I met Yai Kiir Dau, a young South Sudanese evangelist, at the training hospital of Juba, where a Hungarian Baptist medical team had been working already for a week caring for the patients who were injured during the conflicts of December 2013.
This sincere young man said that the Baptist center in the capital was closed and its leadership fled.
The president of the Baptists travelled to neighboring Kenya at the end of December, and most of them didn’t dare to return since then.
Yai Kiir also said that he planted a church at a district called “New Site” in Juba three years ago.
There used to be more than a hundred people who attended the church but now only eight to 10 people come on Sundays because most women and children were evacuated to the border regions, neighboring countries and United Nations’ camps.
He told me about his vision, that churches need to be planted and educational programs started so children will see options other than a military career. I promised that we would visit his church.
“New Site? You can’t go there, I won’t take you there,” the driver, who was assigned to us by the Sudanese Ministry of Health, told us. “The entire conflict started there when the first fights broke out.”
According to the hospital’s director, “New Site is like a ghost city, and you have nothing to do there.”
On Sunday morning, I called Yai with a bad feeling and told him that we wouldn’t be able to visit his church, as we were not allowed to go to that region. So we drove to the hospital instead.
The morning was slow and not many things were happening. I felt uneasy and sensed that I wasn’t at the right place.
I called the driver: “Would you take me to the church service? I will stay there just for 20 minutes and we can leave.”
Reluctantly, he agreed to take me to New Site. When I told my plan to the two Hungarian doctors, they immediately stated that they were also coming.
We were all tense during the short drive. We left the modest city center and a poor, tin-roofed shanty district behind. We also passed by the airport.
“This is already New Site,” said the driver.
Alongside the road, there were simple military barracks, a paved army shooting range and a training center. If we had gone further, we would have arrived at the Ministry of Defense.
“New Site” was established for the soldiers of the government and their families after South Sudan’s independence in 2011.
Beyond the barracks there were small shops, herds of cattle and heather-topped huts plastered with mud. Besides the main road, there weren’t any concrete roads, only sandy dirt ones.
There were many soldiers in their uniforms and also some civilians, but life looked rather slow as most people had fled, and many houses stood empty.
Yai came to meet us on a borrowed motorcycle and guided us deep inside the settlement to the small Baptist church.
The building was new, but on the mud-plastered walls there were bullet holes, and the shiny metal sheet roof was ripped up in two places by machine guns.
They said that God protected the place, as not a bullet could penetrate through the walls, and the damage caused on the roof is minimal.
Inside on the wall there was a red flag with a white cross on it and in front of it there was a simple altar. The room was furnished with plastic chairs and a rammed earth floor.
They had only one instrument, a drum that was originally an oil barrel, which accompanied the impressively beautiful worship songs in the Dinka language.
One month ago, there were more than a hundred attendees, but now they have only eight men, two women and two children at the Sunday service.
They didn’t have a pastor present, so evangelist James Monychol Duoti called me up to the stage.
I quoted from Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.”
“Even if I walk in the darkest place, God is with me, the Son is with me and the Holy Spirit is with me,” I said. “And the most important thing is that if you go through the darkest valley, never stop!”
The congregation nodded silently.
I assured them that we loved them, we would pray for them, and we would share their story with the Baptists in Hungary and all around the world. Yai translated my words into Dinka.
James Monychol taught from the gospel of John. “Jesus couldn’t be arrested because his time hadn’t yet come,” he said. “Everything is in God’s hand, and also we are in his hands.”
After tithing, the church asked for blessing on the offerings and also on their mission work. They did so through singing a beautiful benediction.
The short service was over, but somehow nobody wanted to go home. In the presence of the Almighty Lord, there were no differences between black and white, Dinka or Nuer, civilian and soldier, pro-government or rebel, Hungarian or Sudanese.
We felt and saw that he who is in us is greater than the one who destroys and starts bloody wars.
New Site is the ghost city where the capital fights broke out. New Site Baptist Church is the place where God’s children can meet in peace even amid a civil war.
Dávid Gál is the director of international programs for Hungarian Baptist Aid, a partner organization of the Baptist World Alliance. The New Site church is a ministry of the Faith Evangelical Baptist Church in South Sudan.