See “Cities” and Exciting Bishops

The penultimate diocese on my summer tour is Nzara, one of seven Anglican dioceses in South Sudan’s Western Equatoria State. This is the bishop, Samuel Peni. (I like a bishop who can untuck his shirt on a hot afternoon.)

The diocese here is coming up to its second anniversary and has made huge strides in that time. It’s built diocesan offices and a great conference center. It has a house for its bishop. And just yesterday, it opened a really impressive clinic and medical center – well-stocked, well-trained staff, good facilities. Nzara is a little bit older than Aweil and points the direction for a place like Aweil. If Nzara can make this much progress in such a short while, Aweil can surely find a new house for its bishop.

Nzara is an interesting case in South Sudan. For much of the civil war, this part of Western Equatoria was in SPLA control so Nzara didn’t suffer as grievously as other places – like Aweil – did. However, in the last few years this part of Western Equatoria has been devastated by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel army that began in northern Uganda but is now migrating around central Africa, leaving chaos in its wake. Thousands of people in Western Equatoria have been displaced from rural areas to the cities and towns, where they have been for a few years now. That has resulted in the closure of a huge number of churches in rural areas of the dioceses. Ezo, the diocese to the west of Nzara, has been particularly hard-hit by the LRA.

My time in Nzara has given me a chance to reflect on two developments in the church in Sudan. The first is the rapid growth of dioceses in the Sudanese Episcopal church. There are now 31 dioceses I think, with more on the way. (The province doesn’t create them at random, though. Many of the senior clergy in Nzara have told me about the lengthy process they had to go through so Nzara could split from Yambio and become its own diocese.) Traditionally, a diocese is centred on one city, the see city. Practically speaking, the see city gives the diocese an economic base so it has parishioners who have enough money to give to the church to help the church function. But there aren’t that many true cities in South Sudan. (The country only has a population of eight or nine million after all.)

Nzara is a county capital but to call it a city – or even a town – is a bit of stretch. It has no bank, no gas station, no Internet access, and a market that only meets three days a week. For the diocese to do any of its business – like paying the people building the clinic – someone has to drive to Yambio, the state capital, 25 minutes away. (Twenty-five minutes isn’t that bad. Ezo is even farther.) Gas costs $2/liter. Things are beginning to change – there’s a rumour Nzara will be getting a bank – but there’s no doubt the location puts a huge crimp in the diocese’s activities.

But this is how it must be. There are so many Episcopalians in Sudan, the church needs to create dioceses so bishops are reasonably close to their people. As the church continues to grow – and more dioceses are in the offing – there are going to be more see “cities” like Nzara. I myself come from a relatively rural diocese and we make things work so it’s not impossible. But it’s worth noting this is a challenge of church growth in South Sudan.

The other development to note in the Sudanese church is the bishops. He has a lot of help but the man leading the charge in Nzara is Bishop Samuel. He’s part of a cohort of new, young, energetic, and educated bishops in the church, who work incredibly hard. Their formative years came during the war and they are now determined to lead their people into a full and just peace. It is impossible to meet people like Bishop Samuel – or any of these other bishops – and not be hopeful and excited about what the future holds for the church in South Sudan.

The “African Church”

I try not to use the word “Africa” – ever. The continent of Africa is a huge and varied place that an undifferentiated and imprecise term doesn’t seem to be of much use.

Yet I have often heard reference to the “African church,” as in, “The African church believes x” or “The African church doesn’t like y.” Yet as I have traveled around “Africa” – this summer and on other visits – I never fail to be impressed with the diversity within this allegedly monolithic entity.

For instance, here is the bishop’s house in Owerri, Nigeria, where I was in June.

And here is the bishop’s house in Aweil, South Sudan, where I was last week.

What you can’t see is that the house in Owerri is part of a large compound with nicely-tended gardens. The bishop in Owerri has three sitting rooms (he needs them all to entertain his many visitors) and they are air-conditioned. In Aweil, that little building has two rooms – with dirt/sand floors – that serve as housing not only for the bishop but also the diocesan school principal and his family. The building also serves as the bishop’s office. In Owerri, the bishop has two offices in two different buildings, at least one of which is larger than the entire building in Aweil.

