Reaching out to young people for Christ during the coup in Sudan …… | News and reports


At 6.30am last Monday, John Sagherian and Elie Heneine descended into the lobby of their three-star hotel in eastern Sudan and found a crowd gathered around a television. While filtering, they heard the news.

The army had staged a coup in the capital, Khartoum, 90 miles to the northwest.

“Instantly everything we had planned for that day was on hold,” said Heneine, a 27-year-old employee of Youth for Christ (YFC) Lebanon. “Well, youth work is very organic. “

Sagherian, the 74-year-old YFC regional director, has long been “dying to visit” Sudan. Two years earlier, he had identified a promising country director named Sabet, who had since recruited seven more volunteer staff. Sabet even ignored the capital, focusing instead on the poorer hinterland.

The two-person Lebanese team were eventually due to meet their new Sudanese colleagues later in the day. Since malaria was one of their concerns, they had taken 100 mg of the drug per day for two weeks previously. The visa had also been a complication, requiring several layers of bureaucracy. But it was now the BBC’s app that troubled Joy, Heneine’s American wife for five months, as Sudan increasingly filled her news feed.

Heneine himself was at peace. Not only was he used to instability as a Lebanese Christian, but Sabet and others assured them that all was well, despite the political uproar between the once cooperative military and civilian leaders.

In 2019, the Sudanese army has supported massive protests to overthrow dictator Omar al-Bashir for 30 years. A wave of religious freedom reforms replaced its Islamist governance, normalization agreements were signed with the nation’s former enemy, Israel, and the United States removed Sudan from its list of terrorist sponsoring states .

The economy was struggling, but the World Bank was ready to help. Sudan was almost ready to join the community of nations. But politicians are bickering and a military coup was quelled a month earlier.

In the background, there was a disagreement over sending Bashir to the International Criminal Court to stand trial for war crimes in Darfur. More profoundly still were the problems of the army’s control over large sectors of the economy. And at an undetermined date but fast approaching, the Sovereign Transitional Council was supposed to pass to civilian leadership.

Two days before the coup, the YFC team had traveled three hours on bumpy roads with multiple checkpoints to reach Wad Madani, the ninth largest city in Sudan. Sabet’s youth office was located in an evangelical school and he had invited Sagherian to preach to the local congregation that Sunday evening.

Image: John Sagherian

Tekilat Evangelical Church in Wad Madani, Sudan

With men seated in plastic chairs in front and women behind, about 30 people filled the structure with three walls and a tin roof. Such impromptu invitations weren’t unusual for the still active elder, so Sagherian released a message he had often given to young Lebanese, Syrians and Egyptians.

The title turned out to be prophetic: “Why is God doing this to us?”

“Do we get angry and bitter or say, ‘What now, Lord? ”, Recalls Sagherian preaching. “And then the coup d’etat happened [the next day]. “

He spoke from experience. Ten years earlier, his beloved wife, Nancy, died of cancer. Her acceptance of God’s will during their final weeks together inspired another decade of continued service from her husband.

Eventually, the team learned that Wad Madani’s Christians joined with their fellow Muslims in overwhelmingly rejecting the coup. But first, YFC had to reach out to local believers.

A group of 35 leaders from the city’s three evangelical churches had been prepared for their arrival. Sabet went to learn first-hand if the training sessions would still take place; it was two hours of silence before his return.

“They are waiting for you,” he said.

Sabet hailed a tuk-tuk, one of the three-wheeled rickshaws that serve as local taxis. The three leaders joined five others and a baby goat sitting on the railing, knees banging, constantly jostling each other, as the 15-year-old driver navigated the poorly paved road.

“It was a lot of human beings, and I’m like five people,” Heneine said. “It was the workout of our life just to hold on.”

It was just the beginning. Moving through the city, they saw protesters breaking through the sidewalk to stack makeshift barriers to block traffic. They circled the neighborhood looking for a lane, only to turn around and find a new one. Eventually, they pleaded as “one of the people” and were allowed to pass.

But there was no animosity, Heneine said. Unlike his native Lebanon, there was incredible unity among the Sudanese, none opposed to anyone except the coup plotters.

And they were also organized. The Sudanese went to their jobs, except they wouldn’t work — answering the call for civil disobedience. And at noon, they would gather in the streets, block the roads and burn tires. Even the bread lines, an unfortunate consequence of economic stress, would disappear.

