By Jesse Masai
When the Archbishop of Canterbury addressed an estimated 50,000 people at an ecumenical prayer vigil in Juba on February 4, two former lost boys — Bishop Abraham Yel Nhial of the Diocese of Aweil and the Rev. John Chol Daau of the Diocese of Bor — listened attentively.
Archbishop Welby and the Rt. Rev. Iain Greenshields, the Church of Scotland’s moderator, joined Pope Francis on his pilgrimage of peace to South Sudan’s capital on February 3 to 5.
Both of these Sudanese leaders, who were boyhood friends, survived for several years as refugees alongside an estimated 35,000 other Lost Boys in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda — displaced by the Sudanese civil war..
They are heirs to pioneer work by the Church Missionary Society in Omdurman, Sudan, beginning in 1899. The Diocese of Sudan was under the Jerusalem archbishopric until 1974, when it reverted to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s care.
A new province, consisting of four new dioceses, was established in 1976, before a final split on June 30, 2017, created separate provinces for Sudan and South Sudan.
The gospel spread fast in Nhial and Daau’s southern region, which is partially animist.
Civil strife and a steady flow of refugees have plagued South Sudan, Africa’s youngest nation, despite a comprehensive peace agreement in 2005 with its predominantly Muslim northern neighbor, Sudan.
Hostilities have particularly intensified in the Upper Nile and Jonglei states, affecting two of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan’s eight internal provinces. These hostilities sparked calls for humanitarian intervention, including a Christmas Eve appeal last year from Archbishop Justin Badi.
“The coming of the three Church leaders has been well-received by the people and government of South Sudan,” Nhial said. “It was the first time in more than 50 years for a visit of this kind to have happened. And it was the first time for this pope to visit us. … We are surprised how God is thinking and blessing the people of South Sudan. They spoke openly to the people and Church of South Sudan that God loves us.”
Nhial, author of Lost Boy No More: A True Story of Survival and Salvation (B&H Publishing, 2004), added: “They encouraged us that peace will not come from anybody else, but us. We are praying that the Church will take the lead in building peace. It is no longer simply about our President, Salva Kiir, and his deputy, Dr. Riek Machar, visiting Rome, as they did in April 2019. God is with us here. We have seen it within the South Sudan Council of Churches, an ecumenical body comprising seven member churches and associate congregations. It is quite rare to have a council bringing together Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians and others. This is a model for others in East Africa and beyond.”
Nhial believes his country’s best days are still ahead.
“Let us keep praying that the visit will bring final peace, and for a return of refugees, so that we rebuild our nation. God has picked me among my brothers and sisters to be a part of the rebuilding our nation through a gospel of forgiveness,” he said.
At the height of Sudan’s civil war, Pope John Paul II and Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey visited the former Sudan in separate trips. Daau, author of God’s Refugee: The Story of a Lost Boy Pastor (CreateSpace, 2022), believes it was important for the Vatican to allow another papal visit.
“The latest visit gives us hope that Christian leaders are thinking about us and are concerned about the suffering of God’s people in South Sudan. Our hope is that it will motivate political and religious authorities to work for harmony, peace, and stability. It encourages South Sudanese people to truly consider themselves as one nation and people,” he said.
Daau said the visit may assist many South Sudanese leaders in developing and sharing a narrative of unity, rather than the predominant narrative of tribalism, which has fueled conflict for many years.
“The papal visit, in the company of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of Scotland, is a historic and admirable action to advance ecumenical relations,” he said. “No doubt it sends a positive signal to the Church of Christ, reminding it of its unity as the apostolic and catholic body of Christ with the desire to work together to share Christ’s love and gospel.”
Still, Daau expressed his sense that it is “hypocritical for Archbishop Welby to promote South Sudanese unity while failing miserably to keep the Anglican church united.”
“Even though the three heads of churches visit South Sudan to urge unity, they are unable to mend the Church’s fraying fabric over the issue of homosexuality. It would reassure the world if the three read and confirmed the true gospel of Christ, preaching that all must repent and be forgiven in Christ.”
Daau’s son, Jacob Kuer, told The Living Church that the visit could not have come at a better time, since most South Sudanese youth are alert and trying to make sense of their surroundings.
“We have come a long way from the 1993 visit, when the country was segregated along racial and religious lines, with Christians subjected to persecution for their faith as well as prejudice because they were black. Our quest for peace and self-rule has been rife with bloodshed, but once we achieved independence, we turned on one another; we perpetrated the most horrific actions against each other,” he said.
As a young man who shared in his family’s experience of fleeing Sudan amid war, he believes the peace pilgrimage is a wake-up call for all the people of South Sudan to unite and live peacefully.
The youth of South Sudan bear a responsibility “to learn from our broken past, to change the narrative of violence, and to preach peace and development,” said Kuer, 25, who became a Christian two years ago. “We are the leaders of tomorrow. We have to seriously reflect on the value we are adding to ourselves and our surroundings. What has each one of us done that defines our existence as humans?”