Here are some women after church on a Sunday in Owerri.

And here are some parishioners in Aweil.

What you can’t tell from the pictures is that the women in Owerri speak great English and smell great. That might be because they have running water in their homes (a few even have hot water) and cook over propane or electric stoves. In Aweil, those women speak Dinka and Arabic and – there’s no other way to put this – have a certain odour about them, which I have often come across in people who are not able to bathe all that often and cook all their meals over smokey fires. Perhaps that’s because they have to carry all their water in buckets from a well.

As I sat in Aweil last week, I couldn’t help but pine for my air-conditioned bedroom in Owerri with a tub with hot water and a sink with taps in it. Instead, I had my umpteenth bucket bath – I’m developing an odour not unlike those women – in the grass hut outside and immediately got my feet all sandy when I walked back into the bishop’s house and crawled into my bed crammed against a wall. (Great thing about bathing outside, though, is you get to look at the stars while you wash – or, in one memorable case, watch an amazing thunder storm roll in across the plain.)

These are two little visual examples of the differences between a place like Owerri and Aweil. There are a huge number of others, of course. Owerri has countless programs, construction projects, and events going on. Aweil can barely provide enough wafers for monthly communion in its cathedral. There are at least twenty church schools in Owerri and many are quite good. The school in Aweil is in huts with flimsy grass walls. Life in Owerri is more similar to life in an American diocese than it is to life in Aweil.

And just as there is programmatic and financial diversity within the “African church,” there is also theological, philosophical, liturgical, and ideological diversity as well. Nigeria and Sudan were both evangelized by the Church Missionary Society but have developed on quite separate paths. There is quite a lot of difference between a Sunday morning in Aweil and a Sunday morning in Owerri.

So how can we speak of the “African church”? Maybe instead of speaking about it so much, we should start spending more time visiting it.

Needed: a little dash of prosperity gospel?

The major reason I’m in South Sudan this month is to visit some of the students I met last year when I was at Bishop Gwynne College in Juba. I want to learn about the context in which these students minister as a way to think more about what unites us as Anglican seminarians and how best to support them in their education.

I had a chance to do just that last week in Aweil. After teaching the clergy, I went with Paul, one of my classmates at BGC last year, to see his church. Here he is with his family (and a visitor) in front of his house.

During the war, Aweil was occupied by the northern army. The only church presence was the Catholics, who have been in this area for decades. The Episcopal presence, by contrast, only dates to the late 1980s and there were no Episcopal churches in Aweil during the war. Dinka who ventured too close to the city were shot. So the church grew in the rural areas but not in Aweil. (This region – Northern Bahr el Ghazal – is where Achak Deng, the author of What is the What, a book that did much to introduce Americans to the Lost Boys, is from. It’s also where Abraham Nhial, author of Lost Boy No More, which preceded What is the What, is now bishop.)

That changed after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. Paul, who had been ordained in the bush, moved to Aweil with his family and began an ECS church under a tree. It quickly migrated to the rough shelter under which the congregation now meets – about 300 people, on average, per Sunday. Paul is the only priest, though he has one deacon and a lay evangelist to help him out.

The church is trying to build a more permanent structure for itself. They had the money to put up the walls. They’re still looking for the money to put on a roof. When (not if) it is finished, it will be the largest Episcopal church building in the diocese.

The neighbourhood where Paul’s church is is a new part of Aweil. It is all people like Paul who have moved back to the city after the war. Social services have not quite caught up with the population growth. There is no school in the neighbourhood, which means these children have nothing to do during the day.

The church would like to start a school and help fill some of the other needs in the community. But those things take money and the church doesn’t have a lot of that at the moment.

One sharp contrast between Sudan and Nigeria is in stewardship. In Nigeria, the prosperity gospel has hugely increased giving to the church, allowing the church to do quite a lot in some parts. In Sudan, giving is anemic. This past Sunday I preached at a church where attendance was nearly 900. Collection receipts? Less than $100 – and I know I gave about 10-percent of that. People here aren’t rich but that is still abysmal giving. Say what you want about the prosperity gospel – and I can say quite a few negative things about it – but it increases giving. One church I preached in in Nigeria had an attendance of 14 and collection receipts of about $25. Perhaps Paul’s church needs a little dash of prosperity gospel. Of course, can you ever have something like a “little dash” of prosperity gospel? Or will it just take over the church entirely?

