Gambella is in Ethiopia, but for all intent and purposes is deeply South Sudanese. Refugees from South Sudan have been spilling over the border into Ethiopia for the last 30 years. Since civil war broke out in South Sudan in 2014, another wave of refugees have made, what they hope is, a temporary home in the Gambella region of Ethiopia. The region’s capital is also called Gambella, which is where Pastor Pete Reuss from the office of the bishop, Pastor Chad Johnson from Our Savior’s in Austin, and I stayed to meet with people from the Nuer and Anyuak peoples. In the last two years, it’s estimated that the population of Gambella as more than doubled to about 250,000-300,000 people. There is no infrastructure and very few jobs. But it does not stop people from celebrating what they do have and sharing a deep seated joy.
After checking into the hotel in Gambella on Friday morning, Pastor Wal Reat, the ELCA missionary in Gambella, told us we needed to get ready quickly. The people were waiting for us at the Gambella church. We asked him how many people were waiting, expecting that we were just meeting with the leaders of the 26 churches that Wal has started in and around the refugee camps. To our surprise, there were over 500 people waiting to greet us!
We didn’t see the crowd initially, but we could hear it. The choir was singing enthusiastically, while music from the keyboard kept them all together. We turned off the paved road and onto a narrow dirt path that led down a small hill, past some trees, and into a clearing.
As we got closer we saw the children first, greeting us with wide smiles and hope in their eyes. Next, all the church leaders, nearly 30 in all, lined up to greet us. When we got through the receiving line there were four chairs set in front of a tarp. They sat us down and instructed us to take off our shoes. Then, the women washed our feet. It was a holy and surreal moment as they took pans of water and poured it over our feet and legs, and dried them great care. It felt as though we were attended by angels.
When we were finished, they did not just say goodbye, they sang us all the way back to the hotel.
Glad to hear of your warm welcome (only slight pun intended). The word “awesome” is of course overused, but it seems truly to apply to your entire entry experience, esp. with the washing of your feet.
We miss you and are looking forward to further posts. I will be athis coming Sunday’s Dinka service.
God Bless all of you, visitors and residents alike!