By Mommy Emily

I wasn’t prepared for South Sudan.

I’d gone there once before in 2019, and crossing the Ugandan border had been simple.

That time I’d visited the refugee camps of Adjumani in northern Uganda to pray with Pastor Santos, a South Sudanese man who lived there, and then crossed into South Sudan to fellowship with his colleague, Pastor Francis, immediately across the border in a town called Nimule. These meetings marked the beginning of the Lulu Tree’s partnership with these two beautiful men of God.

This time, however, I arrived at the border with four additional men in tow — Enock, Daniel, Shaban, and Stephen — all of whom had just ministered with me in the refugee camps alongside Pastor Santos. We’d spent two days there, Stephen teaching a financial seminar, and the rest of us leading a marriage seminar. We were now anticipating spending the next few days with Pastor Francis in South Sudan.

In 2019, I’d simply shown a letter of invitation from Pastor Francis, and they’d welcomed me in. We knew border crossings had tightened, but Pastor Francis had made a special trip to the border just a few days earlier to confirm that I didn’t need a travel visa. They said no, just a negative COVID test and a letter of invitation would be fine for such a short visit. 

They were wrong.

We arrived at Immigration only to be met by a stern soldier, the military having taken over every part of Uganda and South Sudan since COVID’s inception. He glanced at my passport and informed me that I had no choice but to turn around and return to Kampala where I would need to get a travel visa. 

I stood speechless, tears springing, silently praying, “Help, Jesus!” We were on a very tight schedule and had no time to turn around and drive the 10 hours back to Kampala. 

A minute passed, and then Pastor Santos slowly and gently began to explain in Arabic that I had been helping the children of South Sudan and had just come to visit them for even one day if possible, and could he please reconsider? 

I listened and watched, not knowing what Santos was saying. The soldier’s face softened. He was young, a child of South Sudan himself. 

He told us to wait, and he would see what he could do, and in a few minutes the tall, lanky man of the Dinka tribe — one of South Sudan’s 64 tribes — returned and escorted Pastor Santos and me out of the office, through a back door, while the rest of the team stayed and prayed.

He took us to a garden where three elderly army officials sat, talking around cups of chai. He spoke with them, and the oldest one rose. We followed him into a very dark office. 

Slowly, he pulled open the drapes, then put on his glasses. He sat down and the young man handed him my passport and the letter of invitation, speaking respectfully to him. For what seemed the next five minutes, the general looked through my passport. Pastor Santos tried to strike up conversation, but was quickly silenced.

Then suddenly the general looked up, took off his glasses and began to yell at Pastor Santos. I could understand him because he was speaking in English. “You church people, you think you can just get away with not obeying the rules! You think this woman can just come into South Sudan without a visa, because she’s going for prayers!”

Pastor Santos and I both swallowed. He started to talk but the general wasn’t listening. He kept ranting. Then he became quiet.

It was at that point that boldness overtook me. “I’m very sorry, sir,” I said. “I recognize I made a mistake. I should have gotten a visa. When I came before, I didn’t need one. I’m asking you to forgive me. I have come all the way from Canada to help your people.”

I sat back, and the man seemed to relax a little. He was quiet, then asked Pastor Santos if Pastor Francis was on his way, and Santos said yes, he’d called him and he should be arriving any minute. 

Pastor Santos then left the room to check on Pastor Francis, and I was alone with the army general. It was then I realized that I was there, in that room, to pray for him, to intercede for him and his country. So I began to pray quietly. He asked me about our organization. I happened to have a card with me, so I gave it to him, and he looked at it and said, “The Lulu Tree — that’s a real tree here in South Sudan. How did you choose this name?”

I told him the truth. “God gave me the name.” 

We were quiet, together.

The door opened, and Pastor Santos and Pastor Francis entered. Pastor Francis looked at me apologetically and put his hand on my shoulder. They sat, and we were reprimanded once again by the disgruntled general. Then we were all sent out.

I went back to the team, shaken, trying not to cry. I hadn’t realized how nervous I’d been. Enock kept saying, “God has this, sister. He’s got it all under control.”

It was then that I glanced down and almost laughed. The T-shirt I was wearing that day said, “God has a plan.” Surely, He did.

The tall, young soldier finally came back and talked to Santos. Santos then told me I’d been granted a three-day pass if I paid $50. Three days. We’d only asked for one. Yes, I had to pay, but it was cheaper than a visa, and I was allowed to enter South Sudan.

That night we worshipped with the youth in Pastor Frances’ church in Nimule, South Sudan. I was asked to share, and I was excited to share. I stood in front of everyone with my “God has a plan” T-shirt and read from Ephesians 2:10: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Then, from Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

God has a plan. Nothing in this world can shake that plan. And always, His plan is to win souls — even the souls of terrifying army generals. Will you join me in praying for that man and for the young soldier who gave us a chance to state our case? The general was right. I was entering his country for prayers. What neither of us knew at the time was that my prayers and the prayers of many would be poured out for him. 

I wasn’t prepared for South Sudan. But God was. May He water every seed — especially those planted in a dark office at the border of South Sudan.

This is the second in a series of posts about Mommy Emily’s trip to Uganda, Kenya, and South Sudan, October 2021