Written by Heidi Thulin, Photography by Joshua Thulin
On Field Media
Scattered across the green hills of southeastern South Sudan lie the simple, circular thatched huts the Lopit people call home. Women grind sorghum into flour and gather firewood for their cook stoves, men tend to their gardens and small herds of cattle, and children help their siblings bathe and walk to school. These hospitable people hold animistic beliefs, communing with their ancestors and seeking remedies and advice from local witch doctors. Missionaries have lived and worked in these hills for fifty years, slowly building small church buildings and introducing the Lopit to Christ. Unfortunately, syncretism, the blending of different religious beliefs and practices, is a huge problem among the Lopit, and, as a result, they are still very much unreached with the gospel.
Over those fifty years, some Lopit have become believers, but enmity and distrust between neighboring villages has kept the gospel message contained to small pockets. In Ohilang Village, where Africa Inland Mission has placed an outreach team, the missionaries are slowly breaking down these barriers.
The Kenyan team leader, Joshua Musova, and his wife, Justina, are missionaries with Africa Inland Church and have served in South Sudan with the Lopit tribe since 2006. “We love these people,” Joshua says in his calm, contemplative manner as we bounce vigorously over the rugged terrain in his Land Rover. “We love the place, and we have been enjoying God’s blessings around here.”
Before moving to this village, the Musova’s lived fifteen kilometers away, training young, eager Lopit men to be evangelists. For two years, Joshua discipled these young men, and now four of those evangelists followed him to Ohilang Village. “They have been of great help to plant the church here,” Joshua explains. “For now, they are the ones leading and ministering to the church. We thank God for that. It has been a great joy for me to see how we can begin with the young people and [watch them] grow in Christ and become coworkers in this ministry.”
The church, which meets in the school building at the foot of Ohilang’s hill, has been steadily growing in the two years the outreach team has lived here. “We praise God,” Joshua says, “that these days the classroom where we meet is filled with adults and young people. Even our chief in the village joined us, and he has been coming almost every Sunday to listen from the Word of God.”
After ten minutes of driving through tall brownish grasses, we enter the neighboring village of Ibonni, where we meet the team’s two single ladies, Ashley and Marlene from the United States and New Zealand, respectively. They warmly welcome my husband and I to their mud-brick home and introduce us to several of the schoolchildren playing in their front yard. Their house squats on the main path that leads to the schoolhouse, and the children love stopping to play at the “white ladies’ house” after their studies. To maximize their time with the children, Ashley and Marlene organize special play times in their yard twice a week, play times that include memory games and Bible stories. Oftentimes, interested mamas and schoolteachers wander into the yard for story time too, and everyone sits enraptured on the grass mats underneath the shade tree.
“God is doing things within peoples’ hearts,” Ashley tells us in her quiet voice, “and our job is just to be available when the Holy Spirit is moving.”
Though the inhabitants of the two villages originate from the same people group, for generations, residents of Ohilang and Ibonni have distrusted each other. This distrust regularly turns to guerilla fighting in the bush. “It’s just another example of how the people really need Christ,” Ashley explains, and I can almost hear her heart breaking. “They’ve been in decades of war, and they only know this fighting and hostility towards one another. They can’t see that they are one and together.”
Because the church sits at the bottom of Ohilang’s hill, this violent history has sometimes complicated the team’s ministry. One Sunday morning, Ashley, Marlene, and another teammate, a Kenyan woman named Carol, led a group of young girls down to the church. “They all came with their little outfits clean and washed and ready to come to church,” Ashley describes. “Carol and I were in the front, and at one point, we turned around [to see that] the whole line had stopped at the path that separates Ibonni from Ohilang… Marlene shouted out in Lopit, ‘We are all going to serve the same God. We want to worship God there. We can also do that here, but we’d love to do it all together. It’s all about God. It’s not about which village we’re a part of.’
“Most of the girls looked at each other and ran [away]. Just one remained, standing there for a long time, fearing. ‘It’s ok,’ we said. ‘If you want to stay home, we are not forcing you to come. But we are going to go into the church.’ It took her a few seconds to process, but she quickly ran across that line. It was amazing to see the Holy Spirit break that barrier for her. Now, she will even cross the line and come to the church by herself!”
This is not the only transformation this outreach team has been blessed to witness. In July 2015, a year and half after the team arrived, the missionaries saw a new rush of spiritual hunger. “People want[ed] to know about the Lord,” Ashley says. “People called our team and asked us to pray for them if they were sick. If they had a problem, like a family issue, they would call our team to come and sit with the family and talk through things. It seemed that all of a sudden, people saw that there is something about God that they wanted and [they’d come to us for help] rather than go to the witch doctor.”
One such witch doctor suffered terribly from satanic dreams and the presence of evil spirits. She soon grew tired of the torment and sought prayer from the missionaries. They willingly obliged but warned that if she kept serving Satan, she could never be free of him. Then one Sunday, to everyone’s amazement, she walked into the church service and called out, “I want to follow Jesus!”
“There were four other people who decided that day to follow God,” Ashley remembers. “Our whole team [was] crying, and those people were crying, and it was just a beautiful moment. Nobody on our team expected that people would actually come to know the Lord. We thought maybe we’d just share about Jesus and plant some seeds. We know that people have been in this area for fifty years, just trying to reach the Lopit. And so, the fact that we got to see five come to Christ in one day was a miracle.”
Because of how deeply entrenched the witch doctor had been in her practices and because her services provided much-needed money and food for her impoverished family, for a few days after her proclamation, the team remained skeptical of her motives. But anytime a villager approached the woman’s home requesting a remedy or offering a sacrifice to the spirits, she sent them away, declaring, “Now, this is finished. I don’t do this anymore! I am now for Christ!”
Since that magnificent day, she has traveled around the village with the missionaries and the four Lopit evangelists, visiting people in their homes and encouraging her neighbors to also accept Christ. “It’s amazing to see how the Word of God can change lives,” Joshua says.
In December 2015, the team reached the end of their two-year assignment and said farewell to the green hills of South Sudan. Yet their absence is being felt just as much as their presence was. “Many say they’ve seen that God has sent these [missionaries] from very far,” Joshua says. “That is the message going around the community: that God is sending men for this community.” Among a people who know far too much war and spiritual darkness, an incredible idea is working its way through the hills: God cares about the Lopit.
Three of the team members plan to return in the years ahead, to continue their work and take that message of hope to villages that still don’t know. “Now is the time to come,” says Ashley. “The ground is ready.”