Students sponsored by MCA dream of planting Mennonite churches in South Sudan

Students sponsored by MCA dream of planting Mennonite churches in South Sudan

Recently an article in Anabaptist World stated there were no known Anabaptist congregations in South Sudan. Praise God. That is no longer the case.

According to Gatjiak (Simon) Tongyik, one of the new students sponsored by MCA to attend the Meserete Kristos Seminary in Bishoftu, Ethiopia, there is now one small Mennonite church in his village in Longchuok County Centre Mathiang. He hopes this is just the beginning of church planting efforts. “There are eight South Sudanese Mennonite churches inside the refugee camps in Ethiopia and as soon as peace comes to South Sudan, we expect each church will move back to their hometowns,” he said, adding, “and even if there is no peace upon my graduation, I plan to be a missionary and plant more Mennonite churches.”

Last year, MCA sponsored two South Sudanese students to begin a 4-year theological degree program at the Anabaptist seminary, after the Edmonton South Sudanese Mennonite church requested help for their brothers and sisters in Christ in the refugee camps and surrounding areas in the Gambella region in West Ethiopia. Lack of resources, education and language made it difficult to get the training they needed to lead their congregations. In 2023 the literacy rate in South Sudan increased to only 35% making it a challenge to find potential students who could succeed at the university level. “What does it mean to be a Mennonite?” they asked. “Can MCA help us to train our leaders? We need help.”

In 2022, MCA responded by agreeing to their request to sponsor two to three South Sudanese students. Two were chosen and sent but unfortunately only one was able to return in the fall 2023. The one who returned was Khan (Isaac) Gatkuoth, an evangelist and father of three small children. This year MCA offered language and study support which Isaac was excited to receive. Isaac is currently a leader at Lare Mennonite Church in Gambella, but hopes to return one day to South Sudan as a pastor. I asked him what his favourite course was and he replied, “Definitely ‘Prophetic Books’ taught by Selamawit Stifanos.” When asked about his experience at the school he replied, “Everyone has received us. They help you even when they can’t understand you.” Initial anxiety about how they would be treated by the Ethiopian students was quickly put to rest by the warm welcome they received. As they were leaving the campus for the Christmas break, multiple students ran up to them to hug them and say good-bye.

Thankfully, MCA generously agreed to replace the student who was unable to return with another member of the South Sudanese church community. The new student chosen by the local church was already a young leader in the regional South Sudanese Mennonite church in Ethiopia. The student, Gatjik (Simon) Tongyik, is a father of four girls and one boy ranging in age from 3 to 13 years old. His family currently lives in South Sudan, surviving on a small farm. He just finished a diploma in health care. When he first arrived, he initially struggled with the food, since they are not an injera culture, but the school made arrangements for him to have bread, so he was happy.

These students are the very first South Sudanese students to ever attend the seminary, which is not a surprise, considering South Sudan is one of the least developed countries in the world with an almost non-existent Anabaptist presence. South Sudan has not known peace since it became an independent country in 2011. It is the youngest country in the world. Due to endless war and famine, there is a sense of hopelessness but Simon and Isaac have great hope for the future.

“I will one day help the people with teaching,” says Simon. “God is good!” In addition to being excited to plant Mennonite churches in South Sudan, Simon and Isaac enthusiastically talked about opening a Mennonite church office in South Sudan and maybe a small school where they could offer a Bible diploma for local people. “We also want to care for the many orphans and widows,” proclaimed Simon.

Receiving a theological education, thanks to MCA, has allowed these students to imagine a beautiful future in their war-torn communities. It has broadened their understanding of the gospel and given them experiences that will in turn shape their communities. “Thank you Mennonite church!” they said.

L-R  Simon, Werner, Joanne, Isaac

Isaac with Werner's teaching assistant and her husband

Simon and his children