07/08/2011 07:00 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2011

Celebrating Independence and Honoring God -- Half a World Away

SEATTLE -- Last Monday, July 4, I was holding David, my 5-month-old grandson, and savoring his facial expressions as we watched his father grilling hamburgers, celebrating his first Independence Day.

In a few years, he will begin learning about courageous individuals who fought an oppressive government whose armies incited unspeakable violence for more than a decade. But the death and destruction that resulted could not suppress the freedom fighters' undying faith in democracy over tyranny, freedom over injustice. Their perseverance and faith demonstrated why ballots are stronger than bullets.

David's teachers won't be discussing names like Lexington and Concord, but rather Juba and Abyei.

Tomorrow (July 9), more than 8 million people in the new nation of the Republic of South Sudan will celebrate their first Independence Day. This is an historic moment, but it is only a beginning, not the end, of a long road for this new nation's people to live up to their potential.

In addition to faith in democracy, faith in God also has played a vital role in the events leading to this celebration. And World Vision, the international Christian humanitarian organization, has shown an uncompromising commitment to support the people of South Sudan in serving their physical and spiritual needs.

"We recognize World Vision for its role in helping us intercede to God. It is God who has brought South Sudan this far. Prayers have been key," says Pastor Fermo Ogila, the coordinator of Every Home for Christ in South Sudan. This organization held prayer vigils prior to the week-long referendum last January when nearly 99 percent of the South's voters demonstrated their support for independence from the Khartoum government.

How many of this new nation's residents are Christians? Exact numbers are impossible to determine, but the Episcopal Church of the Sudan estimates that upwards of 4 million have professed their faith in Jesus Christ, though Animist beliefs often are intermingled with Christianity. Many American Christians, Protestants and Catholics, committed time, talent and treasure -- as well as political muscle during the Bush and Obama Administrations -- to help achieve a peace treaty in 2005 which led to last January's referendum. That treaty, like our nation's Bill of Rights, provides for freedom of worship.

As this new nation emerges, Christians around the world and in South Sudan still have a crucial role to play. World Vision is concerned for the well-being and protection of the civilian communities with which we work, particularly the children. Both North and South Sudan continue to face challenges for the health and well-being of children, and the international community must not forget either country as this new nation moves forward in this historic moment.

South Sudan begins its life as one of the world's poorest nations. Prosperity will come only as a result of what I call the "five fingers of development": health care, water and sanitation, education, economic development and food. Consider in South Sudan:

  • More than 90 percent of the population lives on less than1 per day.
  • More than 20 percent of the population is facing starvation.
  • One of seven women who become pregnant will die due to pregnancy-related causes.
  • Only about 17 percent of South Sudan's children are fully vaccinated.
  • Malaria is considered "hyper-endemic, and accounts for more than 40 percent of all health facility visits.
  • Less than 10 percent of women ages 15-49 know how to prevent HIV infection.
  • About 1 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water, and only 6.4 percent of the population uses flush toilets.

These and other statistics compiled by the Southern Sudan Medical Journal, a joint venture between Southern Sudanese and British physicians, clearly show that President Salva Kiir Mayardit faces extraordinary challenges.

Thankfully, President Kiir is an optimist. Speaking last September at the International Peace Institute in New York, he remarked:

"...(W)e need the support, in particular, the support of the multilateral institutions. ... We need also these people to come in with whatever support they can give to Southern Sudan so that development can be rapid in the few years to come. If there is security, and there is accountability, I believe there will be nothing that can prevent the development of the South."

President Kiir also recognizes the invaluable assistance that humanitarian agencies, such as CARE, Save the Children, Samaritan's Purse and Mercy Corps have and will continue to provide in South Sudan. He recently remark that, "World Vision's interventions were very supportive during our days of struggle." I am certain this can be applied to those and other agencies.

Maybe more important than President Kiir's optimism is his faith in God. Diligent and heart-felt prayer is needed, both for leaders of South Sudan as well as those in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. Prayer that they will keep their promises and work to peacefully resolve the ongoing conflicts. Stability and peace are the foundation for development.

President Kiir and other people of faith may want to consult the efforts of the Sudan Catholic Bishops Conference that last year published a booklet on how our faith is tied to making a difference for peace. The bishops wrote "Change Your Heart, Change the World" as part of the 101 days of prayer campaign leading up to the vote on independence. It contains a profound ancient tale:

A grandfather who explains to his grandson that within every person there are two lions: one is the lion of anger, resentment, jealousy, competition and fear. The other lion, through suffering, has learned to live in peace and harmony with the other animals, to show compassion and respect to those who are different from oneself.

The grandson asks his grandfather which lion will win within him.

The grandfather answers: "The one you feed."

Wise counsel I may share someday with my grandson David.