It’s one of the first words I learned to love in Dinka. The word is spelled “piop” but pronounced “poe”. 

For the past few weeks, I’ve been looking through my 2006 journal and at my old photos, reflecting on my 15-year journey with the anti-trafficking mission in South Sudan and Sudan. [I’ve posted some of these online and you can see them under “tagged posts” on Instagram.]

Fifteen years ago this Valentine’s Day, I spent my first day at New Life Ministry, along the border of Darfur. My Dinka language immersion classes were led by a small crew of young teachers: Angelina, Mary, Theresa, Samuel, William — all students at the NLM day school.  

Piop is short and sweet and sing-songs when you say it aloud — like a baby’s coo. Because I liked the sound of the word so much and the students liked teaching me their language, we would often point to our hearts and say piop throughout the day; as if it was the new way to greet one another.

Piop is also strong and bold and tenacious — like the student-heroes the anti-trafficking network has been protecting, educating and empowering since 2005. They’ve been courageously navigating a harsh, hard world with open, generous hearts.

On that trip we learned that every person (adult and child) that we interacted with at New Life Ministry and in the surrounding community knew someone that had been killed or trafficked during a raid upon their village. 

Every single one.

The traumatic effects of war were still fresh wounds. Raids and rumors of raids by the Janjaweed militia (literally translated as devil on horseback) were part of every current conversation. Genocide was taking place just across the border in Darfur.

Hearts were freshly grieving, seeking answers, seeking survival — navigating their new reality on the other side of loss.

Then, as now, orphans are the most vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. 

Only a few months before our journey, a census was taken to determine what was most affecting orphans in the community. In addition to “missing” children being trafficked, the results also uncovered that the number one cause of death for orphans was due to hyena attacks. The precious children had nowhere to go for shelter. They had no one to offer help. If they were lucky, they could find a tree to sleep in and hope not to fall out of.

During the day, the NLM staff and our team of visitors worked together to focus on making space for these students to simply be children again. We played games, sang songs, drew pictures, dreamed about the future, participated in school lessons, and shared stories of courageous ancient Biblical heroes who had faced hardships and bondage, yet persevered — Esther, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego.

One day, I invited the students to draw what courage meant to them.  

“What does courage look like?” 

This daily art time was designed to offer students a sacred space to express what was inside; draw what their feelings look liked. There were no formal instructions, just a wide open invitation to express, release, and create.

As drawings began being passed forward and shared with the teachers and me, the consistent theme was that courage meant family members surviving war; fighting back or fleeing from raids; witnessing their loved ones enduring until death inside grass huts that had been set on fire.

The ancient Biblical stories of abuse of power — through fiery furnaces or trafficked orphan girls that we had been discussing — now became not so ancient, but present realities in their lives.

It’s important for us to remember the tremendous and systemic adversity that the leaders and children in our network have faced — and yet persevered. It’s why I went to (South) Sudan to meet and learn from James Lual Atak and his team. James had endured war, trauma and trafficking, and yet committed his life to restore hope and enact change for the most vulnerable. Slowly but steadily, year-after-year, James and I, a group of organizational leaders, and a growing global collective of partners (like you!) began working together and expanding outreach through New Life Ministry; building a network to protect, educate, and empower vulnerable children and women whose lives had been devastated by war, oppression, and were at high risk for exploitation.

As the efforts expanded into two other regions with other indigenous visionaries, a clear focus on the prevention of trafficking emerged by identifying and rescuing those most vulnerable in their surrounding communities.

On that first trip, there were only about 200 or so children being educated and fed at the NLM day school; we didn’t even have housing yet! Today, we are witnesses to how God linked all of our lives together to transform impossible dreams such that Lift Up the Vulnerable now protects, educates, and empowers over 1,500 children and women in the only indigenously directed anti-trafficking network that spans South Sudan and Sudan.

What a tremendous, difficult, and important journey it’s been!

Hearts of Courage

On one of the last days of my first trip, smaller pieces of paper were passed around the class with safety pins.

I asked the same students, “What does your piop/heart look like? Is it big or small? What color or colors is it?  What images or words represent your heart?” 

As the students paused, reflected and then began to imagine and draw their hearts — bold, courageous colors came forward. Some shared that Christ’s love surrounded their heart; some drew Christ’s cross embedded in; others expressed gorgeous colors of hope and curiosity shining bright.

The adults then helped to pin these hearts to the students’ shirts with a blessing and a promise, “Be strong, be courageous. Don’t be terrified; don’t be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” 

You are never alone.

This Valentine’s Day — the International Day of LUV — let’s celebrate these courageous, heart-led heroes who dared to hope in a future yet unseen. Your generosity protects, educates, and empowers children and women to become the agents of change, hope, and peace that their communities desperately need.

Your love — linked with their lives — is transforming the world.

Thank you for traveling on this heart-full journey with us. Together, we’re making a difference.

Happy transform-the-world-with-LUV Day to you!