OPC Committee on Diaconal Ministries

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At Last, a Visit to South Sudan

by David Nakhla, CDM Administrator

This spring, after some years of waiting, the OPC was able to visit members of a sister denomination in South Sudan: the Sudanese Reformed Church. Their country has been riddled with violence. In 2011, following years of conflict with the northern part of Sudan, whose people are mainly Sudanese Arab and predominantly Muslim, the African and predominantly Christian people of the southern part of Sudan voted overwhelmingly in support of independence, officially becoming the Republic of South Sudan.

But less than three years later, South Sudan entered its own civil war, this time mostly along tribal lines—the Dinka versus the Nuer. Because the president and the government were mostly Dinka, the Nuer were under threat of massacre. Millions sought asylum in the neighboring countries of Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan, while many others hid under the shelter of United Nations peacekeepers who placed these Internally Displaced People (IDPs) into camps sprinkled throughout South Sudan.

Among those taking shelter in the IDP camps were members of the Sudanese Reformed Church (SRC).

The SRC, which started in Khartoum in 1992, is a Reformed denomination that, in 2013, was welcomed into the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC), of which the OPC is also a member. The SRC holds to the Reformed doctrinal statements known as the Three Forms of Unity.

In 2014, the Sudanese Reformed Church submitted a request to the ICRC’s diaconal committee that ICRC member churches be encouraged to contribute to their ministry of mercy in the IDP camps. Many SRC members are displaced: as of 2017, the denomination had six thousand members with only sixteen congregations but eighteen groups within IDP camps.

The Challenges of Providing Diaconal Assistance

When the request came in 2014, the SRC was not well known to our denomination. It had been a member of ICRC for only a little over a year. Providing diaconal assistance to those of whom we know very little, particularly where the language, culture, and customs are so different from ours, is quite challenging. There are huge knowledge gaps. Large sums of money going to places where money is scarce has the potential to do damage, even in the best of circumstances—it is well-documented that foreign assistance to Africa has done a great deal of harm. We are always asking the question: How do we help without hurting?

To make it more difficult, the SRC’s 2014 request came to a newly minted diaconal committee that was just trying to figure out which way was up. The ICRC had established and elected it only one year earlier, in 2013. This committee of five (of which I am one) represented four different continents and had almost no connection prior to serving together.

We on the OPC’s Committee on Diaconal Ministries (CDM) always seek to minister mercy where there is also the opportunity to pair the ministry of mercy with the ministry of the Word. Many of the places in the world where diaconal assistance is sent are places where the OPC has a relationship via its Committee on Foreign Missions or its Committee on Ecumenicity and Church Relations. Neither of these were established with the SRC when their request came in 2014.

When evaluating requests, we also endeavor to gauge the ability of the requesting organization to properly oversee the administration of the diaconal ministry. Will the requestor actually be able to carry out the ministry that it is proposing? Will it succeed in purchasing and distributing the food or supplies that it intends to purchase?

We knew an in-person visit would help to answer these important questions. But in 2014, a visit to South Sudan seemed neither practical nor possible.

While it can be heartbreaking to come to such a conclusion, saying no to a request requires that we trust the Lord to provide for his children by another means he has determined. We also trusted that, if it was his will, the Lord would provide an opportunity to come alongside these brothers and sisters.

After 2014, our relationship with the SRC began to grow. The Reverend Patrick Jok attended the General Conference of the ICRC in Ontario, Canada, in 2017, and then he attended a missions meeting of the ICRC in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, in 2018. Since those meetings, when he got to know the OPC better, and we grew in our appreciation for him, it has been my prayer that I might be able to visit South Sudan on behalf of the CDM.

In God’s providence, I was finally able to make that visit in March 2021!

