This past fall I interned with Refuge and Hope (RH), a non-profit directed by Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel, who assist refugees living in East Africa. During my four-and-a-half months of service, I mainly taught English as a Second Language at their community center in Kampala, Uganda. In addition to meeting basic needs within the community, RH also seeks to empower refugees to be leaders of change within their communities by holding conferences throughout the year.

As an RH intern in Uganda, I had the humble privilege of leading a leadership conference for a group of female Bari Sudanese pastors who live in Kampala. These women are between the ages of 20-55. Some have been life-long refugees; others have lived in Kampala for only a few years. All the women have experienced enormous hardships. Although there is currently a ceasefire, Southern Sudan has experienced war off and on since the mid 1950s. Since independence was achieved from Great Britain, the north has dominated the south, and the south has been subjected to one dictator after the other. Only recently through a referendum have the Southern Sudanese been able to express their democratic voice and demand to be separated from the north.

The direct result of decades of war and oppression has been the destruction of villages, rapes, murders, enlistment of child soldiers, and a flourishing slave trade. As an American, these circumstances are difficult to fathom. I could not comprehend what it is like, simply because of skin color, to be called abed (Arabic for slave) by government officials and fellow citizens. I could not understand what it must feel like to see Muraleen soldiers on horseback storm into villages, burn down houses, and kill my parents. I could not imagine walking for hundreds of miles to Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons camps. I could not fathom what it would be like to go for days without adequate food, water, or shelter, wondering if I could make it through the night.

These are the realities that many of these female pastors face. Some had also experienced sexual assault, domestic violence, and abandonment by their spouse. Although these realities are overwhelming, the pastors take comfort in knowing that they serve a God who is bigger than injustice or oppression. They worship a God who is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.” (Psalm 46:1).  This dependency on God is evident day in and out of their lives. Members of the church meet several times a week to pray, fast, fellowship, study, and worship together. Their hope is also evident, most significantly in the way in which they worship God. They praise God with their entire body as they jump up and down, clapping their hands. They make a joyful noise at the top of their lungs as they boldly sing praises to God.

On the day of the conference, I had the opportunity to preach a message of transformation and empowerment based on the text of John 4. After the sermon, we had discussions about what it means to be loved and empowered by God. The women spoke of the things that hold them back from experiencing God’s love and transformation. This conversation provided an opportunity to build intimacy and accountability within their community.

We also discussed what it means to love and serve others within their community, specifically persons from different ethnic groups. In Southern Sudan, there are tribal divisions, which are further compounded by differences in appearance, language, and religion. These divisions have been historically re-enforced by political, economic, and social circumstances. The women pastors talked about what these divisions mean as well as the importance of loving those who are different. Although not everyone’s mind was changed by the end of the conference, seeds of reconciliation were planted.

The opportunity to lead this conference was a life changing experience for me. Through discussions and preparation for the day, my heart became more broken for the circumstances that these pastors and millions of other Sudanese face. Through worshipping together, I learned how to jump and sing more boldly than I had before.  Through preaching, I gained a deeper understanding of Christ’s love. And through discussions, I was profoundly humbled and inspired as I ministered and was ministered to by this group of strong, bold and faithful pastors.

Missy Ward is a student at McAfee School of Theology, Atlanta, Georgia.