New Life and Death: On the Refugee Rollercoaster

Hotel cleaning lady in Entebbe. On my arrival, I was

badly jet-lagged. She came to me, “Bwana, your shirt is on backwards.”

This is after I changed it correctly. I thanked her


New Life and Death: On the Refugee Camp Rollercoaster


Sometimes I write because I want to.

Other times, it’s because I have to.


Today is probably a split decision on the two.


I had a dream come true today.

I went to church at Rhino Camp.

Rhino is a secluded refugee camp housing a quarter million South Sudanese refugees.

Let me emphasize that number: 250,000 souls.


My wife, DeDe, and I had visited Rhino Camp, which supposedly got its name when Teddy Roosevelt bagged a rhinoceros there on one of his famous safari trips, several times in 2014 and 15. It was a small camp of several thousand, most Nuer tribe refugees, who’d fled the war in South Sudanese.  We’d had a dream to see local pastors plant churches among these needy people, but it was not to be on our watch.


Then, yesterday I attended Ocea Baptist Church, a vibrant congregation comprised of forty adults and thirty precocious children. The service, a combination of English and Arabic, was simply wonderful. Joyous singing, heartfelt testimonies, two offerings, and several sermons. I only wished DeDe was beside me to witness a mud-walled, thatched church of forty adults, including many of them men.


Ocea Church is comprised of various tribes across the South Sudanese spectrum, but I was most thrilled that much of the congregation are Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) from Darfur and the Nuba Mountains, both areas of the Republic of Sudan.


The long service drew to a close and our group, led by missionaries Jeremy and Susan Taliaferro, retired to the shade of a mango tree, awaiting our obligatory tea and snack. It’s part of the culture and it involves a long time of sitting awaiting their show of guest hospitality.


It was at that moment when our entire day changed. We were needed at the nearby hospital where a small boy had died. Jeremy and I loaded in his Toyota truck and with a bed full of church members, traveled the 2 km to the hospital.


The young two-year-old boy had arrived in Rhino Camp only two days ago. Whatever his illness, coupled with the harsh travel refugees face, it had taken his life.  The nurses tenderly removed a covering sheet, revealing the small shroud-wrapped child’s body.


It simply broke my heart. I’ve seen death up close, but the sight of this shrouded child brought out emotions I cannot fully describe. Sympathy for the mother who had recently lost her husband and buried another son. Her remaining two daughters stood wailing beside their brother’s body. The mother, a look of shock on her face, stood stoically beside them.

Another emotion flooded me. Anger. Anger at war. Just as sure as a bullet or land mine, the South Sudanese Civil War had claimed another victim.


The body of the boy was placed on a stretcher and carried by the young men of our church to the grave site in the corner of a weed-filled field. He was placed beside a child-sized open grave.

A host of Dinka women accompanied the mother, all dressed in the colorful dresses and head scarves that identify their tribe. They began softly singing what I will always call the burial song. Jeremy commented that with this family’s recent arrival, these women weren’t close friends. They’d simply come to comfort.  I wondered how many of them had also buried a child in some foreign field, hundreds of miles from their homeland.


An Anglican pastor preached a wonderful sermon. He used the Biblical story of the widow Naomi, a refugee from famine-stricken Israel, who incurs great sorrow in burying two sons of her own. When she finally returns to her homeland, her faithful but barren daughter-in-law, Ruth, insists on staying with her, speaking the memorable sentence, “Wherever thou goest, I will go . . .” that has been a part of dozens of weddings I’ve attended in America.


But today is not a wedding. It’s a burial.


The pastor tenderly reminds us all that God brought good out of Naomi’s and Ruth’s tragic life. “Ruth marries a man named Boaz, and she is the great-grandmother of the future King David,”  he says. “Most importantly, Ruth is also a direct ancestor of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”


South Sudanese are fastidious in tracing their lineage back for generations, so the Pastor’s words resonate with the crowd around the grave.


Pastor motions toward the small grave. “We Sudanese have had so much sorrow, but like Ruth, God can bring good from even our tragedies and troubles.” He points to the grieving mother. “This family each had a faith in Jesus. Mother, you must believe you’ll see them again. In the meantime, like Naomi and Ruth, you must go on.”


Next, the most touching part of this event Jeremy and I are witnessing occurs. The pastor and Ocea church’s pastor, Brother Mula, take off their shoes and lower themselves into the grave. The shrouded body is tenderly passed to them as the mother quietly stands at the head of the grave.


The two pastors begin a careful ritual of covering the body, first with sticks, then mud, and finally the young men of our church, began shoveling the dirt until the grave is mounded. They carefully tamp down the top of the mound with the backs of their shovels and drive two sticks into the ground at the head of the grave.


When Pastor Mula climbs out of the grave, his blue dress shirt is sweat-soaked and sticks to his body. His hands, legs, and feet are mud-covered. But today, they’ve been the very hands and feet of Jesus. I’ve never seen a more visual representation of the ministry of Jesus. When you’ve done it unto the least of these . . .


Meanwhile, the women are singing softly. I don’t understand but one word in their Arabic/ Dinka songs: Jesus.  I observe the mother, quietly mouthing the words of the songs, as she stands as a sentinel over her son’s grave. I sense that her faith in that name, Jesus, will get her through this time.


She picks up several nearby stones and places them on the grave. Tomorrow, she and her daughters will move to another camp about thirty miles away. I wonder when, even if ever, she’ll ever return to this site. The stones are her way of leaving some permanence in the corner of this field. A sacred place to her until the day she is herself buried.


I recall the words of Revelation where Jesus promises to “wipe away every tear” and “make all things right.”  Lord, there are a lot of tears to wipe and a whole slew of things to make right due to this senseless, selfish war in South Sudan.


Looking around the African crowd, I wonder why Jeremy and I were needed here. Jeremy, wisely spoke a few words of comfort during the service. I simply stood there like a log, my Astros cap in my hand, feeling my bald head searing in the Equatorial sun. I guess we were sent there as witnesses.


Witnesses of a Sudanese mother I’ll always know as Ruth burying her son, whose name I’ll never know. I’ll call him Obed.


In some ways, I wish you could’ve been there today—the joys of a vibrant new church coupled with the spectral shadow of death that travels with any civil war that rips apart the fabric of a nation. You’d never look at that word refugee the same again.


Yes, in some ways, I do wish you could have been with us today at Ocea Zone 4 in the sprawling Rhino Refugee Camp in West Nile District, Uganda.


But I’m glad you weren’t. It was too traumatic. I cannot get the images from my mind.


I returned to our lodging with a weariness and fatigue that doesn’t come from physical exertion, but the tiredness that comes from having your heart and emotions twisted tightly and wrung out in the matter of a few hours.


I recall the words of another sufferer, a man named Job:

“The Lord giveth.

The Lord taketh away.

Blessed be the name of the Lord.”


Yes, blessed be the name of the Lord.

Even so, come Lord Jesus.

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