“Every bad situation does come to an end. God settles everything.”
Originally posted at: https://www.ugandapartners.org/2016/11/every-bad-situation-does-come-to-an-end-god-settles-everything/
Reverend Santino Jok Mijak
By Sarah Lagot Odwong
On a very hot August afternoon in Kampala, I made my way through the dusty, over crowded streets. Wheel barrow pushers, taxi touts, passengers and traders all clamored for space on the very narrow roads. Anxious, I picked up my phone to call Reverend Santino Jok Mijak. He is new to the Kampala area and did not know his way around. After a half hour of getting lost between derelict buildings in the Arua Park area, he finally figured out my hastily mumbled directions and got to the petrol station where I was. We decided to enter a nearby restaurant, where we could at least have a conversation away from the din of passers-by voices. Finally settling down, we ordered for cold soft drinks. Reverend Santino started to engage in light-hearted banter. Then, only then, did the persona of this amiable clergyman start to unravel.
Santino was born to Mijak Alor and Awut Deng, South Sudanese nationals’ resident in the Abyei region in 1969. Abyei is an oil rich territory that is contested by both Sudan and South Sudan. As one of 11 children, he spent most of his childhood as a herds-boy, tending to sheep, goats and cattle. His father, a prominent pastoralist in Abyei, owned very many heads of cattle. Because owning large numbers of animals is considered a sign of wealth in the Dinka culture, Santino’s father was revered in the village. Santino and his siblings reveled in this fact. However, when he turned 10 years old, his elder brother who was living and working in the capital, Khartoum, decided that Santino should get an education. Convinced that this was a good idea, in 1979, his father sent him off to live with his brother. Santino went to school in Khartoum until he completed his Sudan Certificate of Education examinations. During his stay in the capital, he was an enthusiastic young man who was greatly involved in the activities of the Episcopal Church. The church leadership was moved by his desire to minister to marginalized groups. They took a keen interest in him and decided to enroll him in Bishop Gwynne Theological School. In 1993, he started his certificate and diploma studies in Divinity at the institution.
At the onset of his studies, the political landscape in Sudan changed drastically and heralded one of many civil wars that have since ravaged the country for decades. In 1993, militias came from the North (what is now referred to as the country of Sudan) bringing with them a reign of terror. They looted homes, destroyed houses, plundered livestock and killed hundreds of people in their wake. Santino’s father was not spared the destruction. He lost all the livestock he owned, the family home was destroyed and the entire family, along with hundreds of other residents of Abyei region, were moved to an Internally Displaced People’s camp in Khartoum. Life was never the same again. Surviving on handouts, the family was stretched thin. They did not have proper shelter and they faced hunger and starvation, poor sanitary facilities and other untold suffering along with many other refugees. Due to these difficulties, some of Santino’s sisters were married off early. With fewer mouths to feed, the family hoped to alleviate the situation. Santino temporarily dropped out of school during his time as a refugee. When the political situation calmed down, he returned to school and completed his training at Bishop Gwynne Theological School in 1996. He was rigorously taken through evangelism training, as there was a dire need to spread the gospel in the greater Sudan area. Upon completing his education, Santino returned to Khartoum to reunite with his displaced family. Unfortunately, he could not find work for a long time after finishing school. Eventually, he got a breakthrough.
New Life Ministry, a Christian organization based in Khartoum focusing on missions, took him on and trained him for two years in “Critical Mission” ministry. They equipped him with skills to be a missionary in difficult situations. After his training, Santino was deployed to Darfur, Western Sudan by New Life Ministry as a missionary.
The United Nations describes the situation in Sudan’s western Darfur region as one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. More than 2.3 million people have been displaced, most of them living in squalid camps in Darfur and neighboring Chad. The Trust Organization has reported that peacekeepers and aid workers have restricted access to those in need. The conflict flared in 2003 when rebels in Darfur took up arms, accusing the government of neglecting the region. The government responded with a counter-insurgency campaign.
