What does it mean to be truly Thankful? When the electricity goes out for a few hours, I am really thankful when my lights come back on and the water flows out of the faucet again. Sometimes thankfulness is all about perspective.
My dear friend Sarah has had many amazing experiences, and her stories always help me think twice about my own worries and woes. As we strive to be here now with our own families this season, here is a challenge from Sarah that might also give us a slightly different frame of reference.
Happy (almost) Thanksgiving from one wildly overwhelmed but extremely thankful mother of an aspiring preschool-crocodile doctor, a costume-loving, cape-wearing toddler whose superpower scream can shatter ear drums, one teething, army-crawling infant and six precious, part-time foster divas. Welcome to crazy.
My name is Mommy and Miss Nerd (a lovely nickname given to me by one of my grown-up aged out foster kids), but mostly I am known as Sarah. I am plain (and yes, tall), my hair is a mess and I can usually be found wearing a tee shirt and jeans (that have butternut squash baby food splattered all over them). I love children of all ages, but especially sassy teenagers (more about that in a minute). I am not much of a leader, but I love working along side people who are. I am obsessed with broken children, women, families, societies and cultures.
|Sarah with her super-hero babies.|
I grew up as a missionary kid whose pilot dad would take our family to Haiti every summer to boot-kick us out of our comfort zones and expose us to life in the raw, where normal was open sewage running down the streets, garbage piled as high as snow drifts and the prevailing smell of sweat. It was hot and there were chickens where they should not have been, everyone was dirty and I loved it!
After college, I had the opportunity to teach a combined fifth and sixth grade class in a small international school in Saipan, the largest of the inhabited Marianas islands, a little-known commonwealth of the U.S. that is situated in the Pacific Ocean, north of Australia and east of the Phillippines. That teaching experience allowed me the opportunity to work in the education sector for Samaritan’s Purse International Relief Organization, a Christian relief and development organization who works in crisis situations all over the world.
|Two class rooms annexed onto a pre-existing school to help handle over flow from tribal conflict in North Congo.|
Samaritan’sPurse hired me to work as an Education Coordinator in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. I was part of a team that helped establish five primary (elementary/middle) schools, a teacher’s training college and two rural village community centers. We lived in tents and huts, had little to no electricity except for what we could squeeze out of our solar panels that were connected to a series of car batteries. Our running water consisted of us running to the well to get water on our four-wheeler. Later, project management was facilitated by the truck Samaritan’s Purse had flown in for us on an old Russian Antenov. Flights days were once every two weeks; we received a crate of fresh vegetables and fruits that lasted about a week, then we were back to eating rice and beans.
After several months, my team and I were evacuated due to border security issues. The Nuba Mountains are geographically located in the North but the local Nuban army was a part of the South Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement and fought for religious, political and economic freedom with the rebels of South Sudan. The only way in and out of our area of the Nuba Mountains was by flight; the government of Sudan controlled the territory surrounding our small cluster of villages.
|Visiting some of the kids at the Dinka camp in the Nuba Mountains.|
Samaritan’s Purse then reassigned me to North East Kivu in the Ituri Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where I continued to work as an Education Coordinator and the Congo team and I helped build classrooms onto existing schools that were at overcapacity due to various tribal wars in the northern part of the province. Due to an unfortunate accident between a United Nations convoy and one of our work vehicles, the language point person for our team was badly injured and evacuated and I was again reassigned back to Sudan, but this time to Samaritan’s Purse surgical hospital in Lui, Mundri County near the border of North Uganda. I walked into the main house for lunch (after watching a rather unpleasant surgery) and saw for the first time, the tall, very sexy South African who was to become my husband.
|John in Afghanistan|
While in Lui, I was given the responsibilities of being the tuberculosis center logistics coordinator and it was my job to make sure all the young malnourished children with tuberculosis had the supplement feedings they needed. I also had the excellent opportunity to do rounds with the surgical resident, the visiting American doctors as well as the Ugandan doctor on call. It was during these few months of shadowing the medical personal that I began to dream of returning home to pursue my nursing degree so that someday, Lord willing, I could return to rural Sudan to work in a primary health care setting.
I became wonderfully engaged to John Tountas, and we signed up for one last six-month mission with Samaritan’s Purse. John was assigned to Afghanistan and I was reassigned to the Nuba Sudan team when the peace accord was signed and after twenty years of civil unrest Sudan was no longer a country at war with itself.
