Pediatrician Dr. Joan Perry participated in LUV’s medical mission trip to New Life Ministry, our partners along the border of Darfur, in May 2023. During the free community clinic, the team of visitors and local leaders served 1,139 people in 5 days! I’m excited for you to read Dr. Perry’s beautiful reflection on what this journey meant to her and her experience serving in war-torn South Sudan. Grace and peace, Audrey
At first, I thought I was hearing things.
Maybe 100+ degree heat does that to you. We had finished seeing patients at the medical clinic, eaten a little less-than-appetizing dinner and were just chatting about the day, when I heard the rhythmic sound of something beating in the distance—a sound I hadn’t heard since we’d arrived in South Sudan 4 days earlier.
“Oh, it’s girls’ dance night! You wanna go?” someone replied to my inquiry.
Despite being hot and weary from seeing 50 or so patients that day, I would never be one to pass up on something that sounded like a once-only-in-South-Sudan opportunity! It was my goal too, to develop an understanding of the remarkable way the lives of these 600 orphan children, who had been destined to illiteracy, early pregnancy, ravaging malnutrition and disease, were being transformed and given a hope and future.
From the moment we stepped off the plane onto the red dirt runway and were swept into a crowd of hundreds of grinning faces loudly chanting a catchy welcome song, I could sense something special was happening at this place.
Though I have been on a number of international medical mission trips in the past, when the opportunity arose to spend 10 days at New Life Ministry in South Sudan, I anticipated this to be a bit different, and it was.
Flying into the area, there was no sign of real civilization for hundreds of miles, short of occasional grass thatched mud huts called “tukels”.
All around was evidence of the country’s long history of civil conflict and political instability, resulting in its lack of infrastructure (the absence of paved roads, modern construction, community organization) and abject poverty (over 80% of the population surviving on an average of $1.90 a day).
It wasn’t difficult to understand that this then contributes to the vulnerability of the country’s women and children that has resulted in South Sudan being ranked as one of the worst places in the world to be a girl (73% of whom do not go to primary school and 52% of whom are married before the age of 18).
We walked together in the early evening darkness a couple of hundred yards across the treeless landscape toward the drumbeats—and a crowd of 100 or so beautiful dancing, singing, smiling girls silhouetted by one of the very few light posts on the property.
Outside the girls’ dormitory 3 large goat skin covered drums were being played by a rotation of several young girls no older than 12, hands flying in the air from one drum to another while the other girls swirled around.
The dust didn’t settle for a half hour at least with no signs of fatigue on anyone’s part until Elizabeth Achol “Tall”, one of the older dorm girls who commanded great respect stood in their midst and signaled for the music to stop, gathering everyone into a huge circle.
Though we couldn’t understand the Dinka tribal language she was speaking, it was clear from the nodding heads and affirming expressions surrounding us, these were words of encouragement.
“It’s good to be here, together, and praise God for what He’s given us,” someone whispered to us in interpretation.
Then the group erupted in singing—but this time in English! Though I still couldn’t catch all the words, what I could clearly understand was the sweet refrain that included:
“…and He loves me! Oh why? I don’t know…but He does!”
I thought back to my earlier conversation that day with Hellen, a beautiful young lady who is a graduate of NLM School and now in nursing school in nearby Aweil.
Hellen translated for me as I saw patients in the clinic. We sat together in very warm conditions as she patiently listened to each family or individual with such tenderness and compassion, she was sometimes so overwhelmed with the stories being told that she had to pause and emotionally recover before proceeding with the translation.
During one of our breaks, she told me about losing her own father who was killed in the civil war when she was quite young, and then her mother dying of an illness only a few years after. Her uncle assumed the care of Hellen and her sister but just didn’t have resources as the family struggled in extreme poverty. He brought her to NLM at age 7 where she was immediately received with open arms. “What would have happened to my sister and me I do not know, but it would have been very bad,” she said. “NLM gave me a good life and an education and now I have my own family!”
It is her dream to soon be a pediatric nurse in a hospital in her country, caring for children who are victims of disease and poverty that she knew too well. Imagine indeed what her life would look like without the love of God expressed through the kindness and compassion of this place!
Imagine the many other stories of young lives and souls that have been changed, transformed forever.
As the girls continued singing together that evening, I was overwhelmed. As followers of Jesus, we all continue to grow in our understanding of God’s sacrificial, merciful love for us as He leads us on our own journey of restoration and renewal.
But here around this circle, I began to wonder what it would it be like to be trapped in the affliction of memories of the physical, mental and emotional atrocities many of these girls had experienced in their past, to be left brokenhearted with no or few surviving family members, to have no safe place of shelter and provision—and hope.
At NLM, the message of God’s love rending the heavens to come to His creation “to bring good news to the afflicted…to bind up the brokenhearted, to set the captives free…” (Is. 61:1) is literally bringing healing and restoration to these His children! Here dancing around the beating drums are 100+ girls who are learning to embrace the God who has set them free!
And as we celebrate His love for us, what should move us from appreciation for what He’s done to the desire to follow in the footsteps of the Savior more than John’s words in 1 John 3:17: “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and truth”?
I walked back to our tent under the incredibly dark and beautiful Sudanese sky with more stars than you can imagine, and thought about that refrain, “Oh why does He love me?….I don’t know… but He does!”
Isn’t it His heart, His character “God is love” (1 John 4: 16) that Jesus embodied that answers this question? But just as important is our response to His love—where today has He called us to come alongside Him as He “brings good news to the afflicted…binds up the brokenhearted and sets the captives free”?
I am praying that I will listen for the drum beat and follow Him…