“There is always something new to learn from the Bible”

Here I am with the clergy of the Diocese of Aweil at the end of a two-day clergy conference I led last week.

That’s right. Me. I taught 50-odd priests about the Bible for two days.

At first glance, it might seem odd that a seminarian would be teaching clergy. But many clergy here are not well educated. (One of my classmates at Yale was flabbergasted to learn that a person could be ordained a priest in parts of the Anglican Communion without an M.Div. Welcome to Aweil.) As a result, they are hungry to be taught. It really is amazing, actually, just how eager they are. It’s a helpful reminder to me – and one I won’t soon forget – that my education is a true privilege and not something I should take for granted.

I structured my teaching by asking the questions, “What is the church?” and “What kind of leaders does the church need?” Obviously, there was a lot more meat to those bones but if you want to hear the content of the teaching, well, you’ll just have to invite me to your clergy conference…

Everything I did was Biblically-grounded. In fact, my teaching was basically two days of Biblical exposition. (I’ve written before about why this is important in Africa.) At the end of the first day, one priest, who has been ordained 22 years, came up to me and said, “Thank you. You have reminded me that there is always something new to learn from the Bible.”

In my living and traveling through Africa – and other parts of the developing world – I am always asking myself what my role is in response to what I see. What can I give? This is not an easy question to answer. As I’ve found in the past, giving stuff and giving money are not ideal solutions. For various reasons, they make me uncomfortable and are of questionable effectiveness.

But I have been thinking again and again this summer that sharing knowledge is one thing I can give without any serious qualms or doubts. People here want it – desperately – and I have it to give. So it was a delight to spend the time with the clergy of Aweil, though more than a little exhausting. Teaching for two straight days really takes it out of you!

The real question I have at the end of this conference is this: where is everyone else? There are clergy across Africa who are desperate for learning. Where are the people with education to help them out? Where are the Americans, Canadians, British, etc. who are willing to help our brothers and sisters in Christ out? Why do the clergy of Aweil have to be taught by an inexperienced seminarian and not, say, a cathedral dean or the rector of a cardinal parish with years of preaching and teaching under their belt? I met Bishop Moses Deng of Wau and within 32 seconds of meeting me – I mean that almost literally – he wanted to know when I could come back and teach his clergy as a first step in starting a Bible school.

My teaching was not in any way “conservative” or Biblically fundamentalist, which, according to some stereotypes, is all Africans know. Nor did our differences on some questions of sexuality pose any kind of obstacle. My teaching was the sort of thing you hear in mainline denominations in the U.S. – and people ate it up. Is the African church “conservative” because it’s an accurate reflection of where they are as a church? Or because that’s who their foreign influences are?

Not for the first time on my summer travels, I found myself lamenting the mainline Christian retreat from the world church. It is at our own peril.

As every good teacher knows, hand motions are key. I was glad my translator got in on the act as well.

In Abyei

So I made it to Abyei and back in one piece. But I’ve been delayed in writing about it by a combination of a lack of Internet access, lack of electricity, and blogger’s block. (But not writer’s block. An article I wrote about the visit is on Episcopal News Service.) Hopefully, you are a close follower of the situation in Sudan and know exactly why Abyei is significant. If not, here is a very brief summary.

Abyei is to Sudan like Kashmir is to India and Pakistan: a contested region that both sides want. You often see Abyei described as “oil rich” but this is not as true as it once was. The oil is mostly gone. But it is an incredibly fertile area that southerners and northerners want to graze their cattle and grow crops. In January, people in Abyei were supposed to vote to decide if they wanted to be with the south or north. That referendum never happened because no one could agree who was allowed to vote. In May of this year, northern troops and militias seized Abyei town, the major town in northern Abyei. That displaced a huge number of people, many of whom are now in Agok, the major town in southern Abyei. (Others are further south, including in Wau, creating more need there. The church with its limited resources has decided to focus on people actually in Abyei.)

