Joy Portella is in South Sudan and will be blogging from there over the next few days. She is the Seattle-based communications director at Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian agency that works in 40 countries around the world. She has traveled with Mercy Corps to numerous disaster zones including in Haiti, China, Pakistan and Japan.

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JUBA, South Sudan — South Sudan has established itself as a secular state, but the majority of people here identify themselves as Christian. Churches have a lot of influence in this country so I wanted to see what was being said from the pulpit on the Sunday after independence.

I wandered into the All Saints Cathedral, an Episcopalian church, thinking I could tuck into a back pew. Hundreds of South Sudanese had crammed into the building and hundreds more were sitting outside in the heat watching the service on video screens. I was greeted warmly at the church doors and quickly ushered up to a set of front pews that were being reserved for guests honored Sudanese and foreigners. Not as inconspicuous as I had planned.

There are a few interesting things about attending church in Sudan, and I suspect in much of Africa. First of all, people dress to the nines; no Pacific Northwest-style casual in the pews. Second, even Christian denominations that in the States tend to be somewhat reserved such as Catholics and Episcopalians sing and dance with tremendous enthusiasm. Also, services are long, really long…at least three hours long. I arrived ready to hunker down.

The service began with a hymn; people were singing and swaying, happy but composed. Then the minister stood up and started addressing the congregation about independence. The congregants got progressively more excited, until a joyful noise a combination of clapping, loud amens, general happy outbursts, and ululation a kind of high-pitched, wavering vocal sound resembling a dog howl broke out and filled the air. Suddenly I felt more like I was at Qwest field watching U2 than at a church service.

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The rest of the service consisted of a mix of normal elements like Bible readings and hymns, interspersed with independence special events remarks from archbishops from the UK and US, speeches by elders who’d fought for independence , and a set of hymns and pro-peace songs performed by a nearby parish with a predominantly Dinka one of the largest ethnic groups in South Sudan – congregation.

Messages from the pulpit were decidedly pro-independence, but they didn’t skirt around the many problems that face this new country. There were prayers for peace, and particularly for peaceful relations with Sudan, as well as a desire to end violence and resolve disputes in Abyei, Southern Kordofan and Darfur.

There were also repeated mentions of self-reliance of the need for the people of this new country to pull themselves up and prove the skeptics wrong.

The world is telling us we will be a failing state; we will not be a failing state,” said Dr. Daniel Deng, the bishop of Juba. We need to teach our people to work, not just to receive [aid]. We need to produce our own food. It is the only way we will be a successful nation.”

Today was an incredibly emotional day at All Saints Cathedral, as I suspect it was at churches, mosques and homes across South Sudan. Monday is a national holiday, and I suspect the celebrations will continue all weekend long.

Later this week, I’ll be headed to northern Kenya, which has been flooded with refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia who are fleeing drought and famine. I fear it will be an awful scene but even in the midst of human suffering, at least I’ll be able to think back on the incredible joy that was this week in South Sudan.

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