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Every time I hear the word “tribal” it’s always negative. Tribal politics are destroying the nation, tribalism, tribal factions, and on and on. 

Ten years ago, I was sitting with Native American leader and pastor Corey Greaves from the Yakama Nation in Washington state. He said “Christianity is a tribal religion.” That caught me off guard. “Don’t believe me? What tribe did Jesus come from?” I never thought about that – Jesus came from the tribe of Judah. He grew up in his ancestral tribal lands and practiced all kinds of tribal and religious customs, while under the oppressive rule of the non-tribal Roman government. Corey went on to describe how tribal peoples understand Jesus better than us westerners. That blew my mind! He suggested that we Anglos should sit down with Native peoples and learn in order to grow in our Christian faith!

What is worship like in heaven?

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. Revelation 7:9

In 2008, Angie and I were adopted into a tribal family. Martha, Matthew and Paul are tribal – from the South Sudanese Nuer tribe. They all speak their ancestral language and were born on their ancestral land. But 23 years ago, a brutal war ruined all of that and they were forced to flee barefoot and naked 500 miles to a Ugandan refugee camp. Martha was about 10 years old when she left.

This summer, Martha, Chelsea (my granddaughter) and I traveled to South Sudan for Martha’s marriage to David Nyang, a South Sudanese leader from the Nuer tribe. The wedding was different. The ceremony was entirely made up of tribal dancing: 4 hours of it! 

South Sudan is currently the poorest country in the world, with a per capita income of just $700 per year. It’s a war torn, impoverished nation dogged by corruption, fighting, and extreme poverty. 

Martha is moving permanently to South Sudan in a few weeks. Chelsea is going to stay with Angie & I in the US, since South Sudan isn’t yet stable enough for Chelsea to live there. From an American’s perspective, it sounds crazy, abandoning your child like that. Having your mother move away when you’re 5 years old isn’t easy. But like everything, it’s complicated.

Martha’s new husband, David Nyang, is the chief of staff for the governor of the state of Upper Nile in South Sudan. Upper Nile state has a population of about 1 million people, and is the size of Indiana. David plans to run for governor in 2025 when the country of South Sudan holds its FIRST ever democratic elections! After more than 70 years of civil war, there is hope that democracy could turn this country around. David is running with a coalition party, made up of multiple different tribes on an anti-corruption platform.

On January 13th, 2024, we will send off Martha from SFO as a political missionary. She’ll be attending a state dinner in Upper Nile the following week with David. Nation building is hard. For South Sudan, it’s 1776. Everything is a mess, but there’s a lot of hope. We need smart, educated, courageous Christians who speak the language and know the culture to get involved in the mess, and act with integrity and honesty. Angie & I can’t do that. But we can raise Chelsea here in the US, and give Martha and David the opportunity to do it.

The gospel of Matthew was written by a tribal Judean turned tax collecting traitor, turned Jesus follower. Matthew details the prophecy that left King Herod so worried about this homeless baby King:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” (Matthew 2:6, Micah 5:2)

King Herod responded with a violent infanticide – killing all the baby boys under 2 years old. Fortunately, the angel warned Joseph in a dream. Jesus’ first mission was to flee from his ancestral tribal land to North Africa, to become an unwanted refugee in Egypt. But he didn’t stay in Egypt. He returned back to Judea on a sacrificial mission to bring salvation to all those who would call on his name. Jesus’ final mission was the same as his first – peace in the midst of the mess!

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2)

Come to think of it, Martha’s tribal refugee experience isn’t much different. I’m proud of her, excited to be able to support her return to her tribal lands, and praying for PEACE ON EARTH!