Heat. Flies. Black cotton soil. All of them stick to you like glue. The heat can top 120 degrees plus humidity, the flies simply will not leave you be, and the mud cakes so thickly to your shoes you struggle to lift your feet. Some areas are dotted with sparse vegetation, and others are thick with trees. Blue sky, brown dirt, and muted greens and yellows in the grass—in every direction it is the color of earth, and bears little resemblance to the twenty-first century. Slipping out of the tall grass without a sound are children in tattered clothes, dirty and shoeless, and like any child anywhere, curious. Bright eyes and smiles burst through the drab surroundings as they wave, run after you and perhaps follow you for a while. You are walking in southern Sudan, one of Africa’s largest countries split in two by twenty years of civil war. Walking here you are fortunate to have shoes, and even more to have both your legs.
Beneath your feet is liquid wealth—oil—recently discovered and easily reached by modern means. The war in this land is not so hard to understand really. There are those with power and wealth who want more of it. And it lies under the feet and fields and villages of those who are weak. So for more than a decade, removing these “obstacles” has taken the form of burning homes, killing civilians, taking slaves, and the terror of crude bombs rolled out of the back of old Russian aircraft. Two million are dead, and there is a whole generation here who has never known the meaning of peace or a moment in a world without suffering—growing up without ever having a chance to be a child.
I’ve walked with some of these children; And beside the one-legged young man on crutches; And with some of the one hundred thousand refugees in the cramped camp near Kenya’s northern border. I’ve covered thousands of miles over their battered land in my little Cessna—alone in a big, sad sky as it dumps rain on abandoned crops and burned-out huts. And sometimes I’ve wondered if the rains fall in vain—if there is any hope for the Sudanese.
Almost every foreigner working in southern Sudan comes and goes by airplane. And nearly everything they need to meet their calling is flown in on these same rugged aircraft. There are very few safe or recognizable roads in this vast land. But there are missionaries working here, walking with the Sudanese. They tolerate the heat and the flies; they skirt landmines and sometimes drive bulletproof cars. They take their college degrees, engineering skills, or surgeon’s hands to this hard place, working to bring peace to the hearts of the people even if they cannot bring it to the land. They are running hospitals and schools, planting farms and building mills to grind the grain. They are repairing bombed-out churches, fitting prosthesis to limping young men, and digging wells for water not far from those who are greedily digging them for oil. They offer the love of Jesus by example and with it a chance to know peace even in war.
This inner transformation can be hard to understand, especially after you have seen the deep needs, but it is as real and tenacious as the soil sticking to your boots. I know because I have seen it. I’ve worshiped with the Sudanese in mud churches on mud pews in a wretched refugee camp. In the eyes of these persecuted Christians I have seen hope—hope that they will one day go home, and hope beyond that home.
Soberly and with a strange mixture of calling, duty, and privilege, my co-workers and I serve these faithful ones, and the brave missionaries who live on the ground in southern Sudan. I get to see so much of it from the air that some have asked me what it is like to view the world from “God’s perspective”—being “above it all” in an airplane and such. But I have recently come to understand that this is not how God sees the world. Rather, He knows our world as we do: at ground level, walking with us in the flies and the black cotton soil.
For the Sudanese this is fortunate, because they desperately need a God who knows their suffering, and their shattered dreams; A God who sits next to them on earthen pews, and counts every fallen sparrow —because so many have fallen here. As for me, I get down to see Sudan as God does from time to time. It is a rare privilege to walk with some of the Christians here when I do, and always a joy to have a few scruffy, smiling children at my heels. Once you have walked here, it never does look the same again from the air.