan. The evenings of Southern Sudan were like today. They were crisp, but still balmy with a slight breeze. We were so close to the equator, but something about the elevation and the ending of the rainy season made for a varied climate. Sometimes we would sit outside in the evenings, sipping hot tea and wearing jackets to keep warm. It was a nice reprieve from the tropical heat we experienced during the day.
I went to Southern Sudan with my good friend and ‘soul sister’ Heather. Our plan was simple: we were partnering with an international nonprofit organization and a local Sudanese church to teach health classes and discipleship classes to women in rural villages. I was spending six weeks in the country, she was spending twelve. We had the book “Where there is no doctor” and some basic materials to create illustrations and lessons. Our discipleship component was related to four key Christian growth principles that we could all work on together. Our first lessons were humbling. We journeyed by motorbike for lengthy periods of time to find ourselves in remote villages.
One of our first lessons left me with a myriad of emotions- humility, shame, pity, and empathy- when one woman raised her hand and proceeded to tell me that she wanted to boil her water, she just didn’t have a second pot to store it in. These women walked several miles to get to a relatively clean water source. They worked in unforgiving fields and many had alcoholic husbands. They had experienced great trauma, from the LRA, from North Sudan, from landmines left behind from a 20 year civil war, from drought, and their eyes had likely seen things that I could not even fathom. A few weeks later I was able to spend time with these women in a different context, where I was able to hear about their passions, goals, and dreams. They have talents and treasures, they just needed a little help to get them started. I will never forget the looks on their faces when we washed their feet, painted their toenails, and told them how much we could learn from them. It was beautiful, and it changed my life.
A couple weeks later we began going to a local orphanage. We held babies for hours. I will never forget little Nancy, the nine month old who clung to my navy blue t-shirt, seeking some comfort in human touch. It was with her in my arms that I first felt that undeniable love that God must give a mother. Putting that little girl down was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I still think of her often, and would adopt her tomorrow if given the chance. On other occasions at the orphanage, four or five little hands would share one of mine. We played with bubbles and I changed diapers. I held babies who were suffering with malaria and other illnesses. Leaving that place was so hard, I certainly left a piece of my heart behind.
Southern Sudan was a simple place despite its painful and complicated history. Our meals consisted of rice, beans and chicken mostly. Sometimes we’d get potatoes or other vegetables. And there were always mangoes, my favorite. I only brought seven shirts and five bottoms, enough clothes to last a week. There was no electricity, no running water, and the bathroom (latrine) was 100 yards away. We had internet and lights for two hours a night by the power of a generator. Our thin bunk beds were draped with nets to keep malaria carrying mosquitoes and other pests away. I have been to many countries and have lived in many different environments, but my time in Sudan was the most rustic and the most simple. It was an interesting adjustment for me at first, but I soon fell into the routine and schedule of life in this amazing country. It was one of the first times in my life that I didn’t always know what time it was. Schedules were flexible and relationships were priority. There were so many needs and so many hurts that were felt in that country’s brief but painful history, but the hospitality, the resiliency of spirit, and the peaceful, loving people were absolutely beautiful.
My heart for service and justice was further solidified in Sudan. When my friend Rose stood on top of a hill and showed me the direction the LRA had come to raid her village, my heart broke for justice. When Nancy cried that last time I had to put her down in her crib to leave, my heart cried for the orphan. When I walked with Rita to get water, carrying heavy jerry cans to supply our camp, my heart was pained for the lack of basic necessities so many in our world face.
It is easy to get caught up in the stresses of modern western living. Even after those life altering six weeks, I still find myself whining about trivial things. I want a latte, I want a new shirt, I want sushi. My ‘wants’ are not needs, nor do they make for a whole, fulfilled life. My possessions bog me down and can distract me from the blessings God has given me. Every piece of excess I have could be going to someone who is truly in need. I am humbled and ashamed that I spend so much time and money thinking about me. Today’s memories of Sudan were a beautiful reminder of just how small my needs are, and how important it is for me to use my life to meet the needs of others.
I will never forget you Southern Sudan. I pray I get to see you again someday.