Bring the Fire, Sing in the Smoke: Lessons on Suffering and Forgiveness from the Church in Sudan

This article first appeared at The Table. For more articles featuring thoughtful Christian perspectives on the the nature and embodiment of love, growing through suffering, and acquiring humility, click here.

The structure was still smoldering when we went back the next morning. But instead of weeping, we heard worship. The sounds of devotion and singing. Singing in the smoke.

Wild and Unpredictable: Life in Sudan

As we boarded the 1943 DC3, the NGO providing our logistics noted that they didn’t like leaving their plane on the ground any longer than absolutely necessary, as it had been hit numerous times by other careless pilots. Their planes are like New York taxis on the tarmac. Carcasses of MiG fighters and retired Russian Antonov planes littered the fields around the runway, testifying to the wild and unpredictable nature of life in Sudan.

Life here just doesn’t seem as precious. A government transport crashed just one month before—killing forty souls on board. Overloaded, it lacked sufficient lift to carry its payload a meager few kilometers from takeoff. The plane sat where it met its fate, looters striping anything of value, the news a mere blip in the headlines.

Refugee children play in the smoldering remains.
Refugee children play in the smoldering remains.

I just spent a week in Yida camp with a group training leaders in trauma counseling, only five kilometers from the Sudan border in a contested hot zone near the Nuba Mountains. With close to 50 percent prevalence of PTSD, 300,000 refugees have been seeking shelter in this remote location off the beaten path. The Government of Sudan (GoS) has systematically destroyed what paltry infrastructure existed among the ninety-nine tribes of Nuba and the oil rich Blue Nile. Christians especially have been targeted, as the GoS’s mixed motives of oil-greed, Islamic conquest, and genocide have played out on the Southern border.

Sudan’s capital city Khartoum carries out their Islamist expansion exuberantly—with zeal—despite their lack of sophisticated military equipment. Barrel bombs, strafing, bold cross border infiltrations, bombing of schools and hospitals, and the sending of instigators to terrorize and burn are common tactics. Though mostly Muslims, the Nuba peoples are African and loyal to the fractious SPLM—Sudan People’s Liberation Movement—which earned them the label enemy, even after the separation of the two countries and the creation of South Sudan—the world’s youngest state—just three years ago. The Arabs to the north seem to not want anything less than the extermination of Africans, and especially Christians from their area. Darfur has seen a genocide and long history of atrocities with over a million dead and ten years of unchecked, systematic violence. Overall, in this brutal civil war of North vs. South, Muslim vs. Christian, Arab vs. African, roughly two million have died.

The Atrocity Du Jour: Indifference for and Ignorance of Sudan’s Crisis

Like a boring TV channel, the world now surfs past the Sudan story with glassy eyed indifference. Though convicted in absentia and wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, Omar al-Bashir leads with an iron fist, even visiting foreign countries with seeming impunity. Syria, Iraq, ISIS, and the world’s’ greatest refugee crisis of modern history have largely overshadowed Sudan’s issues, replacing Darfur and Rwanda as the issues of conscience du jour.

In the midst of this chaos, many churches and NGO’s are caring for the displaced and needy, drilling wells, equipping leaders and lighting candles of hope. Light, even though dim, does its best work in the darkest, most hopeless black.

Refugees Serving Refugees

Standing alongside these brave men—some Arabs, some African, many of them former Muslims and victims of the Bashir regime—my own faith is bolstered. Many of these have done prison time, having fled from the North, living lives of simple faith, laboring tirelessly. Most live away from their families, keeping homes in other refugee camps or cities in neighboring countries so their children can receive proper schooling, and their wives can be sheltered from the violence and conquer-by-rape tactics of an evil, anything-goes war. But here, refugees serve other refugees.

Burning Faith

After a few days of training in one refugee camp, trying to relax in our tents in the 100-degree heat one evening, a messenger rushed to tell us that the church we had been using was on fire. The pastor was devastated but stalwart. This congregation had built their humble house of worship from wood and thatch, carved seating from exotic hardwoods that would have been at home as a centerpiece architectural element in any Western home, and constructed an altar and pulpit with care using precious concrete, a cross marking its purpose. The structure was still smoldering when we went back the next morning. But instead of weeping, we heard worship. The sounds of devotion and singing. Singing in the smoke.

Prayer and worship the next morning with smoldering church in the background.

Admittedly, I was angry, I wanted justice. I echoed Isaiah “From the ends of the earth we hear singing: “Glory to the Righteous One.” But I said, “I waste away, I waste away! Woe to me! The treacherous betray!” Singing?