There’s a river that divides Abyei region into two. We stayed on the south side of the river, where the refugees are and the northern army isn’t. But we had a Sudan People’s Liberation Army escort on our way into Agok because the road we were traveling on is closely watched by the south.

Ecclesiastically speaking, this is all part of the Episcopal Diocese of Aweil and is Bishop Abraham Nhial’s territory. Even had he wanted to go to Abyei town, he can’t. The bridge over the river was bombed by the northern army.

There are seven priests and three deacons (or nine priests and one deacon – I heard both) to serve the thirty-odd congregations in Abyei. I was driving in with two priests and occasionally one would point and say, “We have a church there.” He was pointing at large trees. The congregation meets underneath.

We also passed many burned out homes.

The villages we drove through felt eerily (a cliché adjective, I know, but true) empty. Everyone is seeking safety in the towns. Significantly, very few of the fields we passed have been planted. Too many people have fled, which means this planting season (there are two per year in South Sudan) has been missed, increasing the demand for food aid. The other notable part of the drive in was that we passed not a single cow. The Dinka people are pastoralists and cows play a major role in their culture. Around Wau, herds of cows are everywhere. But in Abyei, they were all seized and driven north during the violence in May.

We spent a few nights in the church compound in Agok. The church itself is a long, mud-walled, thatch- and tarp-roofed building. There are many refugees living here, mainly in the classrooms of the church-run school here. I talked with many of them and heard their stories of fleeing the sudden attacks and walking through the bush to get here. The UN has had a presence in Abyei for several years but no one trusts them anymore. During the attacks – both those in May and similar ones in 2008 – some people sought refuge in UN compounds, were denied, and were killed as a result. Under an agreement reached in June, Ethiopian peacekeepers will deploy to the region. But everyone is waiting to see if they’ll do any better. No one has much hope that they will.

Although it is estimated that tens of thousands of people were displaced in the attacks, Agok didn’t seem that unusual as a town. In part, I couldn’t see what was in front of my eyes. Some huts meant for one family now have four families living in them as people seek shelter with their relations. But also, the human capacity to cope is remarkable. People have lost everything but are already working on rebuilding their lives. There’s not enough food, shelter, or medicine in Agok and that is causing huge problems but people just keep going. That’s not to say they don’t need help. But I never fail to be impressed by the resourcefulness of people in difficult situations.

The roads to Abyei are in horrendous shape. Our four-wheel drive truck got stuck in the mud at least three times, once for nearly two hours. The trucks carrying the relief material also got stuck and broke down. (The Wau-to-Agok drive is supposed to be eight hours. It took one truck 60 hours to make it.) As a result, we all arrived at different times. Unfortunately, the bishop and I had to leave before the church distributed any food so I don’t have any pictures of that. But I am still grateful for the few days I had in Agok, visiting with church members and learning about their experiences.

The bishop pushing his car out of the mud. No dry cleaners in Agok.

Hopefully, people will begin to trust the peacekeepers soon and return in time for the second planting season. Maybe then, students can return to their classrooms – right now, they are meeting under trees – and life can return to “normal.” But in such a sharply-divided area, it’s hard to see what “normal” might look like.

What could possibly go wrong?

So this was the plan:

  • fly to Wau
  • spend ~$50,000 on food and other relief items
  • load that stuff on truck
  • drive truck to Agok, where there are lots of internally displaced people fleeing violence in Abyei town to the north
  • distribute

Simple. Piece of cake. No problemo – right?


Logistics in sub-Saharan Africa – especially in a place like South Sudan and especially in a peripheral place of South Sudan like Wau – are not easy. Here are some of the problems – and this is by no means an exhaustive list – we ran into along the way.

Plane – Our team of four – for reasons that are too complicated to explain – took two different airlines to Wau. One plane had engine trouble and had to turn back to Juba, causing a delay of several hours.

Prices – The donor agencies require three price quotations for all the material we buy. Local church people in Wau had done this before we arrived. But it’s not like that’s a binding RFP. Prices fluctuate so we had to go around and re-confirm all the prices. Then, based on those prices, we had to recalculate the budget. Then, having recalculated the budget, we had to go back and buy the stuff. In those few hours, prices have continued to fluctuate. More recalculation. What did we ever do before cell phone calculators?

