By Peggy Eastman
“Somebody who doesn’t know Jesus can accept doing violence,” said the Rev. John Chol Daau of South Sudan during an address and discussion at the Institute on Religion & Democracy April 20 in Washington, D.C.
For that reason, his top priority is to empower trained Christian leaders in his country, an area that has been battered by jihad, civil war, violence, and murder for decades. Daau, an Anglican priest in the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan, is a former “Lost Boy of Sudan,” a term used by aid workers for boys displaced or orphaned during the second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005).
Anglican leaders in the West must understand the urgency of his appeal, Daau said: “Discipleship is needed; training is needed.” He stressed that both contributions and missionaries would help South Sudan, which gained its independence on July 9, 2011, become a strong, stable nation with Christian values.
Daau was one of an estimated 20,000 boys of the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups who fled into the forests of rural southern Sudan and survived the harrowing trek through Ethiopia into refugee camps in Kenya. Living in the forest, an estimated initial group of 60,000 children went without food and water for days, drinking their own urine and eating plants and roots. Some died from eating poisonous roots. Many of this original group perished before they reached Kenya. Daau recounts this journey in God’s Refugee, which he wrote with Lilly Sanders Ubbens.
“We would run carrying nothing but our Bibles,” he said. “We would run carrying nothing but our crosses.”
Asked by TLC what sustained him during his harrowing journey, Daau said, “We knew that any day we could die. We were very clear that life with Jesus was the most important thing.” Hope from the gospel message of life everlasting sustained him through the threats of anxiety, exhaustion, and starvation.
Ordained in 2004 in Kenya, he studied at Daystar University in Nairobi, and subsequently studied at Trinity School of Ministry. Today he is part of the archbishop’s task force to bring healing, forgiveness and reconciliation in South Sudan. He founded the Good Shepherd Foundation in South Sudan, which includes Good Shepherd Academy for children ages 3-14, Good Shepherd College and Seminary, and Good Shepherd Leadership Training Center. He also founded The Christian Times, the first Christian newspaper in South Sudan.
Conflict in Sudan between the northern region, which is primarily Muslim, and the southern region, which is primarily Christian, has raged for decades. Today South Sudan has one of the weakest economies in the world, with soaring prices for food and fuel. Only 27 percent of its people can read or write (illiteracy is higher among women) and the mortality rate is high, with few people living beyond age 50.
“A lot of people are armed; a lot of people are getting guns,” he said.
But Daau is encouraged by his trust in Jesus. He said that at his birth his uncle, a Christian leader in his village of Baping, had prophesied the infant would be Chol Makeyn, “a true compensator for his people.”
“There is a lot of hope for us in South Sudan,” Daau said. He noted that the government recently bought a number of tractors to distribute across the country to jump-start farming. “To me, that means a lot.”
He is hopeful that people displaced from their villages will return to their homes and resume farming, helping South Sudan become a more stable country with sustainable sources of food.