Sudanese Christians have honed their responses to persecution through much practice. They have learned from Paul and Silas who sang while in prison. They have applied the Colossian directive to “admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” amidst the greatest of tests. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the great Spanish author said “He who sings scares away his woes.” Perhaps it is simply that. The singing that day scared away any fear of my own and taught me, next to smoldering ruins in the middle of a war-torn desert, what it really means to worship.

Why are we so surprised when these things happen?

Two days left in their training, the trainees representing many tribes from the Nuba Mountains gathered that morning in a makeshift tent, erected as close to the smoking rubble as safety would allow. Many passed by that morning to see what the reaction would be. They found exuberant worship, hungry learning, and passionate prayer.

Charred remains of the church, and temporary meeting tent in background.
Charred remains of the church, and temporary meeting tent in background.
Concrete benches - all that remained.
Concrete benches – all that remained.

That next night, a church in another part of the camp was also burned. But the perpetrator was caught this time, and the pastors of the ruined churches and some other representatives went to visit the arsonist in the makeshift camp jail. They shared of their hope in Christ, impressing on him that buildings are not the church, for the true church is a body of people. They learned that he had been one of many sent from the GoS to Nuba and South Sudan to destabilize the region by targeting Christian churches and NGO’s—burning homes and churches.

He was unabashed in declaring that they were targets, there were others, and he would always be an enemy of Christianity. Finding him bloodied and filthy from his attempted escape and capture, they pooled money and requested new clothes be brought for him.

Sudanese often give practical gifts to family, close friends and important visitors, a finely tuned cultural art-form. Often, gifts are given by the lesser to the greater. A turning of the cheek, the gesture was potent, an intentional application of the Sermon in the Mount. Forgiveness was expressed in a simple gift, not only a testimony to this Islamist criminal, but guards, other prisoners, and a refugee community so lacking in visible demonstrations of grace.

“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” (Proverbs 25)

“If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.” (Luke 6:29)

“You Will Have Trouble”

I was taught by these humble brothers about the true nature of the church. She is meant for the fire. Jesus said, in perhaps the only statement of promise about quality of life, “In this life you will have trouble.” James repeats, “Don’t be surprised when you face trials of many kinds.” And from Peter: “To this you have been called, for Christ suffered for you.”

Why are we so surprised when these things happen?

Trouble is the church’s mandate. But many of us in the West can arrange our universe within a comfortable bubble. My applications of ‘love your enemy’ are usually limited to rude drivers and disgruntled customer service representatives. Perhaps we need more of the fire.

A typical church building in a Sudanese refugee camp.
A typical church building in a Sudanese refugee camp.

Jesus said he came for the sick and the broken, that “Those who are well have no need of a doctor.” “Love your enemies and bless those that persecute you.” Yes, the church was meant for the fire. It thrives and grows hot with a passion for God’s glory in the fire. In the fire the church discovers its deepest sense of purpose, worship and longing for the Kingdom to come.

In the sting of offense the sweet water of forgiveness tastes good. It is in the context of slander and hatred that the ministry of reconciliation can fully mature. Indeed if we are to be agents of reconciliation does it not presuppose something in conflict?

These dear Sudanese brothers and sisters demonstrate a truly authentic faith. They are hampered and beat down, but glow with the magnificence of Spirit driven purpose. They teach us that in the fire our best and most effective prayers are kindled as all else is stripped away. Yes, they encourage us. Bring the fire. Sing in the smoke.

Photos courtesy Scott Gustafson

About Scott Gustafson

Scott Gustafson has extensive experience in the Middle East as a practitioner and consultant with faith-based charities and churches in humanitarian relief and mission work. He earned his PhD in Religion and Theology from the Vrije Universteit and researched the religious conversion phenomenon among former Muslim refugees in the Levant and the de-radicalization of some violent extremists among them. He is a member of the Extreme Beliefs/Strong Religion working group at the VU, funded by the European Research Council and is the Ambassador Warren Clark Fellow at Churches for Middle East Peace. He earned an MA in Intercultural Studies/Middle East Studies from Moody Graduate School, and a BA in Nursing and Biology from Western Michigan University. He studied Arabic at the University of Jordan and holds a certification through the Cultural Intelligence Centre as a CQ Certified Facilitator. Scott advises large funding agencies as well as indigenous organizations in the Middle East and is an advocate for peace. He speaks to groups about mission, Islam, the Middle East and countering extremism and radicalization. He also helps run a non-profit cycling team. Scott and his wife have 2 children and they live in Grand Rapids, MI. Follow his Substack.

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