Extended interview

Sudanese Bishop Peter Anibati Abia

May 2017 – In the midst of tribal warfare, famine and church division, the new bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Sudan/Sudan (ELCSS/S) is spreading a message of hope and unity in Jesus Christ.

Read on to learn more about the newly-elected Bishop Peter Anibati Abia and the situation faced by his people in South Sudan.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born on March 14, 1981 in Juba where my parents lived. My father was a soldier. The same year I was born, he was sent to the front line to fight in a town east of Juba called Torit, but he never returned home; he lost his life in the war.

After a month, my mother decided to return with me to Yambio, [where] my mother took me to the Anglican church to be baptized, and I was given the name Peter. In 1999 while I was still in high school, I joined the Evangelical Lutheran church (this was the same year it started in Yambio). From 1999 – 2006, I served the ELCSS/S in different capacities as youth leader, evangelist and first manager of the Lutheran Guest House in Yambio.

In 2007, Bishop Andrew Elisa sent me to South Africa to study theology. I studied in South Africa for seven years and obtained a master’s degree in theology, with specialization in New Testament Studies. I returned to Yambio in 2012 and was ordained in 2013 into the office of the public ministry and was assigned to be pastor in-charge of Yambio Parish and as a teacher at the seminary, as well as coordinator for translation work.

In 2014, I got married to Jecinta Timangi and in 2015 we were blessed with a baby boy by the name Moses Hipaingba. In December 2016, I was elected at an extra ordinary convention to be the bishop of the ELCSS/S.

You were recently installed as bishop of the ELCSS/S. What an awesome task! What have been your first priorities as you have begun your duties? What challenges lie ahead?

My first priorities have been making visits to the different deaneries and congregations of the ELCSS/S, a task I started in early March this year and will continue through the end of May. Through these visits, we intend to revive some of the congregations which collapsed and to plan new congregations in areas where there are no Lutheran congregations.

The other priorities include getting the seminary to start and building an office for the church. Also, pursuing altar and pulpit fellowship with the LCMS is one of my priorities.

The challenges that lie ahead include the following:

• Lack of qualified manpower to take care of the existing congregations and to keep expanding the ELCSS/S. In addition, we have limited financial resources to support pastors into the ministry and also the programs of the church, since many of our congregants cannot support the church financially. Although many would wish to help, they are hindered by poverty caused by the civil wars in the country. Many cannot even provide bread for their own families!
• The insecurity in our country is a big challenge. Many places have become inaccessible and some of our churches have closed down due to the fact that people have run away for safety. For instance, in the Greater Upper Nile, most of our members have run to the refugee camps in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.
• Many of our churches have no buildings. Instead, people worship under trees or in temporary shelters, which during the rainy seasons is not conducive.
• No vehicle for the Office of the Bishop to facilitate my movements, especially when I would like to visit outside congregations.
• Few friends overseas who support the work of the ELCSS/S.

As you begin your tasks as bishop, what are your guiding principles?

These are some of my guiding principles:

• Called to serve not to be served
• God's work done in His way will not lack His supply
• Do more with less
• Accountability and transparency
• Hard work and determination

Tell us about the political situation in South Sudan. We’ve heard about the strife between the Nuer and the Dinka peoples. How does this affect everyday life? How does this affect the congregations and pastors of the ELCSS/S? Is there stress between pastors of differing tribes?

The world’s youngest nation is the Republic of South Sudan. For over 21 years, a deadly civil war has raged before our independence in 2011, and our country is now again heavily involved in one of the worst armed conflicts recorded worldwide, which is resulting in violent deaths among civilians and the military and an increasingly worsening humanitarian situation.

The fresh wave of violence in South Sudan has put many people at risk of severe food insecurity, and the world’s newest country stands on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. Nearly 900,000 people (half of them children) have already been forced from their homes in South Sudan since violence erupted in the capital Juba on Dec. 15, 2013 before spreading to other regions. This fighting broke out in Juba among the Dinka and the Nuer tribes, but many tribes are now involved in the fighting.

This war and insecurity has brought things to standstill. Normal daily life is interrupted because most people are displaced and some areas are deserted. This has affected some of our congregations and pastors negatively because in those areas where people have run away, the churches are not functional. The areas most affected in the Greater Upper Nile Deanery in Malakal. Most of our members who are Nuer are all in Gambela, Ethiopia in the refugee camps.

There seems to be no stress among pastors of differing tribes themselves. The stress is among politicians.

Of course, the lack of food in South Sudan has been in the news here in America. What is the cause of this famine?

The cause of lack of food is the insecurity in South Sudan. South Sudanese people practice subsistence farming to produce food for their families, but as the war is going on, no one can cultivate. People are busy running away. Also in some areas, people's farms have been destroyed, houses burnt and property lost. This has left the people with nothing to eat and no shelter above their heads. Therefore, the famine in South Sudan is man-made, and the only solution is sustainable peace.

Are there many displaced people in your region around Yambio? What about the rest of South Sudan? How is the ELCSS/S ministering to people in need?

Yes, there are many displaced people in Yambio. There are two camps here, and from time to time, the ELCSS/S sends her pastors to minister to these people in the camps. I have visited and prayed with these people several times. Also, we have been able to respond to some of the needs of the displaced people in Yambio when we have twice bought food items and warm clothes to distributed to the people. The ELCSS/S would like to extend this ministry of helping the displaced people to other parts of South Sudan, Malakal, Wau, Juba, Magwi, Yida where the people are living in camps.

How can Americans help our Sudanese brothers and sisters in Christ?

I am appealing to the LCMS disaster response to intervene and support the efforts of the ELCSS/S in reaching out to these people. The people of South Sudan need very much the support of the American people, in terms of life saving-relief. Above all, the Christian brothers and sisters in the United States should continue praying for South Sudan and especially for peace to return to the country.

Click here to learn more about the ELCSS/S and Bishop Abia's goals for the church.
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