In civil-war-torn South Sudan, the Sudanese people face threats every day that are unimaginable to Americans: killings, rapes, famine, and disease. Tribes turn on one another, and parents fear for their children’s lives. It would seem like the last place a retired couple from Bay City, Mich. would choose to spend their vacation time.
But for Rev. Bob Roberts and his wife Eileen, members of Zion Lutheran Church in Bay City, sharing the Good News of Christ’s love for the South Sudanese people is worth the risk. “In Proverbs, God says, ‘Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you,’” said Rev. Roberts. “South Sudan is right in front of us.”
Eileen agreed, “Nobody else is doing it. It has to be done, if they’re going to know Jesus. For us, they deserve a chance to learn about Jesus and the Truth.”
In the midst of their difficult lives, the South Sudanese people are eager for the love and peace of Jesus Christ. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Sudan/Sudan (ELCSS/S) is a Lutheran church body formed about 25 years ago, and it’s growing exponentially—so quickly, in fact, that there is a shortage of pastors, with only 66 men to serve 200 churches.
The Lutheran Heritage Foundation (LHF), an LCMS recognized service organization headquartered in Macomb, learned of the need for Sudanese pastors and stepped forward in 2000 to establish the Concordia Lutheran Institute for the Holy Ministry (CLIHM) seminary in Yambio, South Sudan.
The seminary is a four-year program led by ELCSS/S ordained pastors as well as by volunteers (like Rev. Roberts and Eileen) from the United States, Europe and Africa.
Day-to-day life in South Sudan is vastly different than in the United States. Many regions don’t have any indoor plumbing and electricity is extremely unreliable. People still live in thatch-roof huts.
Despite the rugged conditions, the Roberts have persisted in their work. Rev. Roberts has taught a variety of classes, including homiletics, hymn translation, and catechetical review, while Eileen teaches the New Testament as well as music classes to deaconesses.
“All my students learn. They all improve. During this most recent trip, they all learned what the Gospel is,” explained Rev. Roberts. “Many of the students have been evangelists in Sudan, most in non-Lutheran settings, and their average sermons are very law-oriented: ‘Do this. Don’t do that.’ At the seminary, they’re learning how to tell people who haven’t heard clearly, and who need to learn now, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and what He did for them.”
While some seminary subject matter is very in-depth, there are times that the basics come up as new and exciting information.
“The women (deaconesses in training) Eileen taught were sure that they could not baptize children in emergencies, and the evangelists were unsure that even they could do so,” said Rev. Roberts. “Reformed churches [in Africa] often teach that emergency Baptism is a superstition, and that only pastors can celebrate sacraments. Eileen showed them the forms for emergency Baptism in the current catechism, and its explicit statements that any Christian could baptize in an emergency, to which they responded, ‘Why has no one taught us this?’”
The lessons that are being taught are made possible through Lutheran books like Luther’s Small Catechism, translated by LHF into the languages of South Sudan. The Roberts also assisted in LHF’s next goal of translating and publishing Bible storybooks for South Sudanese children, as well as a hymnal containing orders of service and hymns in the Nuer language.
God’s Word, delivered through LHF’s books and by the ELCSS/S pastors, is clearly at work in the people of South Sudan.
“The Church grows in adversity,” Rev. Roberts said. For example, “among the Nuer people to the east, Lutheran refugees who do not want to abandon their church memberships are gathering in the camps and building mud-and-stick churches. [Traveling] pastors have a problem bringing enough wine with them to celebrate with the hundreds in every place who want the Sacrament. In other refugee camps, two of our former deaconess students are pleading for pastors to come and baptize hundreds of men and women which they, the deaconesses, have prepared for Baptism.”
The Roberts say that, God willing, they are planning on more trips to South Sudan in the future to help prepare new pastors and deaconesses in the ELCSS/S.
“We have built relationships with the students and pastors that make us want to go back, to help, encourage, and share in the work of bringing Jesus to the people there,” Eileen said. “Once you’ve been there, you feel you have to go back. People hold on to my arm and cry, ‘Come back and teach us.’ I feel alive when I’m there. What we’re doing matters.”