Sitting in a nice little apartment in Johannesburg, South Africa in November 2018, I began to reflect on a weekend that I had spent in Ethiopia, near the border with South Sudan. The war in Sudan has created hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of whom have been living in camps in this region.
On that Sunday morning in Gambella, Ethiopia there was no time to discuss the politics of the war-torn region, but simply the opportunity to look around and realize that we were not sure how the Church of the Nazarene got here, but God was in our midst. The churchyard was filled with at least 100 children, some of whom had been orphaned. They were having Sunday school and learning about Jesus. Their smiles were beautiful.
In the midst of such difficult conditions, we aren’t sure what the future holds for this burgeoning group of new believers, but we are committed to walk beside them as they follow the leading and the prompting of the Spirit.
In the book of Acts we discover that the disciples were also learning about the journey that had no clear end in sight. Peter “went here and there among all the believers.” Traveling to Lydda, he found a man named Aeneas, who had been paralyzed for eight years. Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!” Immediately he got up. And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord” (Acts 6”34-35, NRSV)
It is Dr. Luke who writes about this incident, which set the stage for the expansion of the ministry to the Gentiles. Peter had a vision that eventually leads him to the house of Cornelius. Like breadcrumbs on the pathway, Peter was simply following the leading of the Spirit as he ministered. The New Testament church was about to explode with new converts. But at this moment in the journey, Peter had no idea what the future held. Peter might not have known where the path was leading, but he did know that he would never take personal credit for what was happening. All the glory belonged to Jesus.
Likewise, the Spirit of God has been at work in the refugee camps in Sudan; in one camp alone I learned that there were 17 Nazarene churches. It had been eight years since the last General Superintendent, Dr. Stan Toler, had visited this area to ordain one person as the onlookers rejoiced. In the years since, believers have set up pastoral education right in the refugee camps, and on that day I was to ordain 24 individuals as elders or deacons. Unfortunately, because of road-blocks, two couldn’t make it. What is God up to, that we would be ordaining individuals held in refugee camps? We are not sure where this is going, but God is making a way!
As the day continued to warm up, we enjoyed the beauty of Christian worship and fellowship. Jesus was lifted up as the people sang and danced and praised the Lord. Regional Director Daniel Gomis shared the scriptural story of the young exiles, Daniel and his three friends. The Bible tells us those young men, living as refugees, did everything they could to be faithful servants of God. When the young people in Ethiopia heard the story of Daniel’s friends and the fiery furnace, they flocked to the front of the church to commit themselves to faithfully follow Jesus, even as refugees in a foreign land.
When it came time for the ordination, I was overwhelmed. Where had God led me? To a hot and dry land filled with struggle, and there I saw Jesus. Jesus was in the face of every ordinand. For the first time ever, women were ordained in the Horn of Africa; we ordained sixteen women and six men. I watched them, some with visible physical ailments, one with TB, covenanting to serve the Lord and the Church. The joyful celebration that followed is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, as the people rejoiced knowing that God’s hand was upon their lives.
I am learning to be careful of questioning where God may be leading, even when circumstances are difficult. We may just find Jesus is in the midst of something we don’t understand. Peter had no idea how his journeys would change his life and the future of the church. He lived on, in faith, following the nudging of the Holy Spirit every single day.
As I traveled the African continent, pre-COVID, I had the privilege of encountering shining examples of Jesus in the people of South Sudan and Ethiopia. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I think I found heaven on earth.
Carla Sunberg is a General Superintendent in the Church of the Nazarene.
Holiness Today, January/February 2022
Please note: This article was originally published in 2022. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.