Brought together, for what purpose?
By James Van Heel
I’d like to share with you an opportunity that was presented to me some 3 years ago which saw me leave my family and Australia for 6 months – a difficult choice and one that Jo supported me in however we did not know what it was like to be separated with a child for this period.
I believe that God selected me for an opportunity that relatively few people could have access too. At the time, I thought that it was coincidence, I now know it was not.
If you were looking through God’s eyes, knowing who you are, your passions, your weaknesses and life experience, where should you be salt and light in this broken world? For me, it was definitely not in Africa as I had my hands full in Australia, or so I thought.
At short notice due to an injury to a fellow Army officer in Dubai, I was requested to consider a deployment to Sudan. With Jo’s blessing I accepted not knowing what I was really getting myself into. God Knew.
Sudan is in NE Africa. On a map of Sudan – Countries bordering it include Egypt to the North, Ethiopia to the East, Uganda to the South and Chad to the West. The weather is extremely hot and there are plenty of dust storms and disease.
My role was Australian Contingent Commander and Senior Logistic Officer to the Force Commander. I am pictured here with some of the 15 Australians that I was responsible for at the Commonwealth War Grave in Khartoum just prior to our departure on Remembrance Day.
Part of my role was to escort visitors from Australia –There were many and varied visitors including the now Prime Minister who was then the opposition Foreign Affairs minister.
The reason for the UN Mission in Sudan is to restore peace between the Sudanese Armed Forces (Arab muslim forces) and Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (Native African and predominantly Christian).
There were a number of situations that I won’t go into in any detail however, there were times that I did not know whether I would be returning to Australia through local incidents and the potential for incidents to occur. It was comforting to know that God was in control and that I could place my cares onto him for my own safety and that of those whom I was responsible for. Thankfully, none under my command were casualties however there were many times where this could have been the case.
It was great to receive MCF deployment packs that I could take with me throughout the different sectors that I would visit. The deployment pack has a gospel and some notes from some sporting stars who have also chosen to live a life for God. We all have challenges and the Christian life is not easy.
It is reassuring though to know that your creator is on the journey with you, no matter where you go. It was a reminder that there were people back in Australia who were praying for me.
I lived in an apartment block in Khartoum about 3 km from the airport with some other Australians on my contingent.. At the back of our apartments was a dusty field that was enclosed by a 2m concrete wall. As I was on the 4th floor, I often heard the noise of a number of youths playing soccer and would often notice how fanatical they were, with yelling and athletic stunts when one team was to score a goal.
I had a sense that I should jump the fence and gesture to them that this I would like to join in the soccer game – having crossed the fence, I was at their mercy with approx 300 of what I thought was to be Sudanese youths on the oval either playing soccer, playing cards, drinking coffee etc.
To my surprise, my gesture was accepted and so began my journey into their lives. I was soon advised that this dirt field was in fact going to be the place where the next Ethiopian Embassy was to be built and those who were allowed on the land were Ethiopian refugees, that were not well treated by the Sudanese locals to their country of origin and faith, which was Christian, not Islam.
Fortunately, a few of the Ethiopians spoke English and I started to build a relationship with them. Those who did not know my name called me hawaja (which apparently means white man).
Over the next five months my I spent more and more time with them. Initially it was just playing soccer for an hour. It then grew to having cups of Ethiopian coffee with them. We then exchanged songs and dances into the early hours of the morning. I could not believe that I was accepted by them as they were normally very suspicious of foreigners, especially from western nations.
Adil became a special friend. He invited me to his humble dwelling where his mother, 2 brothers and his sisters family lived. They shared a one bedroom run down home with 10 of them. Adil slept outside under the stars.
He had often said to me that he would not get married and have a family because he would not be able to provide for them. His sister with a 12 month old child had to work 7 nights a week selling tea on the street. My allowances for a week were more than they would earn in a year.
Adil had mentioned that his brother had had enough and was planning to leave Sudan through Libya to catch a boat to Italy. Adil had told his brother not to do this however the conditions were such that he believed he had no choice. He would try to get to Europe, work hard and then send money back to his family so they had enough money to eat.
I would meet Adil every day on the football field at about 5pm. This day he was not there and a couple of his friends came to tell me that something bad had happened to his brother. I said to his friends that I must go to see him. I soon found out that his brother and his brothers girlfriend had died with another 200 boat people when their boat had sunk.
My heart sank. I now had a totally different opinion about refugees and boat people who were trying to escape their country and head for Australia.
I went to Adil’s house that was packed with friends and family all mourning with the family. Some people asked what is this white man doing here mourning for the family. Adil and my friends were quick to say this is a white man with Ethiopian blood. He is one of us.
Changes for me included having more compassion for those who are less privileged than ourselves. I learnt that happiness does not come through possessions. It is through relationship with those around you and being part of the community.
God prompted me to get involved in leadership of the Youth Group again in my local church.
He also confirmed to me that I was to continue to serve in Military Christian ministry as clergy or through MCF. God has placed me in the military for his purposes, not my own.
If you were looking through God’s eyes, knowing who you are, your passions, your weaknesses and life experience, where should you be salt and light in this broken world?
I’d like to challenge you to consider what your mission field is within Defence and your local community.
Character lessons I learnt through my time in Sudan were
– Jump over the fence into the unknown
– Take time – people are important and valuable to God no matter what colour, race or religion
– Celebrate with those who celebrate
– Mourn with those who mourn
– Open up your heart
– Live the life God has prepared for you in humility