Dr. Bill Frist, the former U.S. Senate majority leader, is an accomplished heart and lung transplant surgeon who trained at Stanford University and was among those who pioneered heart transplants. A Tennessean, Dr. Frist opened the first transplant center in the South at Vanderbilt University. In 1994 he left medicine and was elected to the U.S. Senate. He promised to serve only two terms, so at the end of last year, after 12 years, Dr. Frist retired.
During the four years that he was majority leader, Dr. Frist continued his practice of going to Africa on medical missions, and he began to see that the power of healing can go a long way to improving America's reputation in the world and, more importantly, providing peace and stability in the region.
Dr. Frist is back in Africa, traveling with his wife, Karyn, and Franklin Graham, the president of Samaritan's Purse, and is blogging for FOXNews.com.
Feb 6: Yei, Sudan
I love Sudan. I have been going there on medical missions for the past nine years, beginning shortly after Usama bin Laden left the country. I've seen its ups and downs ... but today Karyn and I traveled to Yei, and what we saw was inspiring and hopeful.
I love to find places in the world where visionary and inspiring seeds are planted. I love to see them while they are still dreams. And then I like to help channel influence and resources toward making those dreams reality. Especially when the dreams center on giving hope to hundreds to thousands of people. And that's why I find myself today in Yei, Sudan, a long way from Nashville.
Southern Sudan has been subject to civil war since 1983, the result of which has been the death of 2.5 million people and the displacement of over 5 million people from their homes. The severe dislocation is felt in every aspect of life, but of particular interest for us today is the disruption of church life.
In the Sudan, and indeed in most of Africa, the most respected and trusted institution is the church. Thus, it was not surprising when the government of Sudan (GOS) wanted to disrupt life and target the spirit of a community they struck directly at the Christian churches (the South is predominantly Christian and animist, and the North is mostly Muslim).
After the war began, the Christian churches of the South were hit. No one knows the magnitude of the number of churches destroyed, literally structurally torn apart, but about two years ago Samaritan's Purse (SP) undertook the visionary project of identifying as many churches as possible that had been destroyed by the government.
To date more than 550 such churches have been identified by Samaritan's Purse west of the Nile River, and there is estimated to be another 500 east of the Nile. SP plans to rebuild each and every one of those churches on the very site where they once stood — a remarkable vision and commitment, and one I wanted to see firsthand, in the very early stages. And thus my trip to Yei.
To date SP has rebuilt 11 of the churches. Karyn and I visited two today.
Along with Franklin Graham and World Medical Mission co-founder Dick Furman, Karyn and I traveled to Yei, a village reached only by very rough dirt road, in southern Sudan.
Yei sits about 50 miles north of the Ugandan border, and has become the customs center for supplies for the South. But this is rugged. The village is primitive, populated by tukuls, or huts, and tiny single hut markets.
The central area of the town is lined with large mango trees, obviously planted in colonial days, which contrasts starkly with the extreme poverty that characterizes the village.
Sudan's second civil war started in 1983 and in 1990 the fighting reached Yei. At that time the GOS established a military presence in Yei and began fighting the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA).
People had no choice but to evacuate the town because of the persecution by GOS soldiers. The Christian churches were abandoned and most Christians fled south to Uganda. Many Christians remained in refugee camps in Conga and Uganda.
Our first stop, at the end of a long journey over rough roads, was at the Lisira Church, on the other side of the dusty town from the dirt strip airport. (For some reason there was a rocket launcher situated at the end of the runway when we arrived ... something new, my hosts tell me.)
The Lisira Church was established in 1973, with the first meetings held outside under the shady mango trees. In 1986 the congregation began to raise funds and plan for a permanent structure to replace their temporary church of grass and thatch.
They started building in 1990 but just as the walls were halfway completed, the start of the civil war stopped construction. The people were told to leave and some of the congregation fled to the bush and nearby forests, where they survived with minimal provisions.
In 1997 the SPLA liberated the town of Yei from the GOS forces. When the Lizira congregation returned, they found their homes destroyed and their church structure in ruins. War, weather and years of neglect had caused the building to collapse.
Samaritan's Purse began rebuilding the church in 2006. Members volunteered and participated in construction of the church dwelling, bringing sand and rocks to the building site. Construction took about two months.
We arrived to the joyous singing of the church mothers, dressed in their flowing white robes, their chanting and calling and singing piercing through the air in front of the beautiful, tall, clay brick building with a sturdy, shiny tin roof.
The dominant structure contrasted with the tiny mud tukuls surrounding it. The church was laid out in a cross configuration, the windows and doors fashioned of the dark shiny mahogany so plentiful in the South.
Karyn played and talked with the children who came to see the visitors from so, so far away, as I walked about 30 yards over to the old foundation where the previous church had been started.
We met Pastor Emmanuel Logulomo, who told us of how a pastor at a neighboring church was told to close his church when the GOS began its occupation. When he refused, they incarcerated him and made him stand before his church and watch as they dismantled it brick by brick, attempting to destroy his spirit and his commitment. (They were wrong ... later in the day we visited his church, also rebuilt in the past few months by SP.)
What I realized is that the rebuilding of these churches was much more than rebuilding a facility in which to worship, as important as that was. It was a restoration of hope, of rebirth, not just for the congregation but for the entire community as they witnessed volunteers coming together to build for the future a magnificent structure.
I applaud Samaritan's Purse for its vision and dedication — to the future of the people of Sudan. So what we've witnessed today is a tiny seed that has just been planted. It will grow. It will grow from 11 churches to 500. But it will take nourishment and commitment and investment. But we will see these dreams become reality ... blessed with compassion and hope. Karyn and I are committed to do our part.