Cover Story

In the shadow of war

"In the shadow of war" Continued...

Issue: "Return to war?," May 5, 2012

Though they have few supplies, refugees have built their own schools, and volunteers teach classes. A small chalkboard in the front of an open-air structure shows that the students have been learning basic addition and subtraction.

They've also built a rustic marketplace of small stalls with thatched roofs, and vendors sell a surprisingly wide array of products they've brought from home or purchased from trucks that pass through the area: wrenches and bolts, beans and other vegetables, hygiene products, cell phone batteries, and cups of hot tea. When nearly half of the market burned down in early April, other stalls remained open, and shopkeepers began planning new huts.

And then there are the churches: Refugee pastors have established seven churches in Yida representing four denominations (Episcopal, Sudan Church of Christ, Catholic, and Evangelical). Most pastors came with their church members, and quickly re-established their congregations, complete with meeting places for Sunday worship and sometimes daily prayer meetings.

On a mid-morning walk through the camp, Episcopal pastor Saliman gives a tour of his church's modest compound: As many as 300 people fill a large thatched hut with dirt floors on Sunday mornings, with more spilling from the back into the open air.

A smaller hut next door acts as a Sunday school room for children, where church members teach Bible lessons and sing songs with community children every afternoon. Saliman walks into an even smaller hut next to the church, and says: "This is the church office." The minister and church officers use the tiny room to hold meetings and pray for the congregation. Eventually, Saliman hopes to obtain a couple of chairs that the officers can share, but for now they sit in the dirt.

Saliman says the burdens of his ministry have grown in Yida. He grieves over being unable to do more to help orphans and widows in the camp: "We're just like them. We have nothing." He also misses some of the simple tools of ministry like books for study, a communion set, and supplies for the Lord's Supper. A crude table made of sticks and a used piece of canvas sits near the front of the church, waiting for the day the minister can serve communion again.

Still, Saliman is thankful to have a place to meet safely for now. In the Nuba Mountains, he says constant bombing made gathering in churches unsafe. "They didn't even give us time to pray," he says. "Sometimes we prayed in the mountains. Sometimes we didn't meet to pray at all."

These days, church members in Yida gather several times a week for prayer and worship, and during the week before Easter, Saliman delivered handmade invitations to other community members for a special Sunday service.

In a similar structure nearby, Ayub Hassan made Easter preparations as well. The pastor of the Sudanese Church of Christ fled here with his congregation after his village endured constant bombardment and a dwindling supply of food. On this morning, he's meeting with members of the youth group to plan music for the Easter service. One young man stands when visitors enter and asks about the possibility of obtaining Bibles for some of the teenagers.

Hassan says adjusting to camp life has been difficult for his church members. During their first weeks in Yida, he noticed many didn't come to Sunday services. He says he visited several absent members to check on them: "They said they didn't have enough soap to wash their clothes for church." It's a difficulty the pastor understands: "Sometimes you find you don't have the right clothes to stand in front of the people and speak to them."

The ministers are pressing forward, preaching, praying, visiting, and trying to share supplies with the most vulnerable members of the community. All the while, they think of the church members they left behind.

That's a burden that weighs heavily on Saliman: He says he wants to stay close to the border so he can return to visit church members still in the Nuba Mountains. He's already returned once, and is contemplating walking back again: "Now I've stayed here for a long time. That means there are many questions. They must wonder: Why did the pastor leave us?"

Even if the pastors are far away from their church members in Nuba, they continue to pray for them with devotion akin to the apostle Paul. That kind affection was obvious during the pastors' morning prayer meeting. Though they prayed for their churches and the needs in Yida, they spent even more time praying for those left behind. "We pray for the people of the Nuba Mountains," said one pastor. "Their life is very hard."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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