(Below is an article I wrote for AIM’s magazine. Over the years, I had the privilege of flying the Nobles around southern Sudan as they skirted conflicts and flooded roads to teach in some of the country’s most remote places. In January, I spent a weekend with them in Torit to learn a little more about their story.)

Written words are patient things. Once they find their form in so many sentences and are bound into books, they wait. They remain unchanged in the fleeting breadth of a human lifespan, and untouched in the devastation of a human conflict. It may be decades before a book once neglected is turned open again and its words are absorbed as they were meant to be. When that time comes they will still fulfill their purpose – but only if the words can be read and understood.

AIM missionary Martha Hughell could not have known what lay ahead when she bound up the words of the New Testament in the Otuho language in 1969. Her translation had taken 17 long years of patient labor, and when she retired she did so with the satisfaction of knowing the Lotuho people of Southern Sudan finally had the Word of God in their mother tongue, even if only few could read the language at the time. The church embraced the translation and volumes spread in the years between Sudan’s first and second civil wars. But those years were short and by 1983 the Lotuho homeland was engulfed in conflict once again.

By the time peace returned, 22 years had passed; nearly two million Sudanese had lost their lives, and an even greater number had been scattered. Some ended up in neighboring countries as refugees, others simply fled over the next mountain ridge and waited – wandered and waited for decades while the war ran its course.

Many of Sudan’s social structures suffered during this time, and the schools were no exception. Among the varied international relief efforts addressing each emerging crisis in the country, there were those who saw the importance of education as a stabilizing force in the conflict, and as a hope for any future beyond it. So there beside the drama of a protracted African war, beside the aid workers, peacekeepers, and pallets of relief food, were teachers. And some of them were missionaries.

Russ and Lyn were living in Juba, Southern Sudan’s principle city, when the war began. Both had come with AIM to teach in the schools; Russ was from urban New York, Lyn from the county of Kent in England. Juba, where they first met, was unlike either of those places. The town was oppressively hot, set on the western bank of the Nile in the southernmost part of Sudan. Juba was also a hub of war-time activity and a safe haven for relief efforts. This allowed both Russ and Lyn to continue in their ministries despite the steadily unraveling situation around them.

For two single missionaries in such a place at such a time, the assignment was a bonding experience. Russ and Lyn shared more than just a unique knowledge of which roads in Juba had land mines. They shared a genuine love for teaching. And they were both curiously persistent – stubborn perhaps – in their desire to serve the Sudanese people.

But by the late 80’s, Juba was under siege. By 1990, most Western workers had either left or been evacuated, including Russ and Lyn. They landed in Nairobi and, not surprisingly, were married there that same year.

When asked how a lady from Kent ends up married to a man from Queens, Lyn smiles and declares in her soft-spoken way, “The war threw us together.”

And together, they were doubly persistent.

“When I came,” Lyn says, “I knew this was a place I could spend the rest of my life. The calling was specific. The circumstances, not so much.” Russ’ story is much the same. So they simply followed their calling and worked around the circumstances.

When living in Sudan was no longer an option, the Nobles based themselves in Kenya and made frequent returns across the border. When AIM pulled all their missionaries from rebel-held areas, Russ and Lyn found a way back in with an Africa-based church ministry. When the mission planes quit flying due to insecurity, they found a ride on UN chartered planes instead. They continued to focus on teacher-training. They developed training modules and then carefully skirted conflict areas and held workshops over month-long trips to rural villages and towns in scattered locations in the South.

In all of these places, the Nobles were witness to the deterioration of the education system, which in rural areas was already little established. Sudan, it seemed, had a more fundamental problem than struggling schools and displaced students. The teachers were few and inexperienced, and many of them lacked basic literacy skills in their own language.

Literacy is like a living thing. Children who read are taught by adults who themselves can read. It is a skill that trickles down from generation to generation, and when the cycle is broken, a people group can become functionally illiterate in a very short time. The war in Sudan disrupted education to such a degree that an entire generation was being left behind. The official literacy rate in Sudan today stands at 27%, but in parts of South Sudan adult literacy is as low as 5-10% among women. Either way, these are some of lowest literacy rates in the world.

