South Sudan: A blessing in exile

“Short-term mission” might conjure up images of gap years and youthful excitement. For us at Church Mission Society, short-term means up to two years, and often involves people with much more life experience. Cathie and John Rutter made a big impact as they accompanied a theological college in exile and here they draw the positives from a tough but rewarding experience.

The start: things fall apart

John and Cathie Rutter

In January 2017, we were in Southall doing our CMS training, preparing for two years as short-termers in South Sudan. We had accepted an invitation to work at Kajo-Keji Christian College (KCC). John was to teach theology and Cathie to help with admin and finance systems.

There had been civil war in South Sudan since 2013, but God had given many signs that this was where he wanted us. Kajo Keji district remained peaceful – until January 2017, when violence forced staff and students to flee into neighbouring Uganda. Things seemed to be falling apart. So what to do?

Into exile

We already had visas and air tickets, so we went to Moyo, the nearest Ugandan town to KCC. In Moyo we found college staff in a rented compound near the town centre. It was a traumatic time for them. Having lost home, land, crops, and a complex of new buildings, they were starting again in a small dilapidated hut.

Moreover, most staff and students had families in one of the many refugee camps scattered across northern Uganda. Some staff were experiencing their third exile.

And yet what we encountered was a determined community, showing resilience and faith in the midst of tragedy. Plus a lot of laughter.

We were repeatedly thanked just for being there! Our main impact may have been our presence, rather than our skills or grey-haired wisdom!

The tumbledown shack that was the first college building in exile

Building the body

Due to the vision and energy of the principal, Rev Lule James Kenyi, teaching began again in early March, with 21 theology students.

Part of the college’s vision is acceptance and inclusiveness regardless of gender or tribe, meaning they seek students of both genders from across South Sudan. Most were from the Kuku tribe in Central Equatoria, but we also had small numbers of Dinka and Nuer students – the two tribes whose conflict is the basis of the civil war.

The college is a microcosm of what is possible – and it was very moving to see relationships build and develop across tribal boundaries.

The college motto is “Building the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12),and a practical example of this was our Agape day. This was an annual celebration of our college community, where each tribe presented a drama, song, or dance reflecting their culture and then shared a meal. A day of rejoicing for our mixed community.

Sharing a heavy load

A significant part of our two-year experience was the opportunity to visit Palorinya, the nearby refugee camp, with 185,000 inhabitants, 85 per cent women and children.

A visit was always gruelling, but also a humbling and joyful experience. We travelled there on average once a month for prayer and fasting days, church services (John preached several times), weddings, and to facilitate a conference.

The pastors on the camp (all unpaid) had a heavy load, caring for people with huge needs. One of the highlights of our two years was organising and leading a five-day pastors and spouses’ retreat at the college in summer 2018 (main picture).

We invited 20 couples for teaching, good food, rest, and lots of praying and sharing. It was a powerful occasion, focusing on people in relationship, using the threefold cord of Ecclesiastes 4.     

Growth in adversity

This painting of a tree on a cliffside became a powerful image of growth in diversity

During our time at KCC, two words were repeated a lot – trauma and exile. It was an experience of adversity, but on reflection, some very positive things stand out.                  

Halfway through our two years we returned to the UK for a Christmas break. In January 2018 we attended our local church and a friend gave us a prophetic picture, of a tree growing in difficult conditions, based on Ezekiel 17:22–23.

This image, from a prophet of the Exile, was a great encouragement to us and the college. It reminded us of God’s presence, with a promise of growth in adversity.             

The image of a tree became important to KCC. It became linked with the Rooted in Jesus course and the parable of a mustard seed, because KCC experienced God doing a new thing – growth in adversity.

A hard blessing

In two years KCC moved from two to four courses, and from 21 students to 103 (now 140).

There were improvements in buildings, finances, teaching and learning, and deeper worship and relationships.

Our time in Moyo was both hard and a blessing.

Our discipleship deepened as we learned to depend on God, each other, and a network of new friends who displayed grace, faith and endurance in the face of great suffering.

For the refugees, the words trauma and exile were important; for us the key words were leadership, presence and relationship.

Published 18 December 2019

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