Quantity – We were buying 400 bags of maize flour. One merchant doesn’t have all that on hand so he has to go check with his neighbours to see if they can help him out. Same for the lentils, cooking oil, salt, mosquito nets, plastic tarps, etc.

Weight – Four hundred 50-kg bags of maize flour are not light. In fact, they weigh 20 metric tonnes. Add on the weight of the lentils, cooking oil, salt – more calculations, more cell phone use – and we had to find a truck capable of carrying approximately 27 tonnes.

Road – It’s the beginning of the wet season in South Sudan, which means the quality of the road has deteriorated substantially. As a result, truckers have raised their rates and are less willing to take a full load. In fact, the most we could get was someone willing to take 20 tonnes. So that means two trucks. That means more recalculation. Have you ever hired a truck before? Do you know how to pick the one that won’t break down half-way to Agok? Or the driver who has a license that is not expired? Do you know how big a truck you need to hold 400 50-kg bags on maize flour? Me neither.

MoneyI’ve already indicated that the money – because of financial sanctions on Sudan – took a long time to reach Juba. But getting it to Wau is another matter altogether. Banks in Juba only allow people to withdraw $5000 in cash per day because of currency shortages. Since this is for the church, they bump that up to $10,000. But that still means it takes a week to get the money, convert it to Sudanese pounds, and fly with it to Wau. That’s a lot of money to be carrying around. I’m glad I didn’t have responsibility for it.

Purchasing – Merchants in Wau, like everywhere else in Sudan, work on a cash-only basis. So when you buy 400 bags of maize flour (at a price of over $60/bag), you have to hand over more than 50,000 Sudanese pounds. This poses several problems. That much money weighs a lot so is a pain to carry around. But it also has to be counted – twice – by the merchant and his partner to make sure they’re not being ripped off. Oh, for the ease of a credit card to swipe!

Loading – It takes a while to load 400 bags of maize flour (and other stuff) on to the trucks we finally managed to procure. Even with a team of four hard-working young men we hired, it still took nearly two hours. Oh, for a forklift! Then there was another issue. We were loading the goods on Friday. Most of the merchants are Muslim and they want to close at noon so they can go pray. Quick, load faster!

Seats – There were six of us who needed to go to Agok to distribute the material – one bishop, three priests, one SUDRA representative, and me. But in the two trucks, there were only two empty seats. So that meant hiring another car, one good enough for the bad roads. Just head down to Avis Wau and find one right? Nope. More negotiation, more calculation. (It would be great if one of the dioceses around here had a car we could have used. But none of the dioceses in this part of the country – Wau or Aweil – are rich enough to own vehicles. The bishop of Wau had just returned from visiting a far-flung part of his gigantic diocese on public transport.)

Communication – Our team was beginning to scatter around Wau, renting vehicles, supervising loading, etc. But many of our cell phones had died. Their calculators had been used too much and there was no electricity at the diocesan office where we staying to charge them. Those of us that did have working phones confronted network issues – calls dropped, didn’t go through, etc. Wau is a far-flung town and we were buying goods from two markets. More delay, more hassle.

(I should say that though I’ve been using “we” throughout, my role was minimal. My presence and help is welcome but I don’t speak Arabic or Dinka so am kind of useless, beyond tracking the receipts for each of our purchases. I’m paying my own way on this trip and the impetus for it is entirely from the Sudanese church members.)

In this context, I found it almost incredible when we did finally pull out of Wau on Friday afternoon, only about seven hours later than we had intended. All these difficulties we encountered made me wonder if the church is really the right organization to be doing this kind of work. More on that in another post, however.

I write this in Agok, where the trucks have not yet arrived, and after a difficult, rough, and bouncy journey that showed us just how bad the roads were. More on that in another post, however

(This post was written on Saturday but is now being posted on Monday now that I am back in Wau with Internet access. More on the remarkable trip to Abyei is coming. Here’s a small taste.)



“We are the church. We are always on the ground!”

Here’s a meeting I was a part of this afternoon in Wau, Sudan. The participants are all church members and residents of the contested Abyei border region between Sudan and South Sudan, who were displaced in the recent attacks there in May.

