A Bible story set in the ancient city of Nineveh helped connect children at First Presbyterian Church of Lake Park, Iowa, with the modern-day challenges of South Sudan.

In a children’s sermon last fall, Tim Harmon, pastor of the church, told the children the prophet Jonah’s reluctance to share God’s love with the people of Nineveh was not unlike people today who fail to share God’s love with others.  These five third and fourth graders, who had been studying about mission in Sunday school, decided to show their care for others through an offering. Joined by other children in the church, they collected $93.41 over a two-month period to support the work of Presbyterian mission co-worker Leisa Wagstaff, an educator serving in South Sudan.

Wagstaff, a mission co-worker in Africa for three decades, says her “heart did somersaults” when she learned the news. “I was renewed afresh in my commitment to help South Sudan’s youngest citizens have a right to a quality education,” she says. “Truly this was an unexpected grace-filled moment.” 

The children at First Presbyterian of Lake Park “didn’t think there were any children in the world who weren’t able to go to school,” Harmon says. “They started in Sunday school praying for [Wagstaff] and wanting to find out more. They’ve talked to their teachers about God wanting everybody to have schools.”  

In the sermon on Jonah, Harmon mentioned the Hebrew word for the big fish that swallowed Jonah, and it sounded like “dawg” to the children. So the theme of the offering was “feeding the doghouse,” and coins were collected in a small doghouse with a fish on top of it.

Leisa Wagstaff, mission co-worker in Africa for three decades.

Leisa Wagstaff, mission co-worker in Africa for three decades. —Courtesy of Leisa Wagstaff

The children’s interest in South Sudan reminded the congregation’s adults about the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s worldwide mission program, Harmon says. He adds they have started talking about ways to step up the congregation’s mission involvement. “There have been some rumblings about whether we should stay (in the denomination),” he acknowledges, but “this has caused the PC(USA) to resonate more strongly” with the congregation.

The children’s generosity also struck a chord with Presbyterians in South Sudan, Wagstaff says. “When a group of Sunday schoolers here heard the story of this gift from a small town in Iowa, one started smiling, nodding his head, and loudly proclaiming, ‘They know that we exist!’ ”

Presbyterian World Mission is involved in an education and peacebuilding project working alongside the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan and other South Sudanese partners.  In early 2011, the people of South Sudan voted to separate from the Khartoum-based government of Sudan and form an independent country. The referendum was part of a 2005 peace accord that ended decades of civil war between rebels in the South (mainly black Africans) and government forces from the North (mainly Arabs). Save the Children reports that less than 25 percent of an estimated 2.2 million primary-school-aged children in South Sudan are enrolled in school.

“If a child misses out on an education, it sets his or her family back a generation,” Wagstaff warns.

She says the Iowa children’s interest in mission and concern for children in South Sudan are not surprising.  Children tend to be curious about the world and its inhabitants, Wagstaff explains. “They see the world more globally connected than we can imagine.”