Since then, civilians have come under attack from government troops, pro-government militia and rebel groups. Arab militias are also fighting each other, and there are frequent clashes between tribes. Levels of violence fell after 2005, but have risen since the start of 2013.
As a missionary in war-torn Darfur, Santino was responsible for evangelism, teaching, ministering to the sick, encouraging refugees and praying for the broken, wounded and hurt. He lived in the Internally Displaced People’s camps with the other refugees. From 2003-2006, he brought new converts to Christ; training them to live their lives as new Christians and distributing Bibles to them and neighboring communities to grow the ministry. This work was not without its downsides. Darfur is a predominantly Muslim region. The populace was not receptive to the work of missionaries like Santino. The Christian ministers riled them up. More often than not, Santino, his fellow missionaries, and the new converts were left shaken by death threats meted by Muslim leaders who did not want their communities converted to Christianity. Santino’s life was in danger.
He was constantly followed and he often received verbal death threats, insults and constant abuse. However, this did not break his resolve. He felt the call of God stronger on his life. He and the other missionaries decided to devise new ways to do their work clandestinely. They covertly trained converted refugees while hiding and they started issuing out smaller Bibles instead of the larger size volumes so that they could not be easily detected by the vigilante Muslim militia.
Even though he was constantly faced with the possibility of death and loathed as a Christian minister in a vengeful Muslim community, Santino carried on with his work diligently. Over the course of 4 years in Darfur, Santino’s faithful service yielded much fruit. About 35 Muslims received Christ and in total, over 2000 new Christians were brought into the faith. Several satellite churches were also started in the areas of Nyala, Adela, Farados and El Dain.
In 2007, due to an overwhelming need to reach communities in the Abyei region, New Life Ministry transferred Santino to Abyei. At the time, Abyei had one functioning Episcopal Church. During his tenure, Santino established supporting satellite churches in places such as Moker, Noong, Doldel, Todaj, Rumar-Ajak, Agany Tok, Wunrok, Pamun, Miokal, Awolnom, and Mading Acueng. He also trained leaders to support the main church in Abyei town.
When Santino moved back to his home town Abyei, he tried to settle in as much as possible. He hoped that life would get back to normal. At that time, there was a cessation of hostilities between the different militia groups marauding the country. With this glimmer of hope, he constructed a house in Abyei town and dove headlong into his ministry. However within months, this façade of peace had worn off. Fighting broke out again in 2008. Santino’s house was razed to the ground, people were displaced again and the satellite churches he built were destroyed. When relative calm returned in 2009, he went back to Abyei and rebuilt the churches. Unfortunately, war broke out once more in 2011 and Santino was displaced again. He found refuge in Agok, an area South of Abyei. He continued preaching in this refugee tenement. Agok also had an existing church that Santino and other refugees from Abyei readily joined.
In 2013, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan and the South Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) restored some semblance of peace to Abyei. They then reached out to civilians who had found refuge in Agok to return to their homes. Santino and several other refugees decided to pack their bags and return home- except home was no longer home. Without a proper place of abode, Santino moved into the parsonage in Abyei town. The church itself was run down during the war. Santino and other members of the congregation rebuilt a makeshift structure in its place.
In this new place, he prayed with people, often encouraging them to come for Bible study. He also instituted fellowships for the youth, children and Mothers’ Union. He encouraged the Christians under his jurisdiction to form groups in their villages for accountability. From 2013-2014, Santino was heavily involved in rebuilding and evangelism work in his community.
In 2014, through the recommendation of his supervisor, Bishop Abraha Yel Nhial of Awiel and Abyei diocese, Santino was awarded a scholarship to Uganda Christian University. He is currently a student at Bishop Barham University College, Kabale, one of the constituent campuses of Uganda Christian University. Santino will be graduating with a Bachelor of Theology and Divinity degree in October 2017.
