I am blessed. It was very apparent during the trip that I had many people, and people fervently praying for me and that they were praying to a holy and sovereign God who answered. So thank you. And my wife thanks you too! To elaborate, it was frankly terrifying leaving my family in Idaho and going to a country half way round the world that had so many unknowns and is reported to be overly violent… not knowing if I would come back or not. But we serve an awesome God. In Him I put my trust and got on the plane.
The trip was about three weeks long. I left Boise, Idaho, on January 29th and arrived safely home on February 19th. I went from 20 degree days to 100 degree days in a matter of hours. But I must back up and tell you that the South Sudanese Embassy in D.C. was going to deny my visa application after I bought my plane ticket. It was nearly a miracle that brought me my visa just two days before I got on the plane! This was due to God bringing a wonderful lady from South Sudan (who was in a South Sudanese state government level position – we will call her my “host” in this letter) to assist me in getting my visa and later to introduce me to key figures in South Sudan and help me learn about the country, people, and religious and political situation. Praise God for bringing her to help C.R.O.S.S.!
The trip was a mixture of crazy-busy and almost boring depending on the day. I spent a couple days in Juba, the capitol of South Sudan, walking for hours on end, exploring and experiencing the capitol, registering with the U.S. embassy, and reading. I did a lot of reading. I was blessed to meet a pilot with the Red Cross and a local businessman (from America) who helped take me around town, explain much about Juba and help pass the time.
Upon the arrival of my host in Juba, we then flew north to the town of Aweil in Northern Bahr el Gazahl State (NBG) that is relatively close to the border with Sudan. There I was whisked away by AK-47 toting bodyguards in Land Cruisers to my hotel. Well, that’s what they call it in South Sudan at least. They did have power!… but only at night, the shower was little more than a trickle when it worked (half the days I recall), and I did have a fine luxury, a flush toilet which needed the reservoir to be filled by hand. All this for a low cost of just about $100 USD per night. Of course breakfast was thrown in for free even at that “low” rate… the menu was the same meal for two weeks. LOL!
During my two weeks in Aweil I walked. A lot. That was on the days my host was too busy to introduce me around or take me with her. It was actually for the best. I met shopkeepers and visited the crowded and busy market, took many pictures (did I tell you that a National Security Agent almost confiscated my camera?) of everyday life and was even randomly accosted by a military officer with the UN. Okay, not really accosted but while I was walking through the market a UN vehicle stopped next to me and the driver in military fatigues told me to get in. Ha! Get in a UN vehicle. Right. He told me it was not safe for me in the market. Nice ruse I think, but I get in for some reason. I can only say I felt God wanted me to get in. Here is why: Three times during the trip during one of those “boring” days, I said a simple prayer to God. I asked Him to bring someone or something to me so that the time would be used to the fullest for His glory. Each time I got an answer quickly. So I took a walk in this case and God brought me “O.” He was from El Salvador and a MLO (military liaison officer) with the UN. This led to many introductions, several nights at the UN compound for dinner and good favor with all I met. I learned a tremendous deal about South Sudan and NBG state in particular. God is sovereign.
During many of the other days it was non-stop meeting political figures, “touring” the bush (always a purpose to accomplish though) in a Land Cruiser driving on footpaths and driving on a nearly empty gas tank hours from home. Handing out vitamins to children living in the bush, fixing the Land Cruiser with a Leatherman and 550 parachute cord, and getting lost (I wasn’t driving!) in the dark driving through the bush hours from Aweil seemed to be a normal day. We visited several villages and once saw a 8-10’ long Cobra snake (the driver wouldn’t run it over for some reason) in the road. Aaah, the roads. They are glorious. Not even gravel. Take an American backcountry gravel road with washboards and major potholes and quadruple it… I think we made great time when we traveled 50 miles north in about 2.5 hours.
Near the end of the trip we traveled to a small village for a funeral of a woman who’s daughter had died of cancer. This woman had no hope in Christ and had stopped eating and drinking the day before so that she could join her daughter in death. She had no hope, no reason to live, and no faith in God. The day before I was to leave Aweil, I met with the representatives from the state’s cripple population. Many had polio (no use of their legs), were blind or had other similarly disabling challenges to face with no hope of a cure or medical help and virtually no job/income prospects. There are thousands in the community. My last day up north before returning to Juba, I was able to do a video interview of Carbino, a man who was kidnapped by the Muslim Janjaweed horsemen that Sudan sponsors (unofficially of course) to rape, burn, pillage and kill. He was kidnapped as a child and escaped three days later, only to return to his village to find it burned, his father murdered, and most of his family, friends and people from his village kidnapped or dead.
The needs in South Sudan are tremendous: physically, spiritually and socially.
The single biggest need is access to safe drinking and cooking water. The norm is to walk miles one way to get 3-5 gallons of relatively safe drinking water from one of the few “bore holes” (hand pumped wells) and walk miles back to repeat the journey the next day. Others walk miles to get firewood to cook with. Wildfires are a constant threat as the local villagers frequently burn the undergrowth away to spur new vegetation growth for the cattle and goats to eat… but leave the fires unattended!
They need teaching. They need pastors. They need materials and discipleship. While NBG is estimated to be 90% Roman Catholic most don’t know the difference between Roman Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, or otherwise. They have so little teaching of any kind, but are eager to hear. The few services are often packed with people outside the huts or buildings for a hundred yards or more! However, there are few services. I met some who have a beautiful and simple faith due to a lack of teaching, but it was still a faith in Christ crucified and resurrected!