John and I came back to the states and were married in a beautiful orchid garden and honeymooned in Cancun where we were hit by hurricane Wilma and subsequently stranded in Mexico for two weeks (that is another story for the grand kids!) Because John was not yet a legal resident, I had to find a job to “support” him while we waited for his green card and work papers to be processed. My best friend from high school introduced me to Place of Hope, a faith based family style child welfare organization that was in need of a part-time female relief parent in one of the foster cottages. I had been married only one month when I inherited six beautiful girls, who were between five and seventeen years of age.
Over the next two years, we started a family, our son John Aaron was born and I finished all the pre-requisites for my nursing degree. Place of Hope then hired my husband and I to work as full time house parents to six teenage boys and with major support from my husband, I gave birth to two more sons (Asher Honor and Isaiah Abel), finally finished my nursing degree and became a registered nurse. (To those who are counting, that was: ONE husband, SIX teenage foster sons plus THREE biological sons to equal NINE men in the house, and only ONE lonely female).
The Lord taught John and I so much about His love for us through being house parents at Place of Hope (POH). There is so much hurt and suffering in this world and too often children have to bear the burden of such pain and sorrow. We learned so much from our kids at POH and will forever be indebted to them and to the Lord for the valuable life lessons we experienced with them. We consider “our kids” an integrated part of our extended family.
In June, John and I resigned as full time house parents and both took on minor roles as relief parents so we could continue to work with our foster children while we concentrate on our growing little family. We moved to an adorable house with a fenced in backyard, a perfect secret lair for our little super hero warriors to explore their super powers. We have always harbored the hope of being able to go back to South Sudan to pursue our dreams of helping to establish rural primary health care centers and incorporating appropriate non mechanized farming techniques into rural agriculture, but unfortunately, Sudan’s affair with peace has been short-lived.
This past July, South Sudan’s dream of becoming a new and separate nation became a reality as they voted for freedom from North Sudan to become the world’s newest country. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the peace talks and geographic location of the Nuba Mountains, the line of demarcation was drawn below the Nubas, essentially cutting the Nubans out of the peace deal and out of South Sudan even though they fought with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) for freedom. At the end of a long and bloody war the Nuba Mountains still remain a part of North Sudan and therefore subject to it’s bloody regime.
In August, I started hearing reports of genocide through Samaritan’s Purse and through a Sudanese friend I have who still lives in Nuba. The Government of Sudan had been bombing and raiding the Nuba Mountains, killing and pillaging this marginalized people group to the point that many Nubans have been forced to flee their homes and walk hundreds of miles to the new South Sudan.
Throughout September and up to the present time my Sudanese friend has been acting as a tour guide to the destruction and has been using his knowledge of the area to harbor Humans Rights Watchdogs as they take note of the human casualties and blatant disregard for the Geneva Convention in order to report these war crimes to the international community. The Nubans have been fleeing to Yida Refugee Camp in the Unity State of the new South Sudan. The Nuban refugee count went from 2,700 in August to 10,000 in September and has now more than doubled to 22,000 as of early November.
As I sit safely in my dining room and write my friend in Sudan, bombs are dropping on him and on the women and children in the various villages. While my children play uninhibited in our secured backyard, many children in the Nuba Mountains are dying from a war they are too young to understand. While I nurse my chubby son, children will starve to death or become too weak to walk the hundreds of miles required, to seek refuge. My husband and I are burdened for the Nubans, a beautiful and hospitable people group who are famous for their wrestling and who love to dance and farm their shambas (gardens). They are a people who will defend their land and families to the death; a people group at risk of annihilation for no reason.
I cry at night when my children are asleep so I don’t burden them with these heavy realities. I need them to feel safe, to grow strong, to become super warriors for God, defenders of justice. I have begged God to let us go to Sudan, to be the hands and feet of Jesus, but He says, “Wait,” so I wait, but I am not silent. I cannot and will not just sit here in safety and do NOTHING while innocent men, women and children die. I can and will pray. “The effectual and fervent prayer of a righteous man (woman) availeth much” James 5:16.
At the advent of the Thanksgiving season, take a moment to reflect on your life and ALL the blessings that you have been given. Blessings that are sometimes hidden beneath school science projects, runny noses, mounds of laundry, crayon wall art and holiday meal preparations. Relish in the noise, the mess, the piled laundry, and the bathtub floods. Take a moment and squeeze your little superheroes and tween princesses and thank God for his grace, His safety and His protection and pray for the safety of the Nuban families as they seek refuge. Remember the marginalized women and children who are at risk in the world and pray for peace.
"May the Lord bless you and keep you: May the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you: May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace." – Numbers 6:24
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