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.

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