I’m going to blog a couple of times from South Sudan just to process my own thoughts while here. If they are a blessing to you, please read on, if there are inaccuracies it is because I know very little and understand very little, but am learning fast! Please read on and if you know better than me get in touch and we can learn together.

Firstly, flying again…

Despite all the right attention in the press at the moment about needless flights (e.g. Man Utd flying to Leicester), it was good to take to the skies again. This was the first overseas outing for SOMA UK since the lockdown and it was good to be back, even for a short reconnaissance trip without a team.

Visas were harder to organise! In fact a string of complications have surrounded the organisational aspects of the trip. A passport that took a long time to be returned by the UK gov, a yellow fever passport that I already had but my GP’s office advised me I didn’t, and an uber driver who didn’t want to go to London Heathrow (due to new drop off charges). At this end the hotel had overbooked, so I found myself being driven around bumpy backstreets of Juba to an apartment complex for a night in some other part of the city! The eVisa was strange though. For many people it arrives overnight, but when a week had passed I had to cancel my original Monday flight so that SOMA got some rebate on the flights. As I did that Kate Brankin, (the wonderful SOMA intercessor coordinator who works in Juba with the very impressive Archbishop Justin Badi Arama) was eating with the Archbishop and Bishop Anthony Poggo, from the Anglican Communion office in Lambeth Palace, London. Before I knew it Bishop Anthony had arranged a Monday morning visa visit for me at the London Embassy of South Sudan, and I was free to travel again – albeit a day or two later than planned !

Secondly, travelling alone, travelling with Patrick…

Almost all of my previous travel/mission experiences (except for Sabah, Malaysia) have been in teams of at least two. For a wide range of reasons this has ended up being a solo trip which has given a lot of time for reflection and may well have been an important aspect of this first trip for SOMA for me. It makes a big difference that Kate is here on the ground, but it definitely reinforces the value of travelling in team when you want to share experiences or pray together.

But there are other ways to take people with you. The intercessors who reach out to heaven and to me, and those who engage on social media are all hugely welcome company on this trip! But I also I took the opportunity to take the Chair of Trustees Patrick Whitworth on the flight with me (or at least his books), and completed his ‘Prepare for Exile’ 2008 book during the long wait in Ethiopia for a connecting flight. Patrick argues that the UK church is heading into or is already in an exile, but enthuses that that may be a good thing if we connect with biblical narratives and church history. Exile can be a place of creative hope (particularly if accompanied by deep, heart felt repentance for what got us there in the first place).

It was fascinating reading Patrick’s account of exile one day and then talking to a South Sudanese delegate at the synod from Nairobi, Kenya. He had been in exile for many years. Millions of other South Sudanese have been displaced to surrounding nations due to conflicts that do not look like they are yet fully resolved. Ironically my hotel receptionist said that his family are in Khartoum (Sudan) for safe keeping, when on the BBC news Khartoum looks anything but safe at the moment.

I also have Patrick’s 1800 year walk through English church history with me… so if it’s a really long flight back…! (You can check it out here).

Connecting and re-connecting

The main purpose of this trip is to meet as many of the key people in South Sudan as possible. I have already met more Archbishops, Bishops, Archdeacons, Canons, clergy, ordinands and university staff than I can remember. I have been privileged to ask many people about their views of SOMA and there have been some heart-warming stories from those who have been on or received missions, and there is no shortage of demand/enthusiasm for SOMA teams to visit across the country and take part in Youth Missions at an Internal Province level.

I have loved hanging out with some of the younger clergy and ordinands. The youthful vibrancy of the South Sudanese church is a great hope for us all. One young entrepreneurial clergyman has been funding his training by painting and decorating and then using the proceeds to buy a motorbike and become a boda-boda driver giving people lifts for cash and then using the bike for ministry too.

But two encounters of course stand out.

Firstly Archbishop Justin Badi Arama, the Primate of South Sudan and International Chair of SOMA who seems to have made a very substantial difference to the church here in just a few years. We’re booked in to meet again on Tuesday to discuss SOMA, but it was good to be introduced to him already and his Synod speech is strong and purposeful in a way that UK leaders (with more disparate dioceses?) rarely seem at liberty to be. He has advocated building dioceses/provinces on outworkings of the Lord’s Prayer, and if it is published it is worth a watch/read.

But secondly someone who means a lot to many people in the UK. Revd Dr Joseph Bilal. Joseph was at Trinity College Bristol when I was there (2001-4) and was an exceptional student and inspiration to many. Having finished at Bristol he complete a doctorate at London School of Theology. Then he was asked by the Archbishop of South Sudan to return to Juba and help rebuild the church and nation. He came to serve/establish the Episcopal Church University, including a theological college, and four other colleges focused on education and training.

Watch what he had to say here

In the past week I have been chatting to staff/principals at 4 of our main theology colleges in the UK (and one leadership training course provider)… wouldn’t it be amazing to connect and reconnect today’s students/emerging leaders to some of God’s giants like Joseph Bilal around the Anglican Communion… SOMA UK missions currently being planned for 2022-2023. Should you, or someone you know, be on one?

Finally, we couldn’t do this work without you…

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