The Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
My Neighbor’s Prayer: The Vocabulary of Blessing as Common Bond
Long before South Sudan became a country, the Nuer people prayed these words, “Our Father, it is Thy universe, it is Thy will, let us be at peace, let the souls of Thy people be cool; Thou art our Father, remove all evil from our path.” It seems today they need this prayer more than ever.
The Nuer and Dinka tribes that make up much of South Sudan have been engaged in civil war on and off since 2013. They are caught in a cycle of peace and violence, amid record flooding and the possibility of famine. In 2017, 100,000 faced starvation and 10,000 were living in camps, internally displaced, their villages destroyed. Peace was brokered in 2018 and a transitional government was put in place in February of 2020, but we all know that date represents the precipice of global pandemic and uncertainty proliferated. Today there are reports of armed children, abducted women, and indefinitely detained (or killed) journalists.
John Mbiti, one of Africa’s first indigenous scholars studying the African religious landscape, writes that among the Nuer people prayer is all encompassing, an all-day-long endeavor, possibly akin to the Apostle Paul’s “pray without ceasing.” They pray continually because “they like to speak to God when they are happy.” But where is joy amid the suffering of the Nuer people today? Can they spend all day with their hands up, palms to the heaven, when the children at their side carry machine guns? Alternatively what do you pray for if you do forego violence, and your family perpetually faces emergency levels of hunger and disease at a refugee camp, where Doctors Without Borders report skyrocketing numbers of Hepatitis E cases after latrine maintenance was cut due to lack of funding (not to mention coronavirus’ threat)?
What is the role of prayer in war, famine, and disease? How does a prayer for peace continually get upended day after day, week after week, year after year? Can ardent prayer soften or “cool” the hearts of those amid fighting? What spiritual practices make a difference amid dynamic suffering? These are the questions that arise for me today as I draw near to my neighbors’ prayers.
My Neighbor’s Prayer
it is Thy universe,
it is Thy will,
let us be at peace,
let the souls
of Thy people be cool;
Thou art our Father,
remove all evil from our path.
The Nuer people of South Sudan