A Visit to South Sudan

South Sudan is located just north of Uganda. It’s a rugged country with very little infrastructure outside its major cities. The only paved highway in South Sudan runs from its capital city of Juba, over Juba’s only bridge across the White Nile (which splits the city), and south to the Ugandan border. It then continues through Uganda and Kenya to the seaport city of Mombasa, Kenya, on the Indian Ocean. This is the land route by which most supplies are trucked into Juba.

It just so happens that Mbale, Uganda, is along this road. On the edge of Mbale lies the Knox School of Theology, established by the OP Uganda Mission as a place to train up indigenous ministers. Charles Jackson, OP missionary evangelist to Uganda and headmaster at Knox, wants to see the school used by other Reformed churches in the neighboring countries in East Africa. Jackson recently hired one of his top students, a South Sudanese man named Okuch Ojullo, to serve as a teacher at Knox. Together, they devised a plan to visit South Sudan to explore the possibility of South Sudanese candidates for ministry traveling the Juba-Mombasa highway to come study at Knox.

Knowing of the longtime interest of the CDM to visit South Sudan firsthand and assess the needs of its internally displaced people, Jackson invited me to join their team. In God’s providence, the timing worked out perfectly. OP missionary James Folkerts, who has previous experience ministering to both the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups, also joined.

Currently, South Sudan is considered a dangerous place by the US State Department, and Americans are discouraged from traveling there due to “crime, kidnapping, and armed conflict.” We learned that most of the danger is during nighttime hours. So, like the locals, we were careful not to travel after 5 p.m. We were encouraged to remain behind the safety of the gate and walls of the camp in which we stayed, on the bank of the White Nile River. During our visit, we never felt threatened in any way when out and about in Juba during daytime hours.

Believers of Bethel Sudanese Reformed Church

To reach Bethel Sudanese Reformed Church, which Patrick Jok serves as pastor, we headed to the outskirts of town and down a dusty dirt road. From the outside, there is not much to see beyond a cheap, simply constructed building of wooden poles and tin sheets. But inside, the worship is vibrant, and love exudes from God’s people. Anticipating our arrival, the ladies of the church put together a feast fit for a wedding. They presented us with an incredible spread and treated us as honored guests. They even gave each of us a gift, a handcrafted necklace with a cross attached.

We were encouraged to learn that, despite the strong ethnic division in the country, Bethel SRC has twenty-one different tribes represented in its small congregation. What a beautiful picture of the type of reconciliation the gospel can bring!

We were also blessed to visit one of the two IDP camps located on the outskirts of Juba. At its entrance, we were warmly welcomed by believers of the Nuer tribe (easily identified by the tribal scarring on their foreheads) with whom we sang, prayed, and fellowshiped in their tarp-covered, makeshift church building.

We then snaked through the helter-skelter array of temporary structures to the place one church member has called home for the last eight years. The trails between the tents are so tight that one has to step aside to let another pass. It felt like we were rats in a maze. Having seen the dirty latrines located on the uphill side of the camp and observed the overflow “riverbed” that ran through the middle of the camp, we were particularly disturbed to find ourselves stepping down into the homes of each member, trying not to picture what this scene must look like when the rainy season comes. It is no wonder that these camps, hastily assembled, are ripe for sickness and disease.

And yet, the church members were eager to bring us into their homes and to show us, among their few possessions, their children’s school books that they have used to keep their education going during this period of waiting. (Forty-six percent of South Sudan’s population is under fourteen years old, but schools are scarce.)

When we entered the home of one member of the church, he said to us through a translator: “Welcome, this is your house. Today you are now family. What you do is more than [give] money, because if you see someone, it is better. See the children? They want to see you. ‘Where do these men come from?’ they ask. We tell them, ‘They come from Jesus Christ.’”

This man then told us that, thanks to the generous contributions of a sponsor, his son is currently studying at Mukhanyo Theological College in South Africa and that they look forward to when he might return and serve the church in South Sudan. This was one means of hope for the future, as they and most of their tribe wait for peace.

