Have you ever made a promise to God, and only later realised the implications? Me too.
Since I was very young, I’ve always said to God that I would do whatever he wanted me to do with my life, and go wherever he sent me. Of course joining the Open Doors team, which serves Christians in the places on earth most hostile to the Christian faith, increased the options of where I might be sent quite dramatically, but I didn’t think much about that at the time. Since being part of Open Doors, I’ve had the privilege of travelling extensively in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and I have got on planes to places like Iraq and the Lebanon/Syria border without any huge concerns. But an invitation (and strong request) for me to travel to an interesting area of Sudan this year felt like a different thing altogether.
Life in the Nuba Mountains
In March, I had the privilege of taking the dangerous journey into the Nuba Mountains region of Sudan, and it has left me changed. The Nuba people are under attack from their own government because they seek self-determination and don’t want to live under the strict Islamic Sharia law that is in place across the rest of the country, as it allows no freedom of religion. They endure daily bombings, with the planes seeking out and systematically destroying any signs of life; the clusters of huts that make up a village, the occasional brick buildings housing schools or churches, the land that villagers have planted to grow food. Anything that makes life more sustainable, more bearable, is a target.
Danger doesn’t only come from the air: ground-pushes where government troops ‘reclaim’ villages (laying waste to anyone and anything that doesn’t flee quickly enough) and surface-to-surface missiles are all part of life of the Nuba community. The road in and out, in particular, are almost ‘patrolled’ by the bomber planes, to ensure that help, provisions, medical supplies, journalists, are kept out of the region so that the people remain isolated. And because of this, what is happening there is one of the most under-reported tragedies of our day.
The Christians in the Nuba Mountains are beleaguered – the need for hope, encouragement, assurance that they’re not forgotten by God or the outside world is enormous. Some incredible male Open Doors co-workers have travelled consistently to meet with and encourage especially the church leaders – even with the bombs raining down. This year for the first time myself and another lady were invited to join them – to come alongside our precious, weary Nuban sisters.
Despite my bold promise to God years ago that I would go wherever I was asked to, I have to confess that I really battled with whether to accept this particular request to travel. I have three children, and I really want to be there for them as they go through life. But I thought of the Christian women in the Nuba Mountains who live under constant bombing – whose children have had to learn to run towards the rocks in the mountains, and run fast, when they hear the low hum of the planes. Hide and seek means something different there. I knew I had to be willing to go, just for a week or two, when they live there the whole time – choosing not to flee, choosing not to give up hope, choosing to trust God – and they were asking for someone to come.
We were expecting 20 women to gather together, and 175 came. Some of them walked for two full days through the brutal 50-degree heat, carrying their children and sleeping mats, just to be with us.
We met under a large tree for four days, sleeping outside. We looked together at what it means to be unconditionally loved by God, and how we can come to him as we are and not as we think we should be. The women shared their questions and their burdens – including the unique challenges of raising children who respond with forgiveness, not hate, when violence and destruction are all around them. And they spoke movingly about how they had seen the goodness of God in their situations.
Despite living in circumstances about as different from ours as it is possible to imagine, the women there share the same basic desires of so many of us here; for their children to have an education and hope for the future; for their children to grow up in safety, loving God. Same desires, different challenges. One beautiful lady, a pastor’s wife called Jamilla, described how, when her husband was travelling in another area of the mountains seeking opportunities to share the gospel, their young son became ill. She and her Christian friends were praying and praying but his health was deteriorating badly. She came under huge pressure from her parents to take him to the witchdoctor, and she refused. The more ill he became, the more pressure she came under. In the end, her parents told her that if he died (as it seemed he would) it would be because of her. She simply said to her parents,
“I would rather my son died in the arms of Jesus than lived in the arms of the witchdoctor.”
Praise God; her son made a full recovery.
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