The tension between hope and fear, sadness and joy is a very present part of life in the mission field. But I find this year that I see the patterns of hope more clearly, and I want to share a particular story with you.
The very first week I arrived in Sudan (Feb 2009), I visited the village of Panyikwara, in Magwi county. I wrote about it in my first update. The people had just returned, only months before, from more than a decade in refugee camps in Kenya and Uganda. Everyone was hungry, some were starving, their houses were basic stick and tarp constructions. There was very little planted. The people were desperate. The land they were on was so fertile, and they were farmers, but they hadn’t arrived home in the planting season. I was so deeply saddened by their desperation, and I remember being galvanized by Bishop Bernard’s (their bishop) words, “We hope that hunger will not be a problem with these people next year.”
I returned to Panyikwara at least 16 times last year. (It is about 4 hours away from Juba.) The Province (of the Episcopal Church of Sudan) has land there, and the Archbishop wanted me to start a pilot project. Unfortunately there were banking problems with our funding partner, so the farm was very small, and not able to make a profit. Only 20 families were involved, (in a larger community of 23,000) but they did receive training, and some were able to grow excess food.
After that very first visit, when I saw a rainbow and remembered that there was always hope, it seemed to me that every time I looked, the hope kept growing. Slowly the stick and tarp structures were replaced by well-built sturdy mud huts, some even made from bricks. Shops sprung up along the road with metal roofs, more and more crops were planted, people’s nutrition improved, a health clinic was built, a pharmacy was built, the market grew, some houses with metal roofs were built, people were wearing new clothes, more people had rubber boots instead of flip flops, and last month some people watched the World Cup on a generator powered satellite TV connection… The changes are endless. These are signs of progress, signs of development, hope made tangible.
Yes, the people of Magwi county received help from outside. They were given some assistance by the UN High Commission on Refugees, and other refugee organizations built wells, and the clinic. But the progress came down to the people. The people did not give up hope. Even though they were hungry and tired. Even though people like me showed up with dreams of big projects only to deliver very little, still their hospitality and their hope and their work ethic did not wane. I did not know that progress like this was possible in such a short period of time, to go from severely impoverished, completely aid supported, to self-sufficient in one year (and a drought year at that!)
This is not the story everywhere. I have seen other places where people cannot hold onto hope, where division and hatred, the fruit of war, continue to keep them in abject poverty and conflict.
I had nothing to do with the success of the people of Magwi. I made mistakes, promising them things and then backing out. But they forgave me, and continued to welcome me into their homes and their lives. I got to be the privileged witness of the miracle that has happened there, the fruit of their hope and faith. Last week, I asked our farm supervisor if the people in Panyikwara were proud of how far they had come in a year. He said, “how can we be proud unless someone tells us we have done well?” And in that moment I was so honored to get to be the one to slap him on the back and say, “well done friend!”
I know that back home things are tough, so many people have lost their retirement, their jobs, their homes, their farms. But the real tragedy is when people lose their hope and their faith. We are all victims of the chances of our lives, but we can always choose love, faith, and hope, and that makes all the difference in the world.
“And now, faith, hope, and love abide, and the greatest of these is love.” (1Cor 13:13)