The discovery of this trend caused the Nobles to take a step back and refocus their efforts on a ministry of helping the Sudanese teach literacy to their own people.

In its simplest definition, literacy is the ability to read and write. But it’s also a doorway to further life skills – simple things like writing a letter, counting money, or casting a vote with some knowledge of how it will affect your future. Literacy is also the key to education. It’s been estimated that a 15 year old girl in South Sudan has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than of finishing primary school. But even more, literacy is a doorway to the Word of God, which a literate person can read for themselves and be transformed.

For the past ten years the Noble’s ministry has been all about this. Russ and Lyn have touched on as many as nine different people groups and languages since they began, promoting literacy and leaving a trail of self-sustaining literacy classes all over South Sudan. But how do you facilitate literacy in a language you don’t speak?

“We’re not linguists,” Russ explains, “They know the language, we bring the expertise.”

That expertise comes in the form of training and equipping volunteer literacy teachers who are chosen by the local church. The volunteers then go out into the communities and run literacy classes for a season – a couple hours a day, a couple days a week. It is a slow and patient effort. But what may look to be a very simple process is in reality moving through many complex steps toward something that transcends the process: a man or woman who can read their own language for the first time.

Russ and Lyn moved back into Sudan in 2007, excited to begin the process again. This time God led them to the Lotuho people who have, in recent peaceful years, been returning to their homeland.

Next door to the Noble’s house on the AIC church compound in Torit is a small literacy office in mild disarray. Shelves and foot-lockers crammed with written materials. Pamphlets and booklets. Little readers in a dozen languages. Storyboards and blackboards. On Russ’ desk is an incomplete Bible story he’s working on with a translation helper. On Lyn’s is a scattering of Otuho letters on hand-printed index cards. On top of shelves and under tables in stacks are tattered boxes filled with copies of the Otuho New Testament.

In the Nobles’s front yard is a temporary classroom of poles and tarps. As many as twenty literacy teachers come for a two-week training course that may be their first or their fifth. They learn the techniques of teaching others to read and write. They practice reading aloud and writing legibly. Russ gives a lesson on what it feels like to be pre-literate. He invents a new way of writing English with strange symbols and stumps the class. The learners will need patient teachers, he explains.

“Many new learners do not even know how to open a book, turn a page, or hold a pencil.”

Each graduate of the course leaves wearing a bright new T-shirt with the Otuho alphabet printed on the back. Each new class they start in the community will get a footlocker full of reading material designed to take the learners from tracing letters to reading God’s Word.

Leaning against a tree in the village is a make-shift blackboard. And under the tree is an eager group of learners – mostly adults and mostly women. They sit in a semi-circle on woven mats in the dust and watch the teacher inscribe the symbols of their mother tongue with a stub of chalk. The teacher makes the sounds and the learners repeat them. They laugh at themselves and light up as connections are made between symbols and speech.

In a more advanced class, one learner holds a primer in her hands while an infant slings at her side. She stands at front and reads aloud to the group, stumbles once or twice, but ultimately triumphs. On the sidelines the Nobles are watching during one of their regular visits to encourage the class, and even Russ is excited about the progress. A year ago they were learning letters. In a year or two they will be reading the Bible – the one waiting since 1969 to be read.

In helping people access the Bible for themselves, Russ describes their ministry as “one piece to the puzzle in building the church in South Sudan.” But it is likely more than that. The whole process is itself a parable of patient love. It is a translator giving a lifetime to encode the Scriptures into a new and cumbersome language. It’s missionaries like Russ and Lyn making many returns to a war-torn nation in a tireless effort to train teachers and develop materials for the learners. It’s a literacy teacher, his hand wrapped around the hand of his sister and pressed against a blackboard as they, together, trace out the letters of the alphabet in Otuho or Dinka or Nuer. And it is God, who has promised that his Word will not return to him empty, and who is infinitely patient in waiting.

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire.—Isaiah 55:10-11