I think I had only been to London, Ontario once before in my life. I was only a child at the time and we were visiting my great aunt and uncle in the nursing home where they lived. While I remember that visit, I remember nothing of the area itself.
In the fall (2018) I was in London again but this time as an adult who was driving alone and trying to find my way around using a GPS to a place I’d never been before. I pulled into the driveway knowing I was hours late and hurried to the door to ring the bell….
Instantly I was home.
“Katta you’re here! I bɛɛni? I baal ciiyɛ? Ɛɛ, ‘ya baal ciiyɛ!!” In those first few moments, and the 5 hours that followed, my heart rested in a place of joy and familiarity that I hadn’t felt in months. September 15th, and every day since then, has marked the longest that I have been out of Africa in a decade. But the bruise of that reality faded in this room full of Mabaan men and women who I’ve come to know and love over the past few years.
I was greeted by a young man who is the son of an elder from a church just up the river from us in Gasmalla. This same young man made a point of representing the Diaspora Mabaan community at our wedding a few months ago. Next I hugged the older brother of one of my close friends who I lived with in Gasmalla. Their family is one that I have been connected within Mabaan, in Nairobi, and in Canada. Next was a young man I was meeting for the first time that day, followed by the grown nephew of my Mabaan mom. Even on the other side of the world the connection to home and the people of our village is very, very near. That is one of the amazingly beautiful and yet tragic realities of being connected to South Sudanese communities. The events of their homeland have flung them far and wide on this earth. But in this moment, I’m so very thankful that I can find ‘home’ in London, Ontario.
After greeting the ladies in the kitchen who were working at putting together a yummy meal and raising a big response from an older woman who couldn’t figure out why this Khawaja (the Arabic word for a foreigner) was speaking like a Mabaan, I sat down in a puffy big chair and hardly moved for the next number of hours. Every time we are together there is much news to share and questions to answer. How are things going on the ground and what is happening in the churches? What was it like two Christmases ago when the fighting broke out and how is the situation now? Even though they are speaking with family and friends regularly to get updates, it’s not quite the same as hearing from someone who was just there (so I’m told). It always seems ironic to me for a foreigner to sit and share what the situation is like in their country… but it’s a privilege I have taken seriously over the years. It has been part of my role in ministry to keep the connections and transport photos, letters, and video messages from family there to family here and back again.
This visit led us into conversations about the past, to the more distant past and some of the decisions that SIM missionaries made way back at the start. Decades later we have seen some of the ripple effects of these choices and have been left wondering why things were done the way they were. I have learned personally that with the distance of decades it’s very easy to be overly critical of decisions made in the past. Hindsight is 20/20 but in the moment, you use your resources, wisdom and good intentions and move forward trusting God.
This line of discussion opened an opportunity for me to apologize for one action that has created much confusion. The confusion has traveled with the diaspora Mabaan and it led us into a great conversation about how we read and interpret Scripture. Back at the beginning when the first missionaries were sharing about Jesus and the first few Mabaan were turning to follow Him, new ‘family groups’ were made. As people chose to follow Jesus they were encouraged to move out of their villages (which had typically been created and grouped along biological/family lines) to join with other believers and live as the people of God together. Because I was not there I have no idea what the rationale of the missionaries of that day was. But I can imagine some of what they might have been thinking and I believe that their motives were well-intentioned, even if looking back this would be something we’d like to change. Considering that the temptations and pressures to conform to certain traditions would be so strong, these new believers would be better able to keep each other encouraged and accountable if they were all together in one village. The Mabaan in London that evening felt that it must have been to make teaching them easier because the people were not spread all over.
While I don’t know for sure what was in their minds I feel it may be related to the many passages of Scripture which speak about how God’s people are to be “set apart.” How you interpret those passages could lead to different ways of being “set apart.” Do these passages refer to a geographical or a character/lifestyle “set apart-ness?” As light bulbs were flickering around the room the conversation got lively. What a wonderful, real-life application lesson of how important it is to properly understand and apply God’s words. I was wishing so much that Tyler wasn’t back at the conference center, sick and in bed because he would have loved this conversation!
The practice of “Ma Juaŋ” villages (People of God villages) was abandoned long ago, quite possibly left behind because of people fleeing war and not re-instituting it upon return. However, the effect of this ‘separateness’ seems to still affect the impact of the Mabaan Church today. Those who were following Jesus were identified and set apart as “Ma Juaŋ” and this reduced the influence of the salt and light desperately needed in the community. Here in the west we talk about holy huddles where the Christians cluster together to the exclusion of those outside the circle. When this way of thinking and living takes root it is very hard to dig up and discard.
The Church of Jesus is sent out INTO the world. Jesus Himself prayed in John 17: “My prayer is not that You take them out of the world, but that You protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” We are not called to shield ourselves from the world, huddled together off to the side. How is the Good News of Jesus supposed to penetrate the community unless those sanctified by the truth are among the community as they were intended and sent to be? If the members of the community feel like they must have their lives looking pretty and have it all together before they can even enter the church to see what it’s all about…they will stand on the outside looking in for a long time.
We enjoyed good food and good food-for-thought together that night while we were reunited as a family. I left with a heart rejoicing and a mind thinking. I rejoice that the Lord chooses to use us even though we could make decisions that won’t look so good a few decades down the line. It is humbling to remember that He is the one who provides the increase. And I am thinking about how important it is that the Church can hear the voice of its Lord accurately and fully. The fellowship of family is sweet and it is made even sweeter as we seek to listen to and live in the words of our God together.