MILL VALLEY, Calif. (BP)–Some missionaries lead lives straight out of the movies.
In the movies, missionaries live in mud huts among isolated tribes deep in the bush of Africa or South America with no other fair-skinned or English-speaking people, no electricity, no plumbing and no contact with the outside world for months at a time.
Peter Swann doesn’t hesitate to say it: “It looked just like it does in the movies. It was like stepping back in time a couple of thousand years.”
A graduate of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, Peter and his wife, Shauna, spent the better part of two years in southwest Sudan as missionaries with the International Mission Board. Their task was to live among the Jur people, learn the language, teach Bible stories and provide medical help.
In the process, the Swanns really did live in a mud hut without plumbing or electricity. They also really did reach their province by a four-seat Cessna airplane, often scurrying the cows off the landing strip, and then driving for several more hours to get to the village.
“Yes, we saw a green mamba in one of our huts, and cobras in our kitchen, and a zillion other snake stories, and some unknown insect bites we never did figure out,” Peter said. “But we were just in the same boat as everyone else in the village, really.”
This immersion in the community helped their witness, Shauna said.
“When the water wells broke, we were out of water too, because we shared the same water source. We were affected by their hardships and that helped us minister to them,” she said.
The difference, of course, was the new Good News they came to share. While Shauna, a nurse, provided medical care and help at the primary school, Peter spent most of his days teaching Bible stories using chronological storying — an oral and active method of transferring the theology of the Bible via its narratives. Previous missionaries had taught 160 Bible stories; Peter’s role was to review them and help the believers use those stories to disciple others and plant new churches. He also taught a second class of students some of the same stories.
“You could walk into that village and start any of those Bible stories in the middle and they would pick it up from there and finish it,” he said. “We’re talking about a people group that’s pretty much been isolated, has no written language, and only knew a very few stories from the Bible. To be teaching them God’s truths, from God’s book, in their own heart language — it was pretty amazing.”
First, Peter and Shauna had to learn the language the old-fashioned way, by just living there. In their village, only a few men spoke some English and none of the women did. The Jur — a people group of only about 200,000 — have three languages and seven dialects. Only two other outsiders know the main language — a retired British missionary couple. Peter is the only foreigner to have ever studied and learned the second Jur language. The Swanns used Jur so exclusively, he said, they began to lose their English skills.
“I think we were as isolated as you can get in today’s world,” Peter said. “We lost track of what was going on in the rest of the world. We had a satellite phone, but it was extremely expensive, so whenever someone back home had a birthday we would call them and talk for 10 minutes, and that was it.
“There were a lot of challenging days,” he added. “It wasn’t easy at all.”
“The wear and tear was tough. The Jur live in community and the concept of allowing us privacy or time alone was just foreign to them,” she said. “I don’t remember meal times when people didn’t come in or weren’t watching us through the window. And there was no getting away from it, nowhere to go to take a break or relax, we were too far out. For an introvert like myself, it was challenging.”
There were highlights, too, of course. Shauna said she spent hours sitting in the kitchens with the women of the village, letting them teach her how they cooked, and vice versa, and sharing life stories and struggles and joys, many of them revolving around their children.
“They deal with so much death, so many hard times, and losing children,” she said. “We had some powerful, good conversations. It was my favorite thing to do, just sit in their kitchen, hear their stories, share the stories of God with them, and try to be a blessing to them.”
In addition to the lack of creature comforts and the months of 130-degree weather, the Swanns dealt with spiritual warfare on many levels, from their own struggle to stay faithful and focused to demon-possessed people and power encounters their people described.
“We put in a grinding mill once and it wasn’t working and some said it was because we had not offered a sacrifice to the god of that land first, and our Bible students spoke up and said no, we just needed to trust the God of the Bible,” Peter said. “Also, people believe that if someone appears to you in a dream and tells you something, you’re bound to it.”
His projects, papers and studies regarding the African worldview while in seminary came in handy.
“I’d studied it every chance I got while in seminary — demons, angels, spiritual warfare, anything pertinent to the African continent — and my professors let me do that,” he said. “Even more powerful was the time I spent out of class with these professors. They could talk to me about those things based on their own knowledge and experiences. The cross-cultural and missiological principles, too — it all made a difference.”
“I remember Peter and Shauna as some of the most innovative students I had,” Bill Wagner, their missions and church planting professor, said. “They wanted to start a church for the students at the College of Marin, and everybody told them it couldn’t be done, and they went out and did it anyway. They both did a great job.”
It wasn’t just spiritual warfare the Swanns faced. This was, after all, southern Sudan, scene of both the north-south conflict raging in that east African country for many years, and ongoing conflict between tribes.
“We could hear bomber planes flying everywhere,” said Peter, whose experiences as a missionary kid in the modernized cities of Tanzania had not prepared him for this life. “We lost different friends to diseases and to tribal fighting. We had to evacuate a couple of times. Once a raiding tribal group came through our village and went on a rampage, ravaged it, abused our people. Shauna was hiding in a mud hut on the back of our compound, I hid behind a tree. The raiding party was on the main road, which led straight past our mud huts, and I was really concerned they were going to go there, but for some unknown reason, at the last minute, they turned off the road and then left. It was very odd.
“And all I could think later was of the many, many people praying for us back home.”
Looking back, Shauna said she thinks that those days should have been a time of internal chaos, “but, amazingly, I felt this huge peace even through all of that, that we were still where we were supposed to be.”
In May, nine months after the Swanns returned to the States, a rival tribe returned, killed many of the residents and destroyed the village, including the Swanns’ house and the school where Peter taught. Out of the 200,000 Jur people, more than 106,000 of them are now internally displaced — refugees within their own country.
The Swanns, in the meantime, have answered a variation on their call to the Sudanese. While in Nairobi last summer for routine medical check-ups, Peter was diagnosed with severe heart damage. He was told his heart looked like one of a person 30-40 years older, that it might never heal and even if it did it would take a long time. The doctor highly recommended Peter and Shauna leave their stressful life and war-torn village.
“We really, really wanted to stay, but the more we prayed the less peace we had about being overseas,” Peter said. “But we had no idea what God would lead us to do next.”
While in Kenya, and while the International Mission Board waited for direction on the Swanns’ airline ticket purchase, a friend told them about Aid Sudan, an aid organization in the States. Aid Sudan, they discovered, has an office in Houston, where Shauna has family. The pieces were falling into place.
About four months after their return to the United States, Peter was asked to serve as executive director of Aid Sudan — a God-arranged transition of ministry from Africa to Houston. So he continues to work with Sudanese refugees in America, organizing mission and humanitarian trips to southern Sudan, and is now in the beginning stages of a missionary training program for Christian Sudanese who are returning to their home country.
“Now I get to use the training I received on church planting,” he said.
What’s more, when Peter went to see the cardiologist in Houston six months after his initial diagnosis in Kenya, they found no heart damage whatsoever.
“He ran all kinds of tests and didn’t find a single thing,” Peter said. “My heart was perfectly fine. All I can say is I must have been completely healed.”
Healing is exactly what Peter and Shauna want for all people of southern Sudan — physical, spiritual and community healing. Their prayer is that as they continue to use the gifts, experiences and training God has given them on behalf of the Sudanese people, those healings will come.