Our 12-seater plane touched down on a dirt strip in the middle of a small town in the north-east of South Sudan. The flight from Juba was carrying our hastily assembled assessment team tasked with determining the scale of humanitarian needs in this part of the country, where more than a million people have been displaced by fighting, amidst a growing food crisis. A few minutes after landing, we heard some sporadic gunfire from town and our pilots informed us that we better get our food and camping gear off the plane as they were anxious to take off and leave us to our mission. Starting to over-heat already the close to 50C heat we watched the plane disappear, as a number of goats curiously watched us.
It was one of those poignant moments to consider the consequences of saying yes to this particular trip, and more broadly working in humanitarian emergency response. Until the plane came back to pick us up the following afternoon, I met a few of the answers to that question.
In a looted school, I met a number of children who had fled fighting in a town in the same state. They’d walked five days with their families, and were now staying with some distant relatives, sleeping wherever they could find space. In the absence of teachers, they had found ways to entertain themselves by building sculptures with the hard mud that is to be found everywhere during the dry season here. Seemingly a benign activity, when I looked closer they told me they were ‘playing war’ and had designed soldiers and tanks going to the battlefield. Later in the day we would meet their older brothers, many of them carrying around rifles, reminding us that those mud sculptures are inspired not by Hollywood but by the reality facing these children every day. A reality no child should ever have to face.
That same evening as we had set up our tents and were eating our canned tuna, two of my new friends on this trip asked if we could pray together. Careful not step on the many scorpions crawling around, we found a quiet spot in the compound and turned our attention to God. It served as a good reminder of the calling we have on ourselves as followers of Christ. For those of us gathered that night, that calling had taken the form of going out to find those people who have been abandoned by everybody else, who have been taught to expect nothing from the world. It meant hearing their stories and bringing them to the attention of a world that in its comfort would often rather not hear them. And it meant discovering that once you have heard those stories and seen their faces, those moments will remain etched in your mind as you return to the coffee shops of the rich world and enjoy the luxuries we take for granted that these children will never see.
It also begs the question of what God sees when he looks at this world and how we as humans, and the church, steward it. It seems that too often this world is more concerned about making the rich more rich and protecting the comfort of the select few than about caring for the poor and voiceless. As the rich church in the west, it begs the question of how able and willing are we to hear God’s calling to be salt the light to the whole world, even if it means, from time to time, giving up our comfort and security. In light of the price paid on the Cross for us, what price are we prepared to pay to further the Kingdom? When Jesus asks us to find and feed his sheep, be that next door or across the world, what is our answer?
Those questions and many others come up regularly at the expat bars in Juba, Bamako and Beirut, as those of us sent there bond fast over our shared experience of attempting to address often overwhelming crises with little resources and in the absence of friends, family and familiarity. This makes you get to know people very quickly, but with the knowledge that in a few weeks or months most of those new friends will be scattered across the world. You might see them in the next crises or in some airport bar, or you may never see them again. But they will share your experience.
Returning from an assignment is often more challenging than departing for it, as we discover the difficulty of relating our experiences with our friends and family at home, and the resulting loneliness. When I spend £2 on a coffee in London, I have to somehow reconcile that with knowing that the people I met last week face severe malnutrition because they do not have £2 a day for food.
As much as the travels makes you really good at being comfortable with tents in South Sudan and fancy hotels in the Middle East they also makes you feel like a foreigner in most places, even in places that used to be home, as each assignment leaves its mark. It makes you miss countless birthdays, events and in the instance of this trip my own housewarming party. Those are moments you can’t get back.
The exciting anecdotes we can share of planes, bullets and goats, and the opportunity to meet and attempt to serve the forgotten come at a cost that eventually shatter any misplaced notion of glamour attached to emergency response life. When you have the best and the worst of humanity standing next to you, it gives you a chance to see both how little influence we really have but also how much of a difference that little bit can make.
Living in that tension of life as it is contrasted with life as it should be, not as an abstraction but illustrated by people around you, is a cost that we each day have to decide whether we are prepared to pay. Then we have to decide what to do with it.