The Sudan Development and Relief Agency (SUDRA, the Episcopal Church of Sudan’s development and relief arm) is taking emergency supplies into Abyei this weekend. The meeting was to arrange the logistics for the trip.

You might be asking yourself, “But those attacks were in May – what good is emergency relief now?” Indeed, there was some dissatisfaction expressed in the meeting at the very slow pace of the church. The reason for that slow pace? The money for the supplies comes from international partners – in this case, Episcopal Relief and Development – and getting that money into a country under financial sanctions (as Sudan is) is not easy.

Actually, though, the delay turns out to be something of a blessing. Many of the international NGOs that initially responded are winding down their relief efforts. The church can now target its efforts better and draw them out over a longer period of time when they will still be needed. As one participant in the meeting said today, “The UN is there for three months. We are the church. We are always on the ground!”

The trip is being led by Bishop Abraham Nhial, bishop of the Diocese of Aweil, which also includes Abyei. The relief portion has been coordinated by John Sebit, head of SUDRA. But the real on-the-ground knowledge is coming from the priests and Mothers’ Union leaders who were at the meeting this afternoon and know which families are suffering the worst and – most importantly – where all the refugees have scattered to. Throughout the meeting, I was hugely impressed by the thoughtfulness, diligence, and care with which everyone made decisions about how to spend the money we have.

The head priest in Abyei is Zechariah, a student I studied with at Bishop Gwynne College last September and whom I’ve written about in an earlier post. Last year, I know him as a quiet, hard-working guy. He is the same way now – and also deadly serious and to-the-point about everything. I hadn’t expected to be able to see him on this trip. I’m glad we’ve reconnected, though I wish it were under different circumstances. (His family, by the way, for you readers of the earlier post, is alive and accounted for, though all have been displaced.)

To answer your question, yes, I’m going on this trip. I have checked and re-checked on safety and am as assured as I can be that this is a good idea. More importantly, I know how powerful a message it can send to have even one international visitor show up in a situation like this as a concrete example of what international partnership means. (I don’t represent ERD or any of the donors, of course; it’s more the idea of international partnership I represent than the actual fact.)

I doubt I’ll have solar-powered Internet access in Abyei like I do now – I’m typing this under a mango tree as the sun sets over Wau – so look for more picture and updates on the trip early next week.

Testifying to what we have seen and heard

I am reading Rowan William’s address to the Church of England General Synod in Wau, Sudan – connected to the Internet on the solar-powered satellite connection in the church yard, in the heart of a region that was devastated during the civil war, surrounded by hundreds of school children at the diocesan school who have no other place to attend, and not far from the contested border region of Abyei, where the church is ministering to refugees from recent violence.

His words rang true for me.

Two weeks ago in Eastern Congo, listening to the experiences of young men and women who had been forced into service with the militias in the civil wars, forced therefore into atrocities done and suffered that don’t bear thinking about, I discovered all over again why the Church mattered. One after another, they kept saying, ‘The Church didn’t abandon us.’ Members of the Church went into the forests to look for them, risked their lives in making contacts, risked their reputations by bringing them back and working to reintegrate them into local communities.

And I thought, listening to them, ‘If it wasn’t for the Church, no-one, absolutely no-one, would have cared, and they would be lost still.’ It was almost a fierce sense, almost an angry feeling, this knowledge that the Church mattered so intensely. It put into perspective the fashionable sneers that the Church here lives with, the various excuses people make for not taking seriously the idea that God’s incalculable love for every person is the only solid foundation for a human dignity that is beyond question. And it put into a harsh light the self-indulgence of so much of our church life which provides people with just the excuses they need for not taking God seriously. It left me wanting to be a Christian. It left me thinking that there is nothing on earth so transforming as a Church in love.

