PARAJOK, Sudan — A seven-hour drive separates Juba, the soon-to-be capital of South Sudan, from this humble village, just north of the Ugandan border.
It’s a journey over dusty roads, past fields of unexploded land mines — remnants of the civil war that claimed millions of lives in this East African nation.
Isaya Jackson spends the entire trip in the back of a battered Nissan, crammed between suitcases and the window. When weary American visitors reach the Atebi River Hotel — a simple row of rooms with no electricity or running water — they stretch their legs as Jackson dutifully unties massive trunks from the top of the vehicle. The trunks contain the visitors’ clothes and food for the next four days, plus soccer balls for a village school.
Only for a moment, Jackson pauses and motions to his guests.
“So, this is Pajok,” he says quietly, using the pronunciation favored by his people, the Acholi. “This is my place.”
Jackson, slender and unassuming, doesn’t seem like a dynamic evangelist, instrumental in planting dozens of Churches of Christ in Sudan and Uganda.
But that is his story. An odyssey of faith took him from a refugee camp to a preacher-training school in Texas — and now has returned him to his homeland, set to become an independent nation on July 9.
Footsteps from the hotel, workers are laying, brick by brick, the walls of the South Sudan Bible School. The preacher-training school and an adjoining medical clinic are works of The Sudan Project, a collaborative effort of Sudanese Christians and the Mt. Juliet Church of Christ in Tennessee.
Jackson lives in Juba, where he has planted a small church, and makes frequent trips to Parajok to oversee the work. The buildings under construction here, in his home village, are more than brick and mortar, he says. They are “the result of many, many years of prayer.” MASSIVE CHALLENGES — AND A NEW HOPE
Before he unpacks, Mike Roman, a real estate developer and elder of the Norfolk Church of Christ in Virginia, walks from the hotel to the construction site to inspect the progress made since his last visit.
Jeremy Thompson, superintendent of the Era Independent School District in Texas and a member of the Era Church of Christ, pulls out his camera.
It’s Thompson’s first trip to Africa, where he plans to help develop a curriculum for the Bible school. As he takes photos, smiling, shirtless children crowd around him. Some have bellies swollen by malnutrition.
For the Americans, it’s easy to see needs here. Women make daily pilgrimages to a muddy river, the only source of water in the village. Across the street from the construction site, children at the Iyele Basic School line the floors, sitting on broken concrete blocks as they write in baby blue UNICEF notebooks.
Though they face huge challenges in the years ahead, the Christians who call Parajok home say they have a resource that was in short supply during the war — hope.
Speaking in the Acholi language as Jackson interprets, Augustine Oboma talks about his father, who was shot and killed here. Oboma fled to a refugee camp in Uganda, where he studied the Bible and was baptized.
Earlier this year, he prayed fervently that the people of South Sudan would vote to secede from the north, “and it happened exactly,” he says. “Now I am praying for more Christians.” WAR, REFUGE AND PROVIDENCE
The open-air meeting place of the Parajok Church of Christ stands in front of the construction site.
The Sudanese Christians want it to be the first thing people see as they approach the church’s property, explains Don Humphrey, a member of the Mt. Juliet church and coordinator of The Sudan Project.
Under a roof of tattered blue tarp and thatch, Humphrey conducts a Bible class for Sudanese preachers and their wives.
Jackson translates Humphrey’s words into Acholi. The Sudanese minister is no longer reserved, but animated and passionate, as he speaks in his native tongue.
Jackson grew up here, in the days when the Muslim-dominated government of Sudan controlled education. Arabic was compulsory, and people felt pressure to convert to Islam, he says, but few did.
“So many of us thought, ‘Why?’” Jackson says. “If religion is a choice, why use force?”
Gunfire and bombs interrupted his education. He fled to Uganda, then Kenya, as southern Sudanese forces fought the government.
For three decades, he lived in and out of refugee camps, “not knowing what will happen tomorrow,” he says. Faith was one of few constants in his life. In the camps, he attended a Pentecostal church and carried a small Bible in his pocket.
In the mid-1990s, Jackson’s family was relocated by the U.S. government to Houston. On the Sunday after they arrived, Jackson’s family and five other Sudanese families walked to the nearest church to thank God for his protection.
