At dusk on a recent Thursday evening, the lights inside The Castle in downtown Beaufort beckoned to those attending a fundraiser for Mark Walker’s mission in South Sudan.
As Walker greeted his guests as they arrived, it was clear that although he was physically present on the wide expanse of the front porch, his mind and heart were a million miles away in Africa. You can’t really blame him for that since he’s preparing to head back soon with the funding necessary to start a non-governmental organization to attack the root causes of poverty in the destitute country.
As pastor of Village Vineyard in Beaufort for well over a decade, Walker is, as always, working through the prism of Christian love near the biblical land of Cush now known as South Sudan. His first trip there was ten years ago, though he says Sudan was chosen because “all the hotels in Syria were booked.” It’s a joke, of course, but he’s journeyed back to the areas around the South Sudan capital of Juba because of a calling.
“There is need everywhere, and helping is sometimes like pouring water in a desert in that you turn around and it’s already dry,” he said. “But we’re going to build people in this region.”
In his career, Walker has been to enough conflict zones, including those in Central America and Eastern Europe, to be called a veteran.
“I’m comfortable in uncomfortable places,” he said.
While the fundraiser in The Castle was certainly a comfortable atmosphere, the black and white photographs of his mission trips on display — each with a story behind them — were genuine and heartbreaking. Depictions of “tukuls,” or huts, with thatch roofs and roaming wildlife without an electricity pole or telephone line in sight were somewhat expected. But there are also numerous photos of children who never get a childhood, their eyes the focal point of a camera lens that can’t possibly capture their experiences of being pulled into the military or the family business with no formal education and little sustenance.
Another photo showcases the curiosity about a milk pail — the only sign of modernity — in the middle of a village gathering.
Yet another photo shows the villagers standing in line, as they do twice daily, for their 40 lb. water jugs culled from the rivers. That and “ugale,” a type of thick paste that passes for food, is what keeps them alive.
The photos that were successfully auctioned will pay for the start-up money for the new organization that has three components, according to Walker.
First, self-sustainable skills will be taught to young, able South Sudanese people. The skills are necessary for a developing nation and include basic mechanics, carpentry, electrical wiring and welding.
Second, the stories of the elderly generations will be captured in writing and audio-visually with the aid of a BBC reporter, mostly for posterity’s sake so that these experiences will be remembered. This means bridging the gap between English and the mostly tribal languages spoken in the area.
The third and final component of the mission uses a more universal language. Called “By The Hand,” Walker wants to institute a program that uses his friends in South Sudan to willingly help children — notably the infamous “lost boys” orphaned and displaced by the war — find their way back to a better life. This is dangerous, obviously since the region has been rife with fighting between the government and the rebellion since 2013.
But bringing back to safety those in the midst of the battles are what drives missionaries like Walker.
“We may be beyond healing South Sudan, but we can start making history with newer generations,” said Walker.
The largest photo on display at the fundraiser was that of an older woman named Tabitha. First meeting her in 2009, Walker found that she was wary of him initially. But return visits brought out the best in both of them — the village outcast and the foreigner on a mission. Eventually she was comfortable enough to go through his luggage while he was out of his tent, hand-washing the clothes that were dirty.
In return, after a few years of relationship-building, Walker gave her a proper funeral when she became yet another casualty of the civil war. Her photo, like many others, is as hopeful as it is haunting.
“You can’t get away from some of the things you see,” said Walker.
Back on the front porch of The Castle, the full shade of the night contrasts only with a Palmetto moon. Perhaps it’s a good omen for the people of South Sudan who know that there are South Carolinians like Mark Walker waiting to illumine some of the darkness in their world.