Congo isn’t unique. I’d just had a week in Kenya, where I saw ample evidence of how the Church stays at the forefront both of national reconciliation and of practical regeneration, and how its teaching programmes blend seamlessly together the new and grateful confidence that the gospel brings with the prosaic business of releasing skills and assets in a community so that food security is improved, soil replenished by better, simpler and more responsible farming techniques, co-operative schemes established and so on – always with the Scripture-reading congregation at the centre, learning what the new humanity means in practice, always with an unquestioning hospitality to the entire community. No, Congo isn’t unique. And today especially we will have particularly in our hearts another of our sister churches that has once again been the carrier of hope and endurance for a whole people in times of terrible suffering, as the new republic of Southern Sudan begins its independent life. But what is special in places like Congo and Sudan is a Church with negligible administrative structures and no historic resources working with such prolific energy. ‘Silver and gold have I none…’ But what they have is, somehow, the strength not to abandon, not to stigmatise, not to reject, but always to seek to rebuild even the most devastated lives. What they have is the strength not to abandon.

It’s possible to see this as a “romanticized” view of the church. People are people after all, whether in Congo or the United States. Try as we might, no branch of the church is free from stigma, abandonment, and rejection. But there’s essential truth in his words that is all too often overlooked in our insatiable desire to cut down and de-legitimize our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.

What Williams is getting at is something we often miss in the West because our media are incapable of reporting on the church. While there are NGOs – religious and not – that do important work that is similar to the church, in my experience, it is only the church that can marshal the authority that comes from its size and the fact that it is led by locals, not expatriates.

I also read the latest update from the American Anglican Council, where I learned that “two stories are ‘burning up the wires’ at the moment in Anglican Church circles.” You can read for yourself what the stories are but I can assure you that neither of those stories is on the radar screen of any Anglican I’ve met in either Nigeria or Sudan – two of the largest provinces of the Anglican Communion, which surely deserve to be counted as part of “Anglican Church circles.” No, people in Nigeria were talking about the faltering security situation in that country when I was leaving. In South Sudan, people are talking about their new country, specifically, what the roll-out of a new currency will mean.

The AAC e-mail struck me as a prime example of what the Archbishop of Canterbury calls “the self-indulgence of so much of our church life which provides people with just the excuses they need for not taking God seriously.”

I wish more people had the opportunity to have the experiences that I have and to learn that the body of Christ is not a metaphor but an actual reality. So I do my best to put into words what I experience, though it is here that Rowan’s words ring most true:

I wish I had the words to express more clearly to you what that strength looks and feels like, but I can only give thanks for seeing it.

On a trip like this, gratitude is the only possible response.

The Joyousness – and Banality – of Independence

(Um, you’re holding the flag in the wrong place.)

So here I am in Juba, now capital of the world’s newest country, South Sudan.

I’ve held off on writing anything about the independence celebrations on Saturday because, well, what is there to write? How does one put into words the realization of a people’s dream?

I did try to put the events into words for Episcopal News Service. You can read the two stories if you like.

Here are a few moments that didn’t make the articles that are worth remembering.

I started walking to the site of the celebrations at 6:45am on Saturday, bringing with me four granola bars, three sandwiches, two liter and a half bottles of water, and one Cliff Bar for the day. (Could have used more water.) It was a two-mile walk – no taxis were allowed on the roads that day, just VIP SUVs – and it was really great to be in this stream of people all walking in the same direction. “Joy comes in the morning,” sings the psalmist and that was what I was thinking about on that walk. On Friday night, there was loud honking and yelling all over town at midnight. On Saturday morning, it was subdued and people looked determined but it was still joyous.

The actual event was long, hot, and attended by a crushing number of people. I have never felt so claustrophobic in a crowd before. But it was also safe and everyone was friendly and enthusiastic. After a while, I couldn’t handle the crowds anymore and so watched from the distance.

I was struck as I was doing so that an independence celebration is just like any other event – speeches that were too long, more than modest disorganization by the security and protocol people that rendered what had seemed to be a very impressive pass system completely ineffective, a sound system that was kind of weak, and lots of trash left behind, including the new South Sudanese flags that had been handed out. I don’t mean to be uncharitable here because it was a great time all around but the banality and sheer ordinariness of the event struck me, perhaps because there was so much build-up to this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Because I was thinking about the story I was going to write and because I was concerned about not wilting in the heat, I didn’t feel the emotion of the day on Saturday. But on Sunday, I attended a thanksgiving service at the Episcopal cathedral. During the singing of the new national anthem – they had to project the words on the screen because so few people know them – the emotion of the congregation was just amazing and overwhelming. I finally felt – in a really deep way – just what this moment meant to so many people who had waited so long for it.

