The Workers Are Few
A refugee street kid and his journey to bring hope to hundreds
by Barry Rodriguez
It was a sunny afternoon in the town of Yei. I was sitting in a plastic chair under a giant mango tree, surrounded by pastoral students at the Christian Leadership Institute of South Sudan (CLISS). We were hanging out between classes one afternoon, chatting idly about the difference between American and South Sudanese cultures.
“You know,” I said, “in America, the man doesn’t have to pay anything to the bride’s family to get married.”
“What!?!” they said, “Are you serious?” They were incredulous. A South Sudanese man has to give 100 cows to his soon-to-be father-in-law.
“In fact,” I continued, “It’s traditional for the bride’s family to pay for the wedding, too.”
One of the younger students joked, “Then I’m marrying an American woman.” We all laughed.
“Just be prepared,” I told him, smiling, “she might not like it if you force her to do all the cooking, cleaning and housework by herself. In America, the men have to do that stuff too.”
We all shook our heads, amazed at how different our two cultures are.
As we reached a lull in the conversation, one of the young men stood up and started walking to a nearby mango tree. He picked up a long bamboo pole and began trying to knock down a mango. I’d been eager to try this trick for myself, so I quickly ran over to where he was and asked if I could give it a shot. He smiled and handed me the pole.
As it turns out, being accurate with the end of a 30’ long pole is not that easy. I did my best to knock a ripe mango free, swiping the pole back and forth, but the fruit held strong. Eventually, a group of the students had gathered to watch me make a fool of myself.
Finally, one of them offered to climb the tree instead.
“Ooo!” I said, “Can I go too?” I had never climbed a mango tree before. They agreed, so I prepared myself for the climb.
Climbing the Tree
I’ll just say this. It wasn’t pretty. While my friend was scampering up the tree as he had a million times before, I heaved and grunted my way up, showering twigs down on the guys below as I struggled to keep my balance. I kept remembering the fact that the closest legitimate hospital was a good one or two day drive away. But it will all be worth it, I thought, when I have my very own handpicked mango.
Eventually, we began to toss down mangos to the students below for them to enjoy. After a bit of strategizing, I was able to get a really nice, ripe mango I’d had my eye on.
“Got it!” I yelled, as I tossed the mango down.
Satisfied I had done what I came to do, I climbed back down the tree. This proved a bit more difficult than I had envisioned. There were no limbs for the last 15 feet, so I had to do a combo hug/slide/jump move to make it to the ground. When I landed, I was covered in scrapes and tree sap and dirt, but I had a huge smile on my face. All the students were laughing at my lack of coordination, but I didn’t care. I had a mango waiting for me.
“Whew,” I said to one of the students as I brushed myself off, “That was fun. Now, where is my mango?”
“Um, your mango?” he replied.
“Yeah, the one I tossed down to you. My mango. The one I climbed the tree to get.”
He looked around sheepishly, “Oh. No. There is no mango. Nobody saved you one.”
I had just done this crazy thing, risking broken bones and twisted ankles and ripped clothing for a simple piece of fruit, and nobody thought to save me one. I tried to laugh it off, but I’m sure I didn’t hide my disappointment and confusion very well. How weird! I thought, How seriously strange. I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
I mean, in Cambodia I would have come down the tree to find the mangos delicately sliced and displayed on a plate with a flower in the middle. In Kenya, they would have brewed me a pot of chai to celebrate my first time climbing a mango tree.
What could have possibly caused a group of kind, hospitable pastors to not just forget to give me a mango, but for it to never even cross their minds?
A Pattern Emerges
It took me quite a while to figure out what was going on. Are they selfish? I wondered. Do they simply lack empathy? Neither of these seemed right, since the pastors were so helpful and friendly in every other way. I was stumped.
However, as I spent more time among them and listened to them tell their stories, I began to see a pattern emerging. It was shocking, for example, to realize how many of them had been personally affected by the war. Most had spent time in refugee camps. They had all lost close family members. A few had even been among the “Lost Boys” who trekked thousands of miles through inhospitable terrain as they fled the Murahaleen militias. Although things were peaceful now, each of their lives was at one point hopeless and chaotic.
