Moving to South Sudan, a war ground of turmoil and strife in northeast Africa, has been a major risk for Robert and Maridith Lane, even to the point that the IMB missionaries call in daily to assure their teammates in Uganda that their family is still alive.
Since age 8, Maridith, a Georgia native, knew she would one day lead a life surrendered to Christ on the mission field. Robert, from Texas and Tennessee, found his calling at age 19, when he became aware of the startling amount of unreached people groups, which now number more than 6,500. By 21, he was committed to reaching the unreached with the Gospel overseas.
"I thought maybe there's a chance that I can go and in some way make Christ's name accessible to the people who have not been able to hear it," Robert said.
When the Lanes visited South Sudan in 2010, their hearts became burdened for the unreached peoples of the nation. There are more than 400,000 people unreached by the Gospel in South Sudan, which became independent of Sudan in 2011.
The Lanes' journey began with two years of preparation in neighboring Uganda, where they lived among the Karamojong people. Gunshot echoes and cattle raids were common, but the couple also learned about other realities, such as cooking from scratch with local ingredients and learning which Gospel-sharing methods work best with cattle-culture people groups.
In November 2013, they moved to South Sudan. Now, they are learning to live a life more difficult than they ever experienced. They see it as a risk worth taking if it means following God in obedience to reach out to the Dinka Rek people group, numbering nearly 3 million.
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"We need to be ready for those hardships, ready for those difficulties, ready to be used as a sacrifice for Christ as we try to make His name famous," Robert explained.
The Lanes, along with their teammates Selvin and Laurel Jeremiadoss, attend language classes five days a week and immerse themselves into the culture every day, building relationships with tutors, neighbors and local church leaders.
The Lanes admit life is not easy in South Sudan because of the hot climate, political conflict, water scarcity and high food prices. Raising their 2-year-old son, Shepherd, in such an environment takes a lot of prayer and a strong marriage, Robert said.
"It's a challenge to live and work in a country where even the local people find it at times too difficult ... and move away," he said.
Another challenge they face is trying to teach a warlike people group to love. The Dinka take pride in their cattle, raiding other groups to gain more and defending their own by force.
"The Dinka are very strong and proud. In tradition, they're extremely warlike," Robert explained. "They say, 'We hate our enemy, we hate this other people group, we hate people who try to take anything from us or keep us from political power.'"
However, the Lanes have no doubt South Sudan is where God has called them. Getting into the country is usually difficult, Robert said, but they were able to gain access, set up a house and build relationships with local people in a relatively short period of time.
"It's not been easy by any stretch of the imagination," Robert explained, "but in a lot of ways we've been able to do something that should really be impossible, and I see that as a very big confirmation of God's will to have us in South Sudan."
As the team forms ministry plans, they recognize the best method is to bring in trainers from Uganda who can adequately equip believers in church leadership.
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Bringing in the trainers will not only help the local believers in their confidence as leaders but also will strengthen their faith and their understanding of church, Robert said. The hope is that these leaders will one day plant churches among their own people.
The Lanes are grateful for the strong support they have through their team in South Sudan and Uganda, along with Southern Baptists' prayers and giving through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and Cooperative Program. As a team, they encourage one another daily, trying to stay positive.
They believe their call is to persevere through the hardships and teach the Dinka what love really looks like. At the end of the day, Robert said, there's no price too great to pay because this sacred effort is worth it.
"It's taken a strong dependence on Jesus Christ and understanding the truth and reality of the message," he said. "The only reason why we do what we do is because there's such a great, wonderful, beautiful, eternal reward, not simply for us but for the glory of God."
Watch the Echelon team share about their work in South Sudan: