By Nathan Johnson
08/08/2017 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Bishop Joel Mwendwa was leading morning prayers at the Christ Life Ministry Church on June 24. As the prayers and worship continued, a man barged into the service, upset because he claimed that the church noise was causing him problems. To end the noise, he charged Bishop Mwendwa with a Pungu (machete) and repeatedly slashed him. After this vicious attack, the bishop was left lying in a pool of his own blood, dead.
Attacks like this are not uncommon. Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, is regarded as one of the most hostile places in Africa for both foreigners and locals. South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2010 after more than 40 years of civil war. Even after gaining independence, however, South Sudan has still been racked by war and in-fighting.
Although Christianity is the dominant religion in South Sudan, unlike in Sudan where churches are burned, pastors are arrested, and international Christian organizations are restricted, Bishop Joel’s decision to serve and preach would always be risky because of Juba’s violent history.
Despite this hostility and danger, Bishop Joel, a Kenyan, had lived in South Sudan for 10 years doing mission work. He witnessed the independence of the newest nation in Africa and wished to see a more stable, peaceful and thriving country. In his striving to make this a reality, he helped open and serve three churches across Juba and a school near the border between Congo and South Sudan.
Because of his peaceful mission, the news of Bishop Joel’s death came as a shock to his family and friends. Anna Shali, Bishop Joel’s wife, spoke to International Christian Concern’s (ICC) correspondent when he traveled to her home in Kenya in July 2017 and expressed her agony at her husband’s death.
“I heard my phone ringing at 6:30 am while preparing breakfast for my family. I thought it was my husband calling because the previous night he had promised to call me in the morning. It was not him, rather I heard and recognized the voice of his neighbor in Juba, who informed me that [Joel] has been killed. It was so gut-wrenching and painful in my heart and I went out screaming uncontrollably until neighbors thronged in our home,” she said.
Anna continued to recount the experience of coping with the devastating news, “Many questions crossed my mind about how he died. I was thinking maybe the man had shot him by a gun as I had never heard any attack by machetes in Juba.”
“Soon after, my mother in-law arrived, held me and told me that if there was a way we could have saved Joel we would have saved him, but now that he has been killed we shall trust God for comfort,” she remembered.
Bishop Joel’s mother, who had also lost her husband recently, has been strong during the time of her son’s murder. “When I heard of his death, I felt like dying too, even to the extent of asking God why He did not cause Bishop Joel to oversleep and miss the morning prayers or send a Good Samaritan to save him from the attacker. I have been relatively composed for the sake of his young wife and children. I have been staying with her from the time we received the news and I will continue to support her as long as it takes,” Bishop Joel’s mother said.
Simon Mwendwa, Bishop Joel’s brother, was also in total disbelief about his brother’s death.
“I was shocked by the sudden death of my brother who I loved so much,” Simon told ICC. “That day, I could not talk or eat, thinking how fast our brother has left us. I remembered the good times we had in Juba and the respect the people accorded him as a pastor. Nothing was really adding up and I still doubted.”
The church in South Sudan also mourned Bishop Joel’s death. Pastor Deng Akol, another pastor in South Sudan, condemned the murder, “…and ask[ed] the government to book the suspect. We know that we are coming from war, but this is not a leeway to being vicious on our brothers and sisters from other countries. The Church in South Sudan stands with his family and we ask all pastors to visit and condole with the Church and the present family members and relatives. We need more pastors and churches in South Sudan and not the other way round.”
After a week, the government of South Sudan in collaboration with the Kenyan Consulate in Juba organized for the transfer of Bishop Joel’s body for burial in his home in Katakani, Mwingi. His wife was among the family members and friends who gathered at the airport to receive his body. Watching his body return from South Sudan made her realize “that I will not see him alive again. We accepted the will of God.”
His family remembers him as a man who led by example and encouraged people to love and serve God. His firstborn son, Meshack, described his father as “a loving, caring and understanding father who always listened and sacrificed a lot for us. He always told me to be a man. We did not lack food and clothes.”
“He was a hardworking man and he was killed by ruthless men while out there serving God and looking for something for the family,” he added.
Through intense suffering, the family clings to hope in the Lord Jesus, just as Job did. “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26 ESV).
Ann Shali’s final farewell to her husband and father to their children echoes Job’s great confidence. “Life has changed drastically, but we are hopeful that the Lord will not leave us. Joel, my husband, we will always miss you. Rest in eternal peace, and we shall see you soon in the last day.”