Disaster and Displacement: Sudan’s exilic church

In the last fifty years, the great shaping force for the church in southern Sudan has been displacement. This week, as some southern Sudanese have once again been displaced, I find myself wondering what the impact will be on the church.

IMG_6558.JPGDuring Sudan’s first civil war, from 1955 to 1972, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes in the Equatoria region in the far southern part of the country. Some ended up in refugee camps in Uganda, Zaire, and the Central African Republic. But most were displaced within the country. They fled away from the unsafe roads and deep into the bush. Whether externally- or internally-displaced, one thing these refugees did was re-create the church in their new homes. Towards the end of the war, one Sudanese pastor wrote to his British bishop from the bush: “Do not be sad for us. We are still going on with our work, and the Church is still growing in this area. We have no leader or bishops to help us but here we have our great Bishop. He is leading us in the great difficulties of our work.” When the war ended, people began to return home. They interpreted their experience in Biblical terms. The picture on the left shows returning refugees with a banner quoting Jeremiah: “Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them. The returnees.”

Sudan’s second civil war, from 1983 to 2005, similarly displaced hundreds of thousands of people, though many were from the middle band of the country, places like Jonglei, Lakes, and Bahr el Ghazal. Again, whether displaced in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Kenya, or Uganda, or within Sudan, these people re-created the church where they were. In the Ethiopian refugee camps in the late 1980s, there were multi-day services where thousands of people were baptized. In Kenya in the 1990s, one bishop confirmed several thousand over the course of a three-day service. In Ugandan refugee camps, a committee laboured to create a new hymnal to share with others some of the huge number of hymns that were being written by new converts during the war. (I wrote about this in an earlier post as well.)

A church service at Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, c. 1995
A church service at Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, c. 1995

Many people were displaced within the country. In the centre of the country, some Anglicans founded a Bible school at a place deep in the bush called Dhiaukuei. It became a place where Christians came for Bible training, literacy education, and mutual support. Every year between Christmas and New Year’s, thousands of internally-displaced southerners would gather for a giant celebration of the nativity. It was a chance to be strengthened by the bonds they shared as one people in Christ before returning to their villages and the uncertain future that awaited them.

A quiet moment at Dhiaukuei Bible School, c. 1995
A quiet moment at Dhiaukuei Bible School, c. 1995

I know this because this is the area of research for my doctoral dissertation. These are stories that I have been privileged to hear in the course of my oral history interviews. But there’s also another theme I have heard repeatedly: when displaced, these church members felt like the rest of the church around the world had forgotten about them. Time and time again I have seen in the letters that survive from this period the theme, “We are all members of the body of Christ. But how come you Christians around the world are ignoring us?” For instance, between 1983 and 1991 over 400,000 southern Sudanese sought refuge in camps in Ethiopia. In that time, a single British pastor—a man named Tim Biles—came to visit Anglicans there. In April, I interviewed the southern Sudanese pastor in charge of one of the camps. Out of the blue, he asked me if I knew Tim Biles. I said I did. The Sudanese pastor looked straight at me: “You tell Tim Biles we still remember him. Of all the world, he was the only one who remembered us when we were suffering in Ethiopia.” Tim Biles visited the camp for one day twenty-five years ago. By embodying the reality of the body of Christ, he had an incredible impact on the church.

When he was archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey visited Dhiaukuei. I have spoken to many people who remember that visit. It is clear the memory of it has not dimmed one bit in the intervening twenty years. One woman told me that when he came, “We thought, ‘OK, if part of our body from a different part of the world came to visit us, then the message of Jesus Christ which said, “We are all parts of the same body,” is true.'”

As I have read the news in the last week from South Sudan (not to mention in the last month from the Central African Republic), I have been struck—and disturbed—by how similar it is to reports from Sudan’s two previous civil wars. This week, I have been trying to contact Daniel, the priest who translated for me on a recent visit to South Sudan, but have learned only that he is one of many people who have fled into the bush. Those of us who rely on computers for communication know little about what is going on. But if past experience is any guide, we can be sure of one thing: the church is there, interpreting the experience for its members and, in turn, being shaped by the experience.

To use the Biblical term, the church in South Sudan is an exilic church. It is a church whose members know both what it is like to wander in the wilderness and what it is like to have been driven from their Jerusalem and into foreign lands. I wish it weren’t so. I wish that Sudan had known more peace in the last fifty years. But exile is part of life in our fallen world, though its burden falls more heavily on some than on others. For those of us who do not share the experience of exile, the question is: how do we embody the reality of our relations as one body in Jesus Christ and help bear the burden of exile?

(Some of the photos in this post have been collected from private individuals in the course of my doctoral research. Please do not use them without first contacting me. The themes in this post are adapted from my chapter in the forthcoming Oxford History of Anglicanism and from my new book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion.)

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4 thoughts on “Disaster and Displacement: Sudan’s exilic church

  1. Pingback: Bor and Jonglei, the church and state—a history of deep inter-connection | Mission Minded

  2. Pingback: On scholarship and the priesthood | Mission Minded

  3. Pingback: Diocese, displaced | Mission Minded

  4. Pingback: Dinka Christianity | Mission Minded

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