Selected for international publication in SIM magazines/newsletters worldwide.
The pain in Tiya’s eyes is that of a mother who knows what it’s like to flee war, not only to save her own life but also the life of her newborn daughter.
“I pushed her out, we tied the cord, and the next day we left,” she said, remembering the journey years ago to Sherkole, an Ethiopian refugee camp. “If your baby was crying, the people you were traveling with would chase you away. They feared the Arabs would hear the baby crying and find the whole group.”
Even years removed, the memory is still raw, still fresh. “I was told once to leave my baby behind because she was crying too much … I said, ‘How? How can I leave my child behind? I’ll stay with her and die by the Arabs. I can’t leave her.’”
Tiya (pictured second from left) is a strong Mabaan woman, her muscles toned from years of hard labor. Her sense of humor is wry, a trait she passed on to her daughters. Her knowledge of how to live off the land is vast; so too is her ability to pass on her skills.
But she is also vulnerable.
“Getting through the bush was so hard, that if war comes again … I won’t run,” she said. “Dying here at home is better than struggling through the bush. I won’t run again.”
Starting from scratch
There is no “how to” book on starting a women’s ministry in a Mabaan village in South Sudan. There’s no easy answer to how a woman like Tiya can have a vibrant, personal relationship with God.
From dawn until the last fire goes out at night, she works to provide food for her family and village, Gasmalla. She does not know how to read or write, relying instead on the Sunday church service to provide her with biblical knowledge. And just under the surface is her past, a painful mesh of memories that will likely always color her perspective.
How would a gospel-focused life impact someone like Tiya? That’s just what SIM’s Christiane Fox, from Nova Scotia, Canada, is determined to discover. What began as immersion into Mabaan language learning in Gasmalla became a desire to develop a women’s discipleship ministry.
Women are the “glue” of their society, according to Fox. But she found herself wondering:
“What in the world does it look like to be a female Mabaan disciple of Jesus when you can’t read, can’t write and the men may or may not preach a sermon on Sunday that’s applicable?”
She realized normal methods, structured gatherings, don’t translate well with the women. Their forum is around a fire, talking and preparing coffee and tea or a meal. But that doesn’t encourage individual relationships with God – being alone is very counter cultural to the Mabaan. So Fox started working on Mabaan literacy with the women. Not only did it address a real need, it also gave her one-on-one time.
‘Like I’m on a staircase’
One afternoon late in the rainy season, Fox sat near a fire with a young Gasmalla mother, Sara, methodically reading through a Level 3 Mabaan reading primer. Another young woman, Micha, briefly abandoned her coffee preparations to find her book, quietly sounding out words as she waited for the coffee to boil. A little while later, another woman, Falita – Fox’s most advanced student – appeared, carrying her book.
Fox’s goal is to be able to sit with the women and read through the Bible. In the past year, an increasing number of them have expressed interest in reading. The ministry is slowly evolving. It took months before the women were comfortable enough with Fox to include her in their day-to-day life as a village resident, not just a guest.
“I feel like I’m on a staircase,” she said. “It’s as if the Lord is having to peel back the layers of my own understanding and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in my own mind … [to] help me walk backwards down the stairs, to understand where the Mabaan women are coming from so that, together, we can start walking up.”
But as her relationships with the women have deepened, her hope has grown. “Tiya, are you baptized?” Fox asked one day.
“No, Katta,” Tiya replied, using Fox’s Mabaan name.
“Not yet? Do you want to be?”
“Yes, one day … But God’s words are hard.”
“What do you mean, Tiya? How are his words difficult for you?”
“It is hard to turn myself … my heart is scared. It’s hard to turn.”
Fox, moved by how seriously Tiya takes the step of baptism, comments. “I’m struck with how devoted and unmovable she will be when she surrenders.”