Another man, an elder in the congregation, shared this with us: “We have been displaced from our original homes. Life is very hard here, but the good thing is that Jesus Christ is with us. All the things of this earth will finish, but Christ will never finish. We have been living here for the last eight years. When it rains, we have hard times. These plastic sheets leak. We have water from above and also from the flooding of the area. But we are thankful for God. It is not my problem alone. Everyone in this camp is affected, especially when there is rain. Please, what we want to request from you is prayer that we have peace in South Sudan.”

Prayer for Our Brothers and Sisters in South Sudan

Will you join me in committing to pray for peace in South Sudan, for the sake of our brothers and sisters there?

And, I am happy to report that, having visited and gained confidence in the ministry carried out on the ground, the CDM, with the concurrence of the Committee on Foreign Missions, has made an initial gift from its Refugee Relief Fund to the Sudanese Reformed Church for the benefit of those suffering in the IDP camps in South Sudan. We pray for increased fellowship and ministry between the OPC and SRC in the years ahead. 

The author is administrator for the Committee on Diaconal Ministries. New Horizons, July 2021.


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Lemonade From Lemons: Continuing the Conversation 2021

by Scott Pearce, Church of the Covenant, Hackettstown, NJ

On Saturday, June 12, at the approximate time of what would have been the closing program of the OPC’s Committee on Diaconal Ministry’s fourth Diaconal Summit in Chicago, a hundred deacons from across the denomination instead gathered for instruction, encouragement, and networking…in a massive Zoom meeting!

Call it another lemonade-from-lemons moment associated with COVID-19. Call it another case of the heart of men planning a way, but the Lord directing the steps. Chalk up another “instead,” another “alternate arrangement,” another “in light of present circumstances…” after more than 15 months of cancellations, delays, and postponements. And yet, with COVID-19 seemingly fading into our collective rear-view, we might each actually come to refer to the 2021 diaconal summit as the last important event on our calendar that was significantly altered by COVID-19 (even so, let it be!).

If the 2021 diaconal summit was significantly altered in form, venue, and execution (and it was), be assured that it was not lacking in substance, intimacy, or a sense of brotherhood. This was not your monthly corporate management meeting with that one co-worker oblivious to his dog’s incessant barking. This was not your granddaughter across the country trying to show you her new bicycle but really only inadvertently showing you her nostrils and chin. The resounding testimony of this particular participant was that the 2021 diaconal summit was a great success and a blessing to those able to join in that sweet 90 minutes of conversation.

To be sure, there was a lot condensed into our 90 minutes together on that Saturday! To welcome us, David Nakhla played virtual host while we all configured our Zoom settings and looked to see who we might recognize on one of the other pages of video boxes. David greeted so many of us by name—and not just because we were “wearing a name tag,” so to speak. This is a brother who is personally familiar with the diaconate of our denomination, and it shows in many ways.

Retired Army chaplain and current CDM member Rev. Rick Dickinson opened the meeting with a brief devotional from John 16:32-33. He encouraged us with the words of Him who has overcome the world and challenged us to “learn and remember that the best opportunities to glorify and enjoy God will occur through circumstances we never would have chosen for ourselves.” There are many of us who perhaps knew firsthand the wisdom of that aphorism in the pre-COVID era, but Rev. Dickinson’s words certainly spoke to each of us who have deaconed in and after the COVID era.

A subsequent message from Rev. Nathan Trice was presented in order to prompt us to consider and reflect on three of the main challenges with which seemingly every church and every diaconate was faced in 2020 and early 2021. First, how can a deacon/diaconate help a congregation keep the needs of body and soul in balance? Second, what role(s) does a diaconate play in trying to maintain (or restore) peace and unity in the face of disagreement between brothers? Finally, how can deacons best serve disaffected or contentious people in a congregation? Rev. Trice’s warm and personable testimonies of his own congregation’s struggles and successes were woven through his message and helped “prime the pump” in advance of the keynote portion of our time together.

