Last month I traveled through technology to reconnect with Michael, across the decades of war, peace, and war again, this time via WhatsApp and during a pandemic. A missionary-doctor friend in Africa contacted an Ethiopian evangelist named Getachew, who works in what is now South Sudan. Getachew knew Michael only by reputation but located him living in a different Blue Nile camp, at Doro. Once a mission station, it’s presently home to about 150,000 refugees who escaped a new wave of warfare beginning in 2011.
Michael, who goes by Michael Salim now, is approaching 90 (he doesn’t know his birth date). He is reaching the end of his days much as he did when they began, forcibly displaced by conflict and persecution.
The Arab Muslim-led government in 1963 forced Michael, like many tribal southerners, to work in Khartoum. Islam lured him until he met Christians while attending a Sunday school class to learn English. He was baptized, married, and raised six children in Khartoum.
He returned to Wadega in 1979 an outlier—a literate Christian speaking English seeking to convert his fellow Jumjum tribe members, who clung to old traditions like animal sacrifice and witchcraft, or had converted to Islam. A missionary who served in the area told me there were fewer than a dozen Jumjum Christians in those years.
Today there are six Jumjum churches, including two in the camp where Michael lives. “The church is growing and growing and growing,” he said, smiling to the phone camera. “We are very happy that the church is growing and many people are coming.”
Michael has been too weak and ill to attend church this year, but he spoke outside a tent while children played around him. “It’s wonderful to hear such a joyful word from an old saint who is far from home,” said Getachew. Michael prayed for the young evangelist before they parted.
Watching Michael, I thought of Moses, an epic wanderer whose last song in Deuteronomy 33 was one of blessing and remembrance. “There is none like God, O Jeshurun [Israel], who rides through the heavens to your help, through the skies in his majesty. The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”