By Tim Rice
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:14-17 (NIV)
In April last year, Pastor Emmanuel Offendi from the war-torn Nuba Mountains of Sudan saw an all-too-familiar, pitiful sight: a ragtag group of people with only threadbare clothes fleeing another bomb attack. The group of 15 adults and children were not a family, but a group displaced from their homes and their land, and walking towards the pastor.
The group had come from Karkaria, an agriculturally rich area that government forces attacked and warplanes bombed, driving civilians from their livelihoods, Offendi remarked. “They had lost their loved ones, lost properties – even families,” he said. “They come war-weary, seeking help from the community and the church.”
The citizens of the Nuba Mountains are accustomed to war. For the last six years, the government has targeted civilians as potential supporters to the rebels. In fact, government warplanes have dropped well over 4,000 bombs on civilian targets since 2012. It is in this context that pastors across the region try to uphold hope and support.
“We as pastors are generally good at talking to our community –but sometimes you feel lost for words –how can I encourage and support our people when looking at so many hopeless faces?” Ofendi asks. The pastor felt this way when he saw the group of displaced from Karkaria coming towards him.
Fortunately Ofendi no longer feels quite so helpless when attempting to console others, largely due to the faith-based Persecution Project Foundation’s (PPF) unique relief distribution system. Besides providing the bulk of life-saving medicine to the Nuba people, PPF is also the main provider of non-food item support to the war-affected civilians. Items such as soap, pots, clothes, mosquito nets, sheets –all are crucial for displaced families that have lost literally everything.
But how do you deliver such vital supplies in one of the remotest places in Sudan, during a war? The government effectively blocks most humanitarian aid coming into the country. The rainy season, from mid June to October, muddies roads and makes access routes impassable. Not least, many of the most needy are displaced and live in remote locations –seeking shelter from the war by staying in caves within the mountains.
Fortunately for PPF, pastors are available to help—and do. As God-fearing individuals trusted by the local community, pastors are uniquely qualified to assist. “When we bring items, we ensure it goes to people who are really in need. We check with local authorities and through our own networks to ensure that,” Offendi explains. Working hand-in-hand with local community leaders, PPF Field Coordinator Kuti Rajab says they have managed to distribute kits smoothly, without issue.
“The Church does not have much to give, so PPF fills a crucial gap,” said Pastor Ismael Suleiman, who has personally helped deliver over 2,000 non-food item kits to those in need in a town called Kurchi within the Nuba Mountains. “As a general rule I try to give to those most disadvantaged first --such as widows, orphans, the elderly and the disabled, before reaching out to others in need.”
Sometimes it becomes very easy to prioritize recipients based on their predicament, Offendi said, such as the case of a widow whose home was burnt down …twice. “It was terrible, [government] soldiers raided her home and razed her village to the ground, she fled to the mountains with small children and meager supplies.” Neighbors came to the rescue and helped her build a makeshift home within the rock crevices, Offendi said. “But then one of her children burnt this structure down by accident while trying to light a fire, the woman just could not believe her predicament.”
Hearing the story from neighbors, Offendi managed to get some materials to her so that she could rebuild her life again. “It was incredible, it was the first sign of hope she experienced in a very long time.” The pastor’s efforts also convinced her to become one of the most devoted at Offendi’s church, attending services regularly. “This support creates a very big difference in people’s lives –even if these items may appear basic to some, they are life-changing for others,” Suleiman said. Another gift that arises from these distributions, Suleiman added, is faith. “Some people, just from receiving these items, started to develop a stronger belief in God.”
By using local community members such as pastors, PPF’s support also builds relationships within Nuba communities –even with those from different faiths. According to another pastor, Yusuf Alferic, the pastors make it a rule not to discriminate by faith when distributing. Alferic provides support to Muslim families as readily as he does Christians. “It’s not just about giving aid –it’s about building relationships and trust within communities,” Alferic explains. “And any soldier will tell you, building trust is key when living in wartime.”
Many of the pastors helping PPF distribute aid take it one notch further and provide support directly to their aggressors who very well may have attacked them in the past. Several pastors in Um Dorein County, Nuba Mountains, deliver aid directly to prisoners of war (POWs) in the rebel-controlled areas, Offendi said. Assuming they will remain isolated and abandoned, Offendi added, POWs were surprised to see them. “We talk to them freely, share the gospel, they were very surprised and started to see that our God was really God.” It was not always easy, Pastor Morris Kartina explains as many opposed the pastors providing the POWs support. “People called us crazy –even my own kids could not understand it,” he said, “but in church we learn to love your enemy and to pray for them.”
While many in the Nuba Mountains have grown to appreciate the pastors and PPF ’s support –even former enemy combatants, there is still one major setback: demand. “It can be hard sometimes, you can’t please everyone,” concedes Alferic. “Sometimes we simply run out of items and some grow jealous and start to blame us.” PPF managed to deliver over 10,000 kits in 2016 and have plans to disseminate more this year, Rajab said. But he admits the need is always greater. “It’s hard, sometimes you deliver kits to many needy people but then more people turn up who need our help just as much as those you have distributed to.”
According to recent UN estimates, roughly a quarter of the population in the central rebel-controlled counties in the Nuba Mountains are displaced from the war –that’s around 120,000 people currently homeless.
Fortunately, the sense of community and sharing still thrives in Nuba, to the point where everyone relies on one another. “Even if the kits are not enough –our people somehow manage to share what little they have,” explains Alferic, The pastor went on to explain how he has seen those who have received relief packets share some of the items with their neighbours, despite the fact all of the items were sorely needed by the original recipients.
But there is another group of people desperately in need that are not necessarily recipients of these kits: the pastors themselves. “Often the church has no money and we must rely on contributions from our congregation,” Offendi explains, “but how do you ask for support from those who have nothing?” PPF realized that if they wanted the pastors help distributing kits and to continue preaching the gospel –they needed to help these church leaders in return.
This led to the organization’s providing cattle and other livestock to the pastors to help them stay afloat. Now pastors are able to feed their families and dedicate more time to reach out to their community. “This support has helped in so many ways –even time,” said Pastor Suleiman. “Now, I find I have more time to preach and reach out to others, before farming and scrapping together whatever small amounts of support I could provide my family would take up almost all of my time.” Suleiman has received two goats and one cow from the PPF project and now the cow has given birth to a calf, he said proudly. “God is always working, I’m sure of that.”