On July 9, 2011, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan as the outcome of a 2005 agreement which ended 40 years of civil war, during which approx. two million people were killed and five million displaced. Since then, millions of refugees from 60 different ethnic groups have returned to their homeland with hope and thanksgiving, just to find a scorched land ravaged by war, void of infrastructure, but rich in natural resources. Our South Sudanese partners, whom we served for a number of years before the country’s independence, the Levi family in Nimule, and the Kuj family in Tonj, have done very well in pioneering and establishing their families and ministries on their respective rural tribal lands, where there today are stable, thriving Christian communities.
For Matthew Dengdut, a young South Sudanese I met in 2008 while he was a refugee in Israel, his homecoming has posed enormous challenges. In Tel Aviv, he planted and pastored a church among his people, while The Bridge sponsored him through a three year Bible College. In 2012, when Israel deported the 1100 South Sudanese refugees back to their new country, Matthew followed his flock to the outskirts of the capital of Juba, where they settled. He and his team have continued to reach out with the love of Jesus to the poverty-stricken people in and around Street no. 107. Matthew has survived two severe malaria attacks, was robbed of all his possessions, and, since 2013, has cared for his people living through a two year internal civil war between President Kiir and his ousted Deputy, Machar, during which tens of thousands have been killed, and 2.5 million people displaced. 3.9 million are in need of food; it is predicted that as many as 200,000 South Sudanese might die of starvation this year!
When Matthew arrived from Israel in 2012, he was able to buy a small property on the tribal land within Juba. With our financial help, he built a small house, which is his home and base of operation. Matthew is an evangelist at heart, so he began from scratch—preaching the Gospel under the open sky in street no 107:
“It is a broad dirt road with corrugated metal shack vendors lined up on both sides as far as the eye can see. Matthew had set up church in the street right in front of the local bar. He had rented 100 plastic chairs and a sound system… there we had church service under the sun for 12 hours! The joyous sound of worship blasted through the community of perhaps 10,000 people, most of whom had been repatriated from Northern Sudan and Egypt, so Matthew preached in Arabic, and his friend Moses translated into English.
When the dusk set in, the shops closed, and the lights went out. A sheet was stretched between two poles, and with the electricity from the rented generator, under the brilliant starlit sky, the Jesus film was shown on the big screen, dubbed in the Arabic language! The men from the bar drifted toward the action, then slowly joined the crowd. The viewers were mesmerized – deeply engaged in the story. When Judas betrayed Jesus, many openly sobbed, and upon the resurrection, the entire crowd rose and roared for joy and relief! Light had overcome darkness! By late evening hours, up to 300 people asked for prayer and/or to receive Jesus – Matthew prayed individually for every one of them!” (Quote from my March 2013 trip report to South Sudan).
Shortly after my visit, when the rain season began, the fellowship needed shelter. A South Sudanese living in Australia owned a walled-in piece of land on the street; he offered Matthew a three year lease. The Bridge raised the funds and a $5000 church building was erected. It consisted of open walls, with poles supporting the roof structure of corrugated metal. We provided funds for 70 chairs, and a storage house.
A buzz of activities ensued: leadership training, Bible study, worship practice, all night prayer vigils, women coming together for various activities. A Bible leadership training school was established for new leaders; there were plans for a school, a food program, and entrepreneurial business training.
Then— disaster hit! In December 2013, Civil war erupted when Kiir accused his former deputy, Machar, of planning a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings which have split the poverty-stricken country along ethnic lines.
The owner of the leased church property demanded prematurely his land back. The church building was torn down, the building material mostly pilfered. The leasing agreement drawn up by a local lawyer meant nothing! The community center and the church collapsed in Street no 107! Armed gangs roamed the streets and attacked the people by beating them, stealing their food and rob them of their few belongings. Many scattered and fled into the country side or went abroad. Anarchy and lawlessness became the rule of the day.
Matthew, however, did not give up, nor was he discouraged. God had given him a vision of reconciliation, and he was going to remain faithful to his call to be a voice and a vehicle of peace and reconciliation between man and God and the warring ethnic groups in his nation! He remained on his property and pulled in the scattered flock of believers for all night vigils of prayer and intercession for South Sudan and her people and planted a new church there. He would often say to me, “My people need hope and peace” – he knows that real lasting peace only comes through The Prince of Peace!
After several, months, when the fighting in and around Juba had subsided and the streets became more secure, many of the believers began returning to their homes—or what was left of them, and rejoined Matthew’s fellowship. Through God’s love and pastoral care, their broken lives have begun to be rebuilt.
A few months ago, the Tribal leader of Street 107 met with Matthew and begged him to return. He promised him land to build on and his co-operation in re-establishing the community center. “It became so dark here after you and your people left”, were his words. “Please—build and plant!” Matthew accepted his offer. Today, the church has been revived in Street no 107!
A year ago, Matthew formally re-established Elohim Shalom International Ministry which he had founded in 2005 in Tel Aviv, based on Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Through this ministry, Matthew has trained a committed group of 12 adult leaders, a beautiful worship team, and 25 young people who actively serve in different capacities. A portable sound system donated by an American brother is a great blessing in the church services, but also as a vehicle in the dynamic Gospel outreaches they do in other parts of the city. Today, there are three churches planted by
In February, the ministry celebrated its first anniversary in the land by inviting local pastors and political leaders across ethnic and denominational lines to a beautiful feast and celebration! 800 people attended in the joyous activities. Many bent their knees to the Lordship of Christ! “It was glorious!” Matthew reported.
The church is growing, so are the outreaches and mercy ministries. Matthew and his team are passionate and committed to the Lordship of Christ. They have a vision to reach South Sudan for Christ, cross ethnic groups and class barriers. They indeed exemplify the words of James, the disciple of Jesus, in James 2:5, “…has not God chosen those who are poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom, which He has promised to those who love Him?”
On March 11, the United Nations released a scathing report of genocide and gross human rights violations that both the government troops and the rebels have caused among the South Sudanese people. To read more, click on the link below:
Following are some background information on Matthew’s journey from TelAviv, Israel to Juba, South Sudan