Santino notes that the past three years at Uganda Christian University have greatly enriched his life. He has acquired more knowledge for his pastoral work, made friends with classmates and local communities and networked with new people from other East African countries like Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. He has also immersed himself in new cultural experiences that have made him more culturally tolerant and accepting. Santino’s recess terms have been spent in internship placements. During his first year, he had his pastoral placement at Makanga Hospital in Kabale where he visited the sick and prayed for them. In his second and third year, he was placed at Kigezi High School and Kicungiri High Deaconry. In these roles, he led prayers, conducted Holy Communion, preached, prayed for the sick, blessed children, and led thanksgiving prayers.
He cannot wait to get back to Abyei town after completing his education to continue with his pastoral work. He now feels more equipped to face the challenges of ministry heads-on in a war torn area.
In spite of Santino’s zeal to serve God, his path has been littered with numerous challenges. Some of his siblings are not supportive of his work. They cannot understand why he has decided to choose a life of “poverty.” The churches in Abyei were also destroyed in the civil wars of 2008 and 2011. Reconstruction efforts have been slow. This gives Santino sleepless nights. He also laments that due to Abyei’s geographical distance from other parts of South Sudan and Sudan, it is very hard for resources like Bibles and other literature to be availed to his congregation. It also makes it almost impossible for other preachers from other countries to make their way to Abyei. Santino is heartbroken that after the churches in Abyei were destroyed during the 2008-2011 war, people were displaced and had no places from where they could learn about Christian life. Many turned back to idolatry and satanic worship. Christian books and Bibles were burned by the villagers. Witch doctors transferred their shrine from Ajakthony back to Abyei town, which essentially was the seat of Christianity in the region. Santino also mourns the fact that there are few pastors to carry out the pastoral work in Abyei and yet the need for their services is so great. This, he feels, greatly exhausts the few who are in the ministry field.
Reverend Santino Jok Mijak has had many strikes against him in his life and Christian ministry. However, his charisma and positive vibe is infectious. It hides any traces of the suffering he has endured.
With his parents both deceased now, Santino has taken on the responsibility of looking after his four younger siblings. Three are in school and one has dropped out because Santino cannot afford to pay his tuition. He still remains hopeful though that he will be able to complete school someday.
Santino harbors many dreams. He hopes to start a family in the near future. He is engaged to Kai Deng Chol. He is not able to walk her down the aisle officially because he has not yet completed his dowry obligations. Like it is with many African cultural traditions, Kai’s family asked Santino to pay 30 heads of cattle for his fiancée’s hand in marriage. He has so far paid 15 cows. He is saving up slowly to clear the balance of 15 cows. Santino playfully remarked that he cannot wait to pay the remaining cows and wed the love of his life.
Santino also hopes to continue with his education. He envisions himself pursuing a Master’s degree in Divinity if he got a scholarship. For now, he is eager to get back to Abyei Diocese to continue with his pastoral work. He is hungry to teach his people basic Christian values and principles like compassion and mercy, concern for integrity and justice and commitment to service for the benefit of others. He also hopes to organize missions, conferences and conventions especially for youth and children. Santino’s great desire is to drive idolatry out of Abyei. He hopes to achieve this by revising church activities in Abyei town, conducting retreats, Bible study and personal evangelism in the township and surrounding areas.
Reverend Santino Jok Mijak would like to leave a legacy as a preacher with a heart for people, a refugee who surmounted obstacles and an ardent follower of Christ. Civil war still rears its ugly head in South Sudan. Over 1000 people have lost their lives in the fighting this year alone. Santino returns to the thick of it as he goes back to Abyei this fall in his recess term to do field work for his final year dissertation. He is not fazed by it all though.
In his words: “Every bad situation does come to an end. God settles everything. I feel the call and hand of God strongly on my life and in my ministry. There will be challenges, but his grace is sufficient. I will overcome.”
Astute words from one who has weathered so many storms in life! Reverend Santino Jok Mijak’s journey is a reminder that faith can carry us through the toughest situations, the roughest seas and the deepest valleys.