Bidi Bidi, Uganda — Scores of thousands fled the violence of South Sudan’s civil war with little but their faith. Now, in the world’s largest refugee settlement, they are improvising churches.
They dance and sometimes speak in tongues. Preacher Daniel Rasash falls to his knees and weeps in prayer. One old man with missing teeth shakes his hips as others ululate during a service at Yoyo Pentecostal Church.
Tens of thousands have been killed in the civil war, and close to 2 million South Sudanese now shelter in neighboring countries. As World Refugee Day is marked on Tuesday, the international community prepares to meet in Uganda to draw attention and funding to the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis.
The Bidi Bidi settlement is home to more than 270,000 refugees from South Sudan. Most have arrived in the past year. The churches for the born-again Christians are oases of joy among the daily humiliations that come with rebuilding their lives.
“We don’t have a voice. We have no authority to even say no to war,” says the preacher Rasash, 25. “The solution we have seen is maybe we kneel down praying, because the Bible says the people of Israel suffered like that for many years and when they cried to God, God listened to their prayer. In the same way we shall cry to God so that God will hear our prayer and bring back peace to South Sudan.”
Christianity is the dominant religion in South Sudan and religious faith played a strong role in its long fight for independence from Muslim-majority Sudan in 2011. Many were horrified when the world’s youngest nation then collapsed on itself in late 2013 amid largely ethnic violence.
Here in sprawling Bidi Bidi, the refugees meet in open-air churches rigged from timber. The seats are planks of wood or logs dug into the ground. There are no brass bands and there are not enough Bibles to go around.
The Sunday services are raucous events. Their drumbeats echo through villages. More than 20 churches are now spread across Bidi Bidi, according to Lilian Dawa, a refugee who serves as a community mobilizer.
The refugees are allocated small plots of land to erect simple homes of grass, mud and wattle. But there is no longer enough land to offer everyone a plot large enough to plant crops. The refugees depend on United Nations rations of maize meal and beans and many say that’s not enough.
The raw new churches offer hope.
“We feel the pain in our hearts. There are many people who are too traumatized to come to church and they don’t know exactly what to do,” said Rasash, who fled South Sudan last year. “There are people who are sick out there and they don’t have anybody to support them. There are no drugs in the hospitals. So that’s why we are praying. God should be the one to help.”
Rasash’s church already faces apparent competition from a new church a few meters away that has neither a name nor a roof. But it has an energetic leadership team that includes 22-year-old Sylvia Sunday, who fled South Sudan last year.
“By the power of the holy ghost,” she sings, “all the demons will run away.” Then she prepares to give her sermon, which warns of temptation.
“The Bible teaches us to be strong, encourages us to be faithful,” she says. “All I want from the leaders of the country is to be faithful. If they can take the word of God and rule using the Bible, it would be good and peace would return.”