“And, by God’s providence, it happened to be Westbury Church of Christ,” Jackson says.
Westbury’s members adopted the Sudanese families, providing them with furniture and rides to the supermarket. Minister Bill Yasko studied Scripture with them.
“Over there, people are very busy. No one has time for anybody,” Jackson says, remembering life in the U.S. “But we found out that (Yasko) was really a man of God. So, the third week, all of us were baptized.” TEACHING ‘UNDER THE TREE’
Yasko learned of the refugees’ desire to return to Sudan and plant churches. He helped five men from the group raise funds to attend Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas.
The group traveled to Lubbock and met their instructors. Jackson stood in the back and said little.
“The first year was very tough,” he says. All of the assignments were in English — a language he understood, but struggled to comprehend. “But we persevered, and also, fellow students within the school, very good people, kept on encouraging us.”
Most of the Sudanese Christians left Sunset before completing their degrees. Jackson graduated and, in 1998, moved to Uganda.
He preached to the Acholi in Kiryandongo, a camp for thousands of Sudanese displaced by war and Ugandans fleeing a conflict between their government and the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army.
Idleness, and alcoholism, were rampant in the camp. But people had time to hear the Gospel, Jackson says, “so we could teach under the tree from Monday to Friday.”
Soon, 52 people were baptized, and a Church of Christ was born. In two years, the congregation’s membership swelled to 400. Believers took the message to other camps and planted churches.
As tensions eased between Sudan’s north and south, small groups of refugees returned to their villages. A family converted in the camps started a church in Pogee, Sudan. Jackson visited in 2001 and found more than 50 people worshiping there.
During his years in Lubbock, Jackson saw his home country’s flag on a wall at the Sunset institute that represented nations unreached by Churches of Christ. In a September 2001 ceremony, Sunset students took the Sudanese flag from the wall and placed it among the flags of nations with Churches of Christ.
Jackson, meanwhile, kept training preachers in Uganda, praying for the opportunity to plant more churches in South Sudan, including his village. CHANGED LIVES, ANSWERED PRAYERS
Nearly 10 years later, members of the Parajok Church of Christ gather under their thatched roof and talk about how their lives changed after baptism. Ochola Dickson stopped drinking and concentrated on being a good husband and father. David Kitara stopped wasting money on alcohol, bought a grinding mill and launched his own business.
John Otto, an orphan, found a new family in Christ. Margaret Okumu, haunted by thoughts of her six brothers and sisters killed in the war, finally found peace.
“We have been praying and fasting,” says Andrew Ocheng, minister for a 30-member Church of Christ in Magwi, near Parajok. “Now we are very happy.”
But Ocheng worries that the faith of some Sudanese is slipping. As they focus on cultivating their fields and rebuilding their lives, he says, they forget that “God brought us here.”
New churches continue to be born across the region. During a visit to Parajok, Robert Okongo, a refugee from Uganda converted in the camps, reports that there are 17 new Churches of Christ in northern Uganda, just across the border from Parajok. Some have memberships of up to 150, Okongo says.
Training local ministers for these infant churches is vital, Humphrey says, as is helping the Sudanese improve their quality of life.
In addition to building the South Sudan Bible School and clinic, The Sudan Project is working with Nashville, Tenn.-based Healing Hands International to repair old water wells and drill new ones across the region. The ministry also provides grape juice for communion, plus seed and farming tools for Sudanese returning from the camps.
“Even with obstacles that would keep most congregations in our country from growing, the church in South Sudan is growing in a very encouraging way,” Humphrey says.
Before they return to Juba, Humphrey and the other Americans join the Parajok church for Sunday worship. As the service concludes, the Christians stand, sing and exit one by one, forming a circle around their humble meeting place. In the process, each of the 150-plus participants shakes hands with every other worshiper.
After the final prayer, Betty Aleng chats with her brothers and sisters in Christ. Unlike many of them, she wasn’t baptized in the refugee camp, but here in Parajok. A friend invited her to church a few months ago, she says, and Aleng stayed “because they teach the truth of the Bible.”
Now, she adds, “I’m praying for this new church, and I’m praying that there will be no more fighting.” MORE INFORMATION: www.sudan-project.org