Finally, it hit me. These men and women had been through hell. They are survivors. For years, they’ve been living in a dog-eat-dog world. The ravages of war and the stresses of refugee life have ingrained in them a spirit of extreme self-sufficiency.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen it, either. Special-needs boys at the Romaniv Orphanage in Ukraine squirreling away loaves of bread in their shirt even though there is more than enough for all of them. Food distributions in Haiti turning violent although there was plenty to go around. When people are forced to live out of a survivalist mentality, even for a short while, it takes a very long time to shake the habit.
It finally made sense. There was more going on here than the pastors forgetting to save me a mango. They were surviving – doing what life in a refugee camp had trained them to do: to look out for themselves and take food when it was available. And after what they’d been through, who could blame them?
But then, just when I thought I understood the psyche of the students I was spending time with, I met a young man named Gismala who quickly proved that I still had so much more to learn.
Gismala was a graduate of the previous CLISS class. He was visiting the school one day to meet with the director, and agreed to sit down with me to tell his story. We brewed some black tea and sat in the guesthouse living room to chat.
It took me all of 10 seconds to realize how much I liked him. With a wide, easy smile, Gismala is practically the definition of friendliness. Get him talking about his ministry, though, and all you can see is passion, drive, and determination. My kind of guy.
He began his story the way most of the other students had – with an unbelievably difficult upbringing.
During the war, he told me, Gismala was one of the many children who fled South Sudan. Separated from his family, his developmental years were spent in refugee camps as a street kid. He had no home. He had no support structure. He was very much on his own.
There it was, I thought. The pattern I’d seen over and over again. Gismala was forced into the life of a survivor. He lived on the streets – a dog-eat-dog environment if ever there was one. It would make sense, then, for Gismala’s life to be focused on survival. On making it another day. On looking out for himself. Which is why what he told me next came as such of a surprise.
At first, he lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but then chose to follow some friends to Uganda. It was there he discovered a real talent for soccer, with which he was able to get a scholarship for his education.
As he threw himself into his studies, Gismala couldn’t shake the feeling that he was meant to return to his homeland. He felt called to help young people like himself overcome the challenges they faced every day. He told me that he felt like Nehemiah, the Israelite in exile who was called to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls of the city. As he studied, his mind was filled with dreams of heading back to South Sudan and starting a ministry to help street kids and orphans.
I was blown away. Gismala, a young man who had every right in the world to look out for himself, spent his time in a refugee camp daydreaming about helping others in his situation. And being the driven, passionate man he is, that’s exactly what Gismala did.
After completing high school in 2008, he wasted no time in returning to his hometown of Yei. Without any training or experience, he founded the “Yei Child Protection Center” and began teaching children who couldn’t afford to pay school fees.
By the end of 2010, the school had grown tremendously. This is when Gismala applied to be a student at CLISS. He told me what was going through his head at the time. “I needed to build up my mind for the ministry I was already running.” He had a God-given vision but needed ALARM to help him achieve it.
In his classes at CLISS, Gismala learned about leadership, peace and reconciliation, biblical interpretation, and discipleship. This last one proved itself to be tremendously valuable. Gismala has built into many young leaders who are now following in his footsteps – helping to lead the ministry he has created.
I was thrilled to hear how God had been working in Gismala’s life, but as we talked I began to feel a bit restless. Although I was enjoying my conversation with him, I really wanted to see the ministry first-hand. So I just asked. “Can we go to visit the school tomorrow?”
Gismala smiled. “I’ll pick you up at one.”
Click here to see portraits and videos of students at CLISS.
The next day we took a motorbike out to the school, just a few blocks from Yei’s town square. When we pulled up, I didn’t get a chance to look around. Gismala ushered me straight into the faded blue building that served as the school’s office.
After chatting for a half an hour inside, we stood up to begin the tour. We walked into the bright sunlight, turned a corner and headed around to the back of the building. That’s when I saw them. White shirts, red pants and smiles: an army of elementary school students, excited to meet the new visitor.
The tour began with a walk through one of the “classrooms” for the younger children. Because of a lack of space, Gismala explained, several of the classes have to meet outside.
