I had a hard time sleeping one night in South Sudan under the multitude of stars. It wasn't the heat that kept me up. In fact, after a day of 115 degrees, the 85 degrees temperature felt quite nice. The mattress I had blown up for my tent was entirely sufficient. The millions of stars that lit up the African night should have lulled me into blissful slumber. They did not. The feeling I had this night transported me to my nine-year-old self as I waited for morning to see what Santa might bring. It was excitement mixed with a certain level of anticipation. It's one of those times you don't mind waiting even while fully not knowing what will come because you know what's coming is good. Impatience gives way to splendor as you enjoy the moments ticking slowly by. I'm not suggesting that God is Santa Claus. I'm just saying there are times when you know a move of His is just around the corner and being caught up in the adventure of it, is, in fact, Him already moving.
As the day began to break the trek into the bush commenced. We ventured forward for the second meeting with these people known to outsiders as the Rizeigat. To the locals, and not without some fear and trembling, they are known as the Janjaweed. The fear and trembling were earned. In this part of South Sudan, only a few years ago, this people group rode through simple villages on a campaign of rape, pillage, and murder that was shocking even to the war-weary Dinka. Our first meeting had gone well enough and had closed with a challenge. The challenge was issued to these people, who feared nothing, that perhaps there could be enough boldness on their part to ask Jesus directly for a revelation of Himself.
As we approached there were some familiar faces and also some new ones. A scheduled 10 o'clock meeting in the bush of Africa rarely begins before one o’clock. At least that's what I thought. As we sat under the trees, desperately moving with the sun to try and hold onto some modicum of shade, people interacted and drank tea. I begin to realize this was the meeting. So, as best as my language would allow me, I joined in. The numbers slowly continued to grow. There were at least twice as many people as on the last occasion.
With an interpreter, I struck up a conversation with one of the new faces in the crowd: a stately man with his head wrapped in the Muslim apparel of a Holy Warrior, and whose physique certainly would have allowed him to play linebacker in the NFL. His warm smile made him less intimidating. I asked him where he was from, how he had gotten here, and why he had come. After some discussion, the interpreter told me that the man had walked three days from his place to come. Like any good evangelist who doesn't really know what to say I gave him a warm 1963 shiny shoe welcome. I told him that we were glad to have him and appreciated him coming all this way. He continued talking, explaining that he had heard about our team's previous visit and our plans to return. He had been sent by his clan with two questions. First, “what is that white man saying and secondly, can it possibly be true that they love us.” A question one would have after participating in a genocide. I was stunned by the depth and sincerity of his questions. I was shocked that word of our coming, and even word of our teaching, had spread within the surrounding regions miles away. I felt almost as if I were caught up in some kind of Acts based mini novel.
It seemed things were quieting down and the program could begin. We had come to share the gospel, share medicines and pray for people. We started with the preaching. I had shared in our first meeting out of Hebrews 1 about the great savior Jesus. This time, I was to share about the great salvation that Jesus brought. That was my plan at least. As I began to share, it didn't come out even close to the way I was thinking of it. I sat and waited for questions or comments hoping that it was Jesus who had spoken rather than simply the conveyance my disorganized thoughts. At first, the crowd was quiet.They seemed to be mulling over what been spoken. Their faces were stoic giving little insight to what they were thinking.
Finally, one man stood. He was not wearing a smile and the thought came to me, “uh-oh, maybe we pushed it too far this time." After a lengthy pause, he identified himself as an Imam from a place called Dan. It was a 7-day journey from where we now stood. He said that he had come to remind all of those that gathered that they were Muslims and that the Quran told of people like these white men who would come and try to lead them astray. He reminded them that there was one God, Allah and that Mohammad was his prophet. He mentioned the Injil (the four gospels that Islam sees as authoritative) using it as his proof text that Jesus was the son of Mary not the son of God. I sat quietly.
He began to lead them in a song. It was an appeal to their heart to continue to believe as they had been taught by their forefathers. The song had a low rumble. There was a spiritual electricity under the tree that day. It was a song of war. It was a song that gave them courage and was designed to strike fear into the hearts of “unbelievers”. In fact, it was the song they sang as they rode in on horseback and slaughtered many of my friends’ families. I notice that Peter the Doctor, Ayang the pastor and James the interpreter were reacting to this song with some mixture of sadness and disdain. I learned later that it was the song that was sung as Peter and Ayang's father, along with James's uncle, were buried by the riverside chest deep and left to die the slow death of baking in the 115-degree sun.
Ever so slowly the moment passed and I rose to speak, not knowing what I was going to say. I thanked the Imam for coming. I thanked him for the insight that he brought, especially on that of the Injil. I told him that we were so pleased to find an Imam who saw the Injil as authoritative and in fact, it was in the Injill that we find this truth that Jesus was the son of Mary, as well as the son of God, and since, as he had stated, the Injil was from God and authoritative, we must believe what it said because we all know that God does not lie.
I sat down sweating and feeling very self-aware. There was a long pause of silence. Then I heard laughter. I didn’t understand why the people were laughing. The Imam was not laughing. As the meeting closed I went over to the Imam to show him respect. I greeted him warmly. He was warm and began to explain why he did not think the exchange was funny. I braced myself but could never have guessed what I was about to hear. I was almost knocked over by what he said. Apparently what he felt, what had so influenced the look on his face was nothing short of conviction. I'm talking about the kind of conviction at a youth camp on Thursday night when the visiting preacher gives his version of the "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" message. With people gathered around us looking for a show, the Imam told the interpreter as he looked at me, ”This white man is right. What He is saying is true. I will tell others that the Injil is clear that Jesus is the son of God. I will tell them they must get the books you brought for them so they can see it for themselves.”
I love the adventure God invites me on, to go with Him into the world to tell people about Him and His love for them. He loves the Janjaweed. My prayer is that they find this great love, Jesus.