This is the first summer in five in which I will not visit some part of Africa and spend time with our sisters and brothers in Christ in that part of the world.
But I’ve found what is, perhaps, the next best thing.
St. Paul’s Sudanese Mission in South Phoenix is an Episcopal church like no other in the country: it’s the only free-standing Sudanese Episcopal church in the country. The congregation is primarily what are often called “Lost Boys”: some of the thousands of children who walked into refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya twenty or more years ago and were resettled in the U.S. a decade ago.
On past trips to Sudan, I’ve done a fair amount of teaching: in dioceses, and in seminaries. (I’ve also done much more learning than I’ve done teaching.) St. Paul’s has a Saturday school for lay people that they call the Sudanese American Theological Institute. Thanks to a generous grant from the Evangelical Education Society of the Episcopal Church and building on a course I did at Yale this past spring, I’m teaching a course this summer on Sudanese Church History. Here’s the first class.
Now, at first glance, you might think it a bit odd that an American should be a teaching a bunch of Sudanese about their own church history. In fact, however, many Sudanese, particularly many of the Lost Boys, became Christian after they were forced to leave southern Sudan. Their conversion happened in places like Kakuma Refuge Camp and Khartoum. Church history is not something that is widely known.
So on Saturday we began at the beginning, with the so-called Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8 (Really, he was from the Meroitic empire in what is now northern Sudan) and the Nubian Christian empire that withstood an Islamic invasion and was a flourishing Christian kingdom for centuries on the Nile River. We talked about what we can learn about the enculturation of the Gospel, missionary strategies, Christian-Muslim relations, and much more.
I had them read extracts from the sixth century writer, John of Ephesus, who documented the work of missionaries to the Nubian kingdoms.
Then we talked about the pros and cons of a missionary strategy that focused on converting kings and nobles and discussed how relations between the Nubian kingdoms changed from enmity to friendship when the kings became Christian.
You get this sense, sometimes, that westerners think Christianity is a relatively recent import to Africa, brought by Euro-Atlantic missionaries in the last century or two. That’s obviously not true. After Pentecost, the Gospel radiated in every direction from Jerusalem—not just to the north-east—and we do well to remember that. Christianity is part and parcel of African history. Studying that history seems like a good idea to me, both for what we learn about what happened and for what it can teach us about our own time.
Next up: the beginning of the European mission era. Why did European missionaries—who had so much success elsewhere in Africa—fall flat on their face when they encountered the Dinka people? And what does that tell us about mission and evangelism in our own time?