Through means and methods known only to unseen engineers in the far recesses of virtual lands where people know what things like VDI stand for and how The Cloud (so called) works, we 100 or so deacons on 85 or so independent devices were placed—suddenly and seamlessly!—into discussion groups of 10 to 12. And this, brothers, was where the blessings and upbuilding of the participating deacons was most powerfully and palpably manifest.

Once in our virtual discussion rooms, the event became personal. It shrunk from lecture hall to workshop. It changed from the feeling of sharing an auditorium to sharing seats around a table. The crown jewel of the 2021 virtual summit was the time spent in the discussion group with a group of nine or 10 other deacons from across the country.

There, in three rows of tiled screens, were the faces of fellow front-line workers. There, in ages and voices and experience as varied as Joseph’s coat, were the brothers who had labored in the same ways, struggled against the same challenges, and wrestled with the same uncertainties and anxieties that had faced all our own diaconates. In the discussion group setting was an immediate and intimate sense of camaraderie and encouragement.

We talked about what worked. We talked about what plans went askew. We remembered “back in the early days” and we shared what our congregations were doing to transition back to “normal.” Perhaps most simply (and most profoundly), we talked with brothers who knew what this year had been like for the deacons of Christ’s church. We were each men who had ministered and served in a year like no other. We were men who had executed our session’s unprecedented and ever-changing policies. We were men who were often conflicted and confused ourselves yet couldn’t relinquish the high call of the office at a time such as this. For a heartening half hour, we felt a sense of solidarity and we, I have no doubt, each felt much less alone.

I think that even those of us who couldn’t get in front of a laptop on June 12 can express great thanks to the organizing committee for their work in planning, preparation, and execution. That there was even a next-best-thing option presented to the OPC diaconate is a testimony to the love and dedication that flows from the Committee on Diaconal Ministries on a seemingly perpetual basis. There is a veritable graveyard of businesses, schools, clubs, and non-profits that have folded under the restrictions and volatility of this past year, and the CDM could have folded their hands on the summit in likewise fashion. Instead, we deacons are exceedingly grateful for the invitation and the virtual venue that was presented to us this year.

We would also be remiss if we did not express how well their plans were executed by the team behind the scenes. Trish Duggan’s reminders and instructive emails elevated even the most technologically-challenged of us to competent Zoomers. Mark Stumpff’s unseen hand rivaled only perhaps Gandalf the Grey’s for sheer wizardry and technical precision. That one hundred participants, a dozen breakout rooms, a pre-recorded keynote speaker, and four time zones peacefully co-existed and interacted for a full 90 minutes is a great testament to the Lord’s blessing on the event and to Mark’s great skill.

If you are anything like me, perhaps you have (with a heart full of mixed and conflicted emotions) been uttering some version of the declaration, “Well, I hope that was my last Zoom meeting!” every month since October 2020. How great a loss I would have suffered if those temporal desires of my heart had been fulfilled and I had somehow not participated in the 2021 “Continuing the Conversation” virtual summit! I take no liberties to state that the virtual summit was a great encouragement to each man who participated. May we each carry a torch of refreshment and renewed zeal back to our own diaconates as we each transition back to the “normal” labors of Christ’s kingdom in the months ahead.


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Refugee Ministry Part 1: Is it Safe for Christians to Refuse to Welcome the Stranger?

by Rev. Chris Cashen
Pastor, Trinity Reformed Church in Lanham, Maryland and
Chairman of the Refugee Ministry Subcommittee

A little over two weeks ago, on May 3, 2021, President Biden raised the 2021 cap on refugee resettlements in the United States fourfold: from 15,000 to 62,500. As he did so, the president stated that the previous limit “did not reflect America’s values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees.” In the same statement, President Biden indicated that he would set the refugee admission cap at 125,000 for the 2022 fiscal year, which begins this year on October 1st. Shortly after President Biden’s statements, Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State, declared that “It is in our DNA as a nation to open our door to those seeking refuge[1] . . .”

