One thing South Sudan is definitely not lacking in is fertile land and the Episcopal Church of Sudan owns some of it. When I hear about churches owning land, I think first of the medieval church and get a little queasy. But not so here. ECS sees the land as a way to feed people, generate income for priests who are otherwise unpaid, and help form the basis of the economy. (Just the other night, I was listening to the BBC here and they had an interview with a World Bank official just returned from a visit to Juba who was convinced agriculture was the future of south Sudan’s economy.)
The other day I visited a newish ECS project in the Diocese of Torit, about 60 bone-rattling miles (three hours) away. The project is really remarkable. ECS owns 2000 acres (!) in this particular diocese but has been able to pay people only enough to clear 10 acres. When I first heard ECS owned land, I thought of rolling cornfields in the midwest. I didn’t think of this.
This is a tropical place and clearing the land takes a while. But the results are impressive. In this area, sorghum and sesame (known in Arabic as simsim, as in Simsim Street – no, seriously, look it up) are staple crops and they are growing well. Since this is the tropics, there are two plantings a year.
The project is overseen by a committee in the local village and also employs people in the village, including an impressive project manager. Robin Denney, an Episcopal missionary and the agriculture consultant for ECS, provides advice and support to the project but it is a great example of local control.
The Diocese of Torit is a fascinating place. Just a few years ago, it was pretty well overrun by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a marauding rebel army that began life some decades ago in Uganda but now causes havoc around the region. People fled to cities and/or to Uganda. In the just the past few years, people have begun to return to the rural areas. The growing village we visited was almost deserted just a few years ago. People have almost no money – it is clear that everyone is living on far less than a dollar a day, mostly getting by with subsistence agriculture. This is a project that is making concrete change in the quality of life.
The church in this village is some logs under a tree. Where two or three are gathered in my name…
I’ve been reading a book of former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey’s lectures I found in the library here. At one point, he quotes Cyril of Jerusalem to make the point that the church is catholic (that is, universal) not just because it covers the earth but because it “teaches universally and without fail all the doctrines which ought to be brought to the knowledge of men concerning things visible and invisible in earth and heaven.” In south Sudan, agriculture is clearly one of those “doctrines” which needs to be taught and it’s encouraging to see the church so heavily involved.