Sagherian instructed youth leaders from Psalm 78: David led people with skill and integrity of heart. It seemed obvious all around.

Tuesday, October 25, the YFC team grew to recognize the rhythms of the event and the best way to get around. In the afternoon, the government cut telephone and internet services across the country to disrupt the protest movement. It also disrupted YFC’s best-worked plans.

They therefore continued to train Sabet and his seven staff members and resigned themselves to a reduced training program. Now relaxed, they enjoyed a fish lunch accompanied by lemonade on the banks of the Blue Nile. And they took a PCR test, ready to go home the next day, only to learn on Wednesday that the airport had been closed.

Stuck, YFC leaders rushed in and called a meeting of young people in a poor village on the outskirts of town the following evening.

Sabet worked with the director, who a decade earlier had become the neighborhood’s first convert to Christianity. But he was not the last. Sharing the gospel, this man gathered new believers in a mud hut house. Then he built a church; then, a school. And now he has called the 95% Muslim student body to attend a youth rally and told Sagherian that he should clearly preach about Jesus.

Students in a classroom in al-Thawra near Wad Madani, Sudan

Image: John Sagherian

Students in a classroom in al-Thawra near Wad Madani, Sudan

Raised as a pastor’s child in Lebanon’s Armenian evangelical community, Sagherian was familiar with altar calls. He assumed the national leadership of YFC in 1974, becoming the regional director for the Middle East and North Africa in 2010. After decades of ministry experience among predominantly Christian students, he expected that a hundred children present themselves. It would be amazing if five of them gave their lives to the Lord.

More than 1,000 filled the schoolyard area covered with earth.

Sagherian adapted his usual YFC trivia:

Imagine you have to swim from the Red Sea coast to India. Some of you might go further than others. But none of you could do it. Your good lives cannot satisfy God.

Imagine if I suddenly had Ronaldo’s mind controlling me. I’m 74, but I run all over the football field, scoring goals. This is what happens when Jesus comes into our lives: We are now satisfying God.

He asked those who wanted to give their lives to Jesus to stand up. Nervous, we did it here, then there. But soon after, the whole gathering of students was on their feet.

Wait, something was wrong. Sagherian insisted on the importance of the decision. After making the students sit down, this time he asked them to raise their hands. Perhaps more aware, 80 percent did.

God knows the heart, he advised himself. And he remembered his father’s words many years ago: “You told them about God. Now tell God about them.

Back at the hotel, the YFC team learned that the airport would open the next day, but nothing was certain. They woke up at 5:30 am and providentially arranged a taxi. As they entered Khartoum, they saw lines of well-armed police officers. Saturday was to be a demonstration of a million men, and the security forces were preparing. (To date, 15 protesters have been killed.)

Another PCR test was required at the airport, but the office was closed. Somehow the manager agreed to come, two hours later than promised. The clock was ticking. But the negative nose swab results were returned within five minutes – surely an example of Sudanese corruption but possibly God’s provision as well.

The airport was stuffy, crowded with people eager to leave the country. But boarding went smoothly and after an overnight stopover in Addis Ababa, their red-eyed Ethiopian Airlines flight landed in Beirut.

“We were living the promises of God,” said Sagherian. “I never felt we were in danger, and we learned that so many people were praying for us.”

Rather, they asked for a change of focus.

“We were two people who did our ministry and left, while Sudan continues to fight against itself,” Heneine said. “Pray for them.”

Sabet told them that he has always been free in the church buildings. But it was only since the revolution that he could exercise his ministry in the public square. “People no longer care about their religious origins,” he told them, and his good reputation in the village has earned him a lot of trust.

But Sabet doesn’t know what will happen after the coup.

In a potentially worrying sign, military leaders released some of Bashir’s top officials from prison. International actors continue their mediation, while the ousted Prime Minister holds firm.

There are so many issues for the Sudanese.

But for the Lebanese, who were simply expecting a normal time for training young people, the experience was transformative. Sagherian choked, remembering the opportunity to share the gospel with so many young Muslims. Heneine learned to “wait on the Lord” from her senior colleague.

“God moved circumstances and people, putting us in places we could not have imagined,” Heneine said. “It was like a well-played chess match, and God won.”


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