What does this mean? Who are these refugees? And how are we to respond? All good questions which require thoughtful answers.

Each year, the president sets a limit on the number of refugees allowed to resettle in this country. This means that the Executive has determined, for planning and budgeting purposes, that the United States will agree to grant permission (or immigration status) for that number of “refugees” to enter the country legally. It does not necessarily mean that the entire number will actually enter the US. But it gives the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), those folks who are involved in refugee resettlement in this country, the ability to plan, budget and prepare. This is a bit like creating an annual budget for your local church. You plan, or budget, to spend a certain amount on electrical service, but if the summer is not too hot, you may not spend all the budgeted amount. It is the same with the refugee admissions cap. The country has agreed to allow up to 62,500 refugees to enter, but it may not (and probably will not) receive that number as there are many factors which enter into resettling a person or family from a foreign country.

Who are these refugees? There is a legal definition of “refugee” which is helpful to know. In 1951, the United Nations resolved to adopt the following definition of a “refugee” as any person who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” That is the short version. In plain English, a “refugee” is a person who, because of his race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion, has been persecuted or is reasonably fearful of being persecuted; has left his home country (crossed a border), and is afraid to return home because he thinks that there will be no safety or peace for him there (that is, his homeland government won’t or can’t protect him). That definition is somewhat sterile.

The UNHCR website is currently reporting that there are 45,449 refugees from the Tigray region in Ethiopia who have fled the violence and fighting and entered a neighboring country: Sudan.  An Ethiopian woman, now a refugee in Sudan describes the horrific conditions she escaped, “We did not know what was going on when we heard the gun shots. Many people were killed—we could see 10, twenty bodies lying on the ground. That’s when we decided to leave. I walked until my legs were injured and bleeding. I thank God that we are safe here and we have something to eat.[2]” There are refugees from Syria due to civil war; there are refugees from Eritrea due to the persecution of Christians; there are refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo due to violence, war, and political opinion. The stories are different, but the human suffering and the material needs are similar. And all of them need Christ.

Is it safe for our families, you may be asking. Is it safe to help those coming to this country legally as persecuted, homeless, weary, refuge seekers? Deep down, you know the answer—only God knows. But let’s consider “Jonas”, a fictional man living in a fictional refugee camp in Tentland, Africa. Jonas must be interviewed and screened by the United Nations in order to be titled, or classified, as a “refugee”. Jonas has to meet the legal definition. After the UN has completed their screening, they look for a willing country to host Jonas. If the US raises its hand and agrees to consider accepting Jonas, it will conduct its own background check before giving Jonas a ticket to enter the country. By the time Jonas arrives at the airport here in the US, he will have been interviewed by the Department of State, registered in the Worldwide Refugee Admission Processing System, checked by FBI, Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Department of Defense, and interviewed by Department of Homeland Security. Jonas will also have his fingerprints taken and have his biometrics screened against several databases. Only after all this vetting is complete to the satisfaction of these agencies, will Jonas be permitted to enter the country and be resettled as a refugee. The better question may be, “Is it safe for Christians to avoid or refuse to welcome the stranger and alien?”

That brings us back to the words of the President and Secretary of State. Think of this—these men, possibly very secular in their worldviews—surprisingly use words we might consider using ourselves. Christians are a people called to welcome and love the alien and stranger (Deuteronomy 10:19). Followers of the Lord Jesus Christ have taken refuge in Him from their sin and the tribulation of this world. Shouldn’t we desire to usher others into that very same refuge—indeed, the only true refuge from the storms that our sins have created?


[1] Steve Harman, “Biden to Quadruple Number of Refugees,” Voice of America News, May 3, 2021, https://www.voanews.com/usa/biden-quadruple-number-refugees-allowed-us.

[2] Ibid.


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