Have you ever dove head first into something you’d never done before, having absolutely no idea if it was going to work...if you were going to be any good at it...if people were going to “get it”? We do just that for a living here at World Harvest Mission South Sudan. We learn new languages in new ways, we have conversations with new people in said new languages, we get new ideas from said conversations and try new things in our ministry fields, we approach new partners to find new people to work alongside as we try said new things, we get more new ideas from said new partners and mesh their ideas with ours...there are seasons in which everyday feels like an experiment. I’m in one of those seasons now...you leave the house and have no idea what is going to happen, whether what you set out to do will be what you actually do, whether what you actually do will be of any help to anyone or instead a complete disaster...
I feel like we’re still in our toddler years as a team - well, I guess I should speak for myself, after a year and a half here in Mundri, I feel very much a toddler -
“how far I can walk while holding onto this table? do I need both hands on the table? do I need any hands on the table? whoah, no hands, okay, this is cool, but wait, what do I do now? you seem to be saying take a step...but clearly you must have missed the fact that I have no hands on the table, so steps are out of the question....whoah?!?!? boom. bottom’s down. Bummer. Literally. Should have tried taking that step. Ah well, next time.”
Africans love a good story...they love telling them, hearing them, passing them along...evidenced most often by the effectiveness of the “bush net.” Who needs the internet when you’ve got the bush net. When you tell your neighbor, while out in the cool of the morning brushing your teeth with a stick that yesterday you stuck in the thatch of your roof to save for brushing again on a rainy day, that you heard that the gun shots last night were from a drunk soldier who got in a fight with his wife because she didn’t cook meat for dinner, by the time you get to your garden, your garden neighbor will say to you, “hey, did you hear that those shots last night were from a drunk soldier in a fight with his wife because she didn’t cook meat?” Word gets around. fast. Usually the first several minutes of an encounter or greeting with someone will involve telling each other stories or “news” the other may not have heard since you last saw each other...
Even their speech patterns are in story form...it’s beautiful. I love it.
I love stories too. Always have, always will. I used to ask my parents to tell my favorites from their childhoods to me at bedtime...mom’s about ice skating in the winter, and dad’s about setting his bed on fire...those were my favorites. They would tell them the same every time, and if any detail differed from what I remembered from the last time, of course I asked for clarification... “but last time you said...” - have to get the details right :)
When you ask about rainbows here, yes, the rainbows that we put on stickers and nursery walls and sunday school materials, the rainbows that small children doodle at knee high arts and crafts tables all over the United States, well, here you will get looks of terror and stories about snakes and dust blowing and people turning colors and pregnant women running for cover inside the nearest tukul...everyone I’ve asked tells the same story...it’s part of their cultural heritage...local lore, told around fires at night while the family lies on mats too hot to go inside until the last possible moment...
What if the creation story was told around these fires...what if the wonder of David in the Lion’s Den or Esther and the King were requested by children because of their amazement and intrigue. What if the women and children who don’t get to go to school, who never learn to read, who cannot open their Bible to meet God in His words on the pages, could know the stories anyways and pass them down from generation to generation? What if stories they’ve heard read painfully slowly in church by people who struggle to read in their own language and read in a fairly monotonous voice while trying to focus on every word, could be told and heard and remembered in a way that was new and exciting and actually sounded like a story, a story that actually happened once upon a time many years ago in a place not so much unlike their own...
This is Melissa and I’s hope and prayer...we long for these women and children here, who are our friends, to know these stories, to be able to fall back on them as truth when they wonder what really is true, to be able to marvel at what God has done in years past and what He is able to do today. So, with the ability to lean on the work of our WHM colleague George Mixon and his years of experience doing just this with several tribes and people groups in Kenya, Melissa and I decided to start telling the story of the Bible in a chronological way, story by story, week by week, with women at Melissa’s church. It’s not a new idea...it’s a method called Chronological Bible Storying and has been used with aural cultures all over the world.
But this isn’t just anywhere, this is rural South Sudan. We aren’t trained CBS story tellers, we’re just Heidi and Melissa. Would anyone come? Would people be able to engage in the story even if it’s broken up by translation? Would people be able to hear the stories afresh or would they just roll their eyes and yawn at a story they’ve heard read over and over in church like we so often do? Would they understand the questions we asked to engage them in learning about the story? Would they be able to hear it well enough to tell it back to us (since the point is for them to be able to go home able to tell the story)? We had no idea. But we wanted to give it a whirl. And so we did. We memorized the story (Creation, from Genesis 1), scheduled a day, made an announcement in church, and showed up when we said we would...everything else was a shot in the dark.
By all measures the world uses, it was an epic fail. Our first scheduled day, we ended up going to “coming out” prayers for a new baby who was born near the church, so we didn’t even end up doing the story. Fail? Nope. We had a blast with a group of our friends and women from church, celebrating the new life God had brought safely into the world and blessing this new life. And her name? Melissa.
Next attempt the following week. How many people came? A grand total of 2. Fail? Nope. It was one of our best friends and a lay leader in the church who is an active leader in the Mother’s Union (women’s group). It turns out it was great to be able to try it out in a small group on our first attempt, and it created a great opportunity for them to feel comfortable asking questions and laughing at ourselves as we stumbled over the use of 3 languages between the 4 of us.
Did we tell it “right?” Nope. You’re supposed to memorize the story and tell it in the audience’s heart language yourself - we told it in english with spotty translation by our friend and hoping they understood enough. Fail? Nope, it put us on learners’ level with them, not the high and mighty teacher who knows everything. Laughing our way through explaining things in Moru and Arabic as we went along, we were all equals.
Did they “get it”? Nope. They kept interrupting the story and asking when people were going to be created, and also wanting to follow along in their Moru Bibles they had brought. Fail? Nope. At least their questions and interruptions meant they were listening, and were they illiterate like the method is established for? Nope, not these 2, but do they have much connection between a real live story and the book they carry in their UNICEF plastic bags for protection to church every week? No, and this was a great opportunity to refer them to the story in their own bibles when they did have questions and wanted to be able to talk to family members about the story...connecting the story they could now tell, and the words on the page that they can read.
Could they retell the story back to us after we went through the whole things twice? Nope, not even day 1 of creation. Fail? Nope, we got to go through it all several more times with them as we prompted and helped them memorize the story too, in a way that seemed manageable and applicable to them, and encourage them along the way. So, by the time they got it down, they were super excited and proud of themselves.
Did we have a super deep discussion about grace and how God’s gift of it to us is evidenced in this story, like the method stipulates? Nope. Did we even talk about grace? Nope. Still too abstract for these folks I think. Maybe down the line a bit. Fail? Nope. Did they have a question of their own that really brought home the main point in the whole story? You betcha. The mother’s union leader asked “Since woman was made from man’s rib and therefore she’s less strong and less educated and not as important, why is that?” Whoah. Right on, sister. We got to talk with them earnestly about how that couldn’t be further from the truth, that in fact “both male and female” were made in His image and were both given rule and authority over the earth they were given dominion over, and showed them the words in their own bibles...in fact, before they left, the same woman said, “now we have discussed and learned new things and we can go home and tell this to our families.”
Fail? No way.
Melissa and I marveled at God’s hand in the whole thing all the way home on our bikes...amazed that despite all apparent “failures” He still managed to work through us...broken method, broken people. So thankful.
God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.