Women are eligible to be married once they start their cycle, and men often marry around age 30+ and multiple wives are the norm if you can afford them. Bride prices are high and often the motive behind violent cattle raids on other villages due to bride prices being paid in cattle. Police are often abusive, often beating people and sometimes shooting people, almost always without consequence.
Okay, so you say what is the good news? The good news is that first, God is sovereign, loving, holy, righteous, gracious and able to accomplish His will on this earth! To my great encouragement, the people of NBG in South Sudan know that they do not know! They want help, teaching and mentoring! Sure, some want handouts but most I spoke with want the initial shot in the arm (financially or materially)… but so that they could be self-sufficient. They want education. They want vocational training and are in turn willing to train others. They do not want to be dependent on the outside world for long. The people are almost universally grateful to the U.S.’s role in their independence and respect and love America(ns).
The local government figure I met with who is responsible for the military and police in the region and safety of the border villagers was very favorable to our offer to help in that regard. He is a high ranking General with the SPLA and very much understands the value of training for soldiers and villagers alike. He had previously pushed to get the soldiers’ salaries cut to use it on a training budget but to no avail. Furthermore, he watches internet videos of Americans’ training and wants that training for his soldiers and to help defend the villages and his country. While nothing was made official, I am confident that by the time the Wood family moves to South Sudan, that this will be a significant part of our ministry.
So you say, this trip went far too smoothly and I was blessed with great success in making connections, learning and preparing for a move to the Aweil area. Ah, but there was one bit of “fun.” The day I was to leave Aweil, I was dropped off at the airport (two huts and a World Food Program tent), checked in my baggage (to the back of a Toyota Hilux pickup), and was told to wait three hours under the tree. So I waited. When my plane arrived they loaded my luggage and I proceeded to give my boarding pass to the airline person. But apparently it was not a boarding pass, it was “just” the ticket and I “did not check in,” despite checking in my baggage and being told to wait (I did triple check with others that was all I had to do, BTW). I tried to explain, but to no avail. So my plane left with my baggage (they wouldn’t give it back!) and I was alone at the airport. This led to a bit of frustration at the ridiculousness of the technicality of not getting a boarding pass, but quickly turned to me laughing, thinking, “If this is the worst I’ve had to face, God has indeed blessed this trip!” However, despite my good mood, this inconvenience was not without a ripple-effect. I had to call my new UN contacts to get access to Internet and a good phone (for international calls) so that I could change my flight home that was leaving Juba that I would now not make. Then I had to spend another night in Aweil at the hotel and the next morning ended up being driven a bone-jarring 2.5 hours north to a village where a small Cessna 208B was landing anyway that day, which later in the day flew me back to Juba, where I spent two nights waiting for the next flight out of the country… and from there of course I was able to return to the U.S. (about an additional $800 later.)
My Closing Thoughts
God is indeed great. Simple you say, but this trip went almost too well. However, possibly for the first time in my life, I knew that many people were praying for me. I also had the chance, or more correctly, the motivation and time, to read a huge portion of Scripture. I read 110 chapters of Psalms, all of Romans and all of Acts and selected Proverbs and other New Testament passages. That definitely influenced how I acted and spoke. I prayed like I’ve never prayed before and had a humble boldness that I’ve never had before. I was granted favor before men in a way I could not have pulled off on my own.
A quick lesson learned here: About a week into being in the town of Aweil it finally hit me… I am the only white guy in this whole town. Literally. Now before you say “it took you that long?,” I took that as a good sign, that race wasn’t registered on my radar due to being raised right. We are all made in the image of God regardless of how we look. People are people. That simple. But it did later make me think of something significant. It occurred to me: I am on a different continent, don’t speak the language, can’t run and hide if needed (due to my face), don’t understand much about the culture, don’t have my gun (which I’ve almost never been without for the last 15 years), can’t even tell north without a compass, don’t know where the water holes are, had my phone die on me and even my knife and tomahawk taken from me when the plane left with my luggage and not me. The point is simple. I was stripped to nothing. No familiarities. No comforts. Nothing to trust in or run to… nothing but God and His Word. Let me repeat that. Nothing but God and His Word. Praise God!
While there are many “I” statements in the above, they are all meant to demonstrate how God worked in/through me, not how I did anything of my own nature. Essentially while I’ve had some reservations or doubts along the way, I am now fully confident that God indeed does want us to go to South Sudan for His glory! God is paving the way. God is leading and we will follow.
God made it clear through this trip that C.R.O.S.S.’s plan to help with “water, fire, and security,” will be very well received by the people of South Sudan, and that additionally and more importantly they are spiritually receptive as well. It is encouraging to know that God prepared my background to be able to help with each of the three humanitarian needs C.R.O.S.S. plans on helping with and that they “happen” to be in the top few that South Sudan needs most desperately.
Now I am not ashamed to say we are starting to raise money for the move to, and establishment in, South Sudan. We need a lot of material and financial support to make this move and solidly establish C.R.O.S.S. Ministries with a firm foundation to be effective in our ministry and Lord willing, growing the ministry to other regions of South Sudan! To that end we ask for your material and financial support as God moves you to support us. You can find more info/updates (and lots of pictures, thoughts, and news added often) on our web site: www.CROSouthSudan.org or on our new Facebook page. (Please share these URLs with everyone you know!)
Again, a humble thank-you to those of you who helped make this financially possible and a sincere thank you to those of you who prayed for the outcome of this trip to the end of glorifying God!