Gismala pointed to a basketball-sized stone on the ground. “We don’t have any chairs, so the children sit on rocks,” he told me. I looked at one of the brown, uneven “seats” and tried to imagine sitting there for hours. My butt hurt just thinking about it.
He showed me the “bell” they used to indicate changing class periods: a rock banged against an old metal wheel rim. The chalkboards were painted plywood. The door to the headmaster’s office was a recycled bed sheet.
Everywhere I looked I saw repurposed materials and makeshift supplies covering the bare essentials to keep a school up and running. It was clear they didn’t have much financial overhead.
“What is your budget?” I asked him, “Where do you get your money?”
“Oh, we don’t have any funding,” he replied.
“Wait, you don’t have any money coming in?” I asked, amazed. “How do you pay for supplies? How do you pay for the building? What about teachers’ salaries?”
Gismala just smiled and explained that the government let them borrow the building, the teachers are all volunteers and every now and then, church and community leaders will donate books and supplies.
By faith alone, Gismala is managing to provide a free education to 285 kids without taking a dime for himself. I was stunned. All of a sudden, the story he had told me earlier began to snap into place and I could see how God was leading him to just that moment.
I was amazed. But the tour wasn’t quite over.
Gismala led me into the school’s main building, where all 285 students were crammed into every available square inch of space. As we were walking in, he told me, “You are the first khawaja to visit the school.”
“Seriously?” I asked. “I’m the first white person who has ever been here?”
“Yes. That’s why the students are very excited to meet you.”
I took a seat, very aware that hundreds of curious eyes were glued to every move I made. Gismala explained a bit about who I was, then asked the students to greet me. I listened with a huge, silly grin on my face as the students sang me a welcome song. “Welcome, welcome. How are you, sir? We are happy to see you today. Welcome, welcome! How are you, sir? We are happy to see you today…”
Click here to hear the students singing the welcome song.
Some of the students then recited a few things they’d been learning in class. I sat back, absolutely amazed at what I was seeing.
Because of the vision and calling of one young man, hundreds of children now had a chance at an education. Because this leader was willing to walk by faith, a school was thriving with literally zero financial income. And because of the investment of ALARM in his life, one compelled Christ-follower was now equipped to raise up many, many more.
Sitting in that crowded room, surrounded by children who would have never been able to go to school if it wasn’t for Gismala, it hit me. The connection between my missing mango and true hospitality. Between self-focused survival and others-focused servanthood. That connection was Christ.
Each of the pastors at CLISS has a story of pain from the past. But they are learning to become more than just survivors. One by one they told me of their visions for the future: visions focused on transforming the lives of others.
“I want to be an evangelist.”
“I want to plant churches.”
“I’m going back to tell my family the way of God.”
Only the kingdom of God can redeem a country once wracked by civil war and violence. Only the Holy Spirit can turn a refugee street kid into a world-changing visionary. And ALARM exists to be a conduit for all of it.
ALARM gave Gismala the tools he needed not just to survive, but to thrive. And this is why I am so excited about their ministry. Unlike giant relief organizations or international aid programs that focus on massive, systemic issues, ALARM is able to target individuals – key leaders who have the capacity to multiply that investment into their communities.
The day before my school visit, Gismala had mentioned Luke 10:2, where Jesus tells his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
Looking out over that room full of children, I could see this verse being lived out with my own two eyes. It was beautiful.
South Sudan is a land of survivors – wounded by the past and in desperate need of healing and hope. The harvest is plentiful. It’s also a country in desperate need of godly leaders. The workers are few.
But because of ALARM, more and more workers are entering the field: pastors and church leaders, inspired with a vision for change and equipped to make that vision a reality – well equipped for a bountiful harvest.
The graduates of CLISS are only the beginning. Each of their lives is now influencing hundreds and thousands of others. In Gismala’s ministry, other young leaders are getting caught up in his vision. His circle of influence is growing.
When I came to the town of Yei, I found myself struggling with the survivalist mentality I saw around me. But by the time I left, I was convinced that there was a powerful reason for hope: he may live in a land of survivors, but Gismala isn’t harvesting alone.
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