In our fourth Sunday of Easter, we meditate on the beautiful words of Jesus Christ where he calls himself the Good Shepherd. (John 10:11-18).
When talking of sheep or cattle in South Sudan, we think more of an open landscape, a vast wilderness where shepherds, usually middle- aged men or adolescent boys, travel with their cattle from one pasture land to another as the seasons change. Cattle are commonly seen crisscrossing the land in South Sudan, especially in the dry season. It is to be admired how South Sudanese take great care of their cattle! These cattle seem to have a perfect confidence in their shepherds and follow them wherever they lead them, be it along the roads or through market places and towns.
In the eyes of the people of South Sudan, regardless of the locale, people will view their Church leaders as shepherds with the attributes that the people associate with a South Sudanese shepherd minding his cattle. As a matter of fact, the word shepherd is not foreign in the ears of the people of South Sudan!
Turning to the Gospels, we read that to the people he addressed, Jesus called himself a Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. These people must have understood Jesus perfectly (at least those who wanted to), because they frequently depicted God as a shepherd throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, beginning with Gen 49:24. In fact, the same title had been given to the great king David, who was referred to as shepherd of the people in Ps 78:70-72.
It is interesting to note, however, that Jesus spent considerable time talking about the bad shepherd; in fact, about what a good shepherd is not–the “fake” shepherd who has no real concern for the sheep. Such a one that would never “lay down his life for his sheep.” (Jn 10:10).
Jesus would have been familiar with the prophet Ezekiel, who spoke about good and bad shepherds (Ez. 34. 1- 25). His description of bad shepherds is as relevant today in South Sudan as it was in Israel of that time. A bad or “fake” shepherd feeds himself with the milk of the sheep, dresses himself in their wool, kills the fattest sheep for his own benefit, fails to make weak sheep strong and does not care for the sick or wounded. He has no interest in seeking out the lost ones.
Unfortunately, fake shepherds come in many shapes and sizes, both inside and outside the Church.
Jesus’ description of the bad shepherd leads us to wonder, ‘Who really is the Good Shepherd? What is the Good Shepherd supposed to do in the context of South Sudan, a country torn apart by violence, insecurity and ethnic intolerance? A country in need of peace at all levels of existence, a nation yearning for shepherds to remind us, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.’”(Mother Teresa of Calcutta).
Anyone living in South Sudan or who has visited South Sudan will attest to the fact that the people of God in South Sudan deserve shepherds who are involved and concerned with the fate and eternal welfare of the “sheep.” People yearn for shepherds they can identify with, believing and trusting in the shepherds’ love and care, their mind and word, their companionship and leadership, their experience and knowledge.
In the conflictual context of the Church in South Sudan, people desire to have a shepherd whose voice they know. More importantly, they need to know both his sound and his voice! “The sound of this voice must not be uncertain and unclear, not weak and frail, neither quivering nor indecisive” (The Preacher’s Outline & Sermon Bible, Vol, p. 1592). In a nutshell, this voice must be clear, strong, sure, and decisive. To this list, we would emphatically add that the kind of shepherd needed for South Sudan is one who speaks words of care and tenderness, of warning and safety, of truth and security. With such a shepherd, the people of South Sudan would feel safe and secure following the path their shepherd lays out before them. And as we pray for, and with the people of South Sudan for God to send and speak through his shepherds, we listen keenly to the voice of the Most Reverend Christian Carlassare, Bishop-Elect of Rumbek Diocese – South Sudan, speaking from his hospital bed in Nairobi- Kenya.
Fr. Carlassare’s is one of the voices that the people of South Sudan need to hear. His words echo the voice of Pope Francis: “Work so that the world becomes a community of brothers and sisters who respect each other, accept each other in one’s diversity, and take care of one another.” (Pope Francis, 2015, cited in The Bishops of Sudan and South Sudan Pastoral Exhortation, January 2015).
As people of faith in South Sudan, we cannot allow ourselves to be discouraged by injustice, suffering, or violence. The Good Shepherds of our Church and other churches are inviting us to a change of heart, that we, too, can be Good Shepherds to each other. The fake shepherds of this world exist, but our hope is in “the one who lays down his life for his friends.” We are consoled by the example of others, knowing that we too are called by name to follow in their footsteps.
Sister Scholasticah Nganda is a member of the Solidarity with South Sudan pastoral team, serving as the director of the Good Shepherd Peace Center in Kit, South Sudan.