More photos of the big day on Facebook, which you can access even if you’re not a member.

The pursuit of peace and mutual upbuilding, Or, a response to my critics

These girls – and boy – are students at Anglican Junior Seminary in Yola, Nigeria. (The name is confusing but in American terms it is a combination middle- and high-school.)

Here is Bishop Marcus of Yola, with one of his priests, standing on the foundation of the dormitory at AJS’s new site.

When the dormitory is complete, the students will be able to move from their current temporary, cramped accommodations in a run-down building in town to this new, spacious, quiet site on the edge of town. AJS will be able to enroll more students than the current 60 it has room for. I spoke to an assembly at their school when I was in Yola and was impressed by how articulate and interesting the students were. They had very good – and challenging – questions for me and are promising young Nigerians.

I’ve written before about how the Nigerian government has essentially abdicated responsibility for education, especially secondary education. That is why church-run schools like AJS are so important to Nigeria’s future.

I’ve also written before about how alleged Anglican disunity is blocking really important projects like AJS. Bishop Marcus would love international partners to help him complete construction of AJS. As it is, the diocese is building the site building by building as it has the money to do so. It is hoping to raise enough money from its members to complete the dormitory by September to coincide with the beginning of the new school year. But progress has been slow lately.

My earlier post got some tetchy comments from both sides. Those in the broadly liberal camp said that Nigerian church leaders have said they don’t want American money so we shouldn’t give them any. Those in the conservative camp said I’m peddling “deviant theology” and undermining the “wall of orthodoxy” in a “poor, rural diocese.” (Yola is a state capital, not a rural backwater. Also, isn’t Jesus the one who breaks down barriers – read “walls”? But whatever.)

It’s hard for me to see the logic of any of these comments. To the conservatives, I’d say that my visit was at the enthusiastic invitation of my hosts. I’d also ask how many “poor, rural” Nigerian dioceses they’ve visited that make them such experts on what Nigerians are looking for. To the liberals, I’d ask if money is to be used as a weapon to punish people. Just because one leader says something we should inflict his sins on the rest of his church? I well remember what it was like to travel abroad when George Bush was president and foreigners visited his sins on me because of the passport I was carrying. To both, I’d say that the logic of punishing students because of alleged divisions seems more than a little twisted.

If there’s one thing I learned in a month in Nigeria, it is that paying attention to the most senior Anglican leaders may not be the best way to understand what is going on in the Anglican Communion right now. The lay people, priests, and bishops I met – in far-flung and off-the-beaten-path dioceses – are actually quite committed to Anglican unity and looking for international partnerships to build that unity and make it real.

One interesting factoid I learned in Nigeria concerns Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon of Kaduna. His diocese has one of the longest-standing international relationships in the Nigerian church. Over several decades, a church outside Hartford and the diocese of Kaduna have been able to work together on some really interesting projects. People have traveled both ways and the exchange has been about more than money.

Bishop Josiah is the one Nigerian bishop who has consistently called for dialogue and reconciliation within the global Anglican Communion – and he has paid the price for it. He was demoted from archbishop of a province back to bishop of Kaduna. Nigerian Anglican mucky-mucks have insisted Bishop Josiah is an outlier and doesn’t represent Nigerian Anglicanism.

But here’s what I’ve learned: there are many more bishops like Bishop Josiah out there. They may have some theological disagreements with other Anglicans around the world but they don’t see those disagreements as prohibiting dialogue. I don’t know of any other international partnerships like the one Bishop Josiah has with the church in Hartford. It is a fascinating thing that the one bishop with a relationship with a mainstream Episcopal congregation is the one bishop who has – without selling out his theological convictions – been most outspoken about the need for dialogue. Correlation is not the same as causation but…

One priest, in the midst of a deep conversation about things that divide Anglicans, said to me, “What really matters is Romans 14:19.” I had to look that up. “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”

Sounds about right to me. Are there Anglicans in the rest of the world willing to challenge the dominant narrative of fissure in the Communion and form international relationships? The students at AJS – and countless other similar places around the country – are asking that question.