Dinka Christianity: an exilic faith

It was not planned this way but the Christian Century this week publishes an article of mine about Christianity among the Dinka people of South Sudan, from the stuttering and failed efforts of Anglican missionaries in the first half of the twentieth century through two civil wars (and more recent violence) and into the vibrant faith it is today:

The Dinka church is a church of exile. When the civil war began there were only five Dinka congregations stretched along 150 miles of the Nile’s east bank. They were all that remained of the British Anglican missionary presence among the Dinka in the early and mid-1900s. Today that same 150-mile stretch is home to more than 300 Anglican congregations (and a handful of others in other denominations), not to mention innumerable preaching centers in cattle camps along the Nile. There are two dioceses in the area and plans to create more. Virtually every one of the villages on the roads leading out of Bor has a church—often a mud-and-thatch building.

The Christianity of today’s Dinka emerged out of the sorrow and deprivation of refugee life, a time of despair that led many refugees to turn to the church for support, nurture and growth. It’s no accident that the wooden church pews came back with the refugees. Today the cathedral in Bor is a center of South Sudanese life. On Sunday mornings the building pulses and shakes with the energy of up to 1,500 worshipers. The same is true in the churches scattered throughout the region.

Many of the people in Bor are now displaced, of course, by the violence of the last few weeks. I find myself wondering what role this faith plays in their displacement.

The article tells, in part, the story of Mary Alueel Garang Nongdit, who as a young, uneducated convert to Christianity began composing hymns of great theological depth and profundity.

The Dinka hymnal is a rich repository of theological reflection on many subjects, including the relationship between war and faith. Over a third of the hymns were composed by women, a remarkable achievement in a culture that traditionally has not valued women’s musical contributions. One of them, Mary Alueel Nongdit, began composing hymns shortly after her baptism in 1984. Her hymns are among the longest, most complex and most popular. They have a richness of expression and theological complexity that is unique.

In one hymn Alueel Nongdit writes that “the death that has come is revealing the faith”—an appropriate sentiment for a people who converted to Christianity during a war. She says that the hymn encourages the people to look to God. “When you are crying, instead of crying just divert that crying to prayers. Turn back to God and cry to him. He will see you. He will rescue you. You are not alone.”

Alueel Nongdit also wrote about the love of God and the ways that love can be expressed. In the book of Hosea, she says, God’s love is shown in ways that might not at first seem loving. The Dinka had a similar experience: it was only in the destruction of war that God’s love was revealed to her people. The Dinka were “a stiff-necked people,” she says, but “God cannot get tired. If there is somebody whom he likes, even if the darkness buries you, if God loves you, he can dig you out!”

Although I met Mary Nongdit after I had finished drafting my new book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion, this article gives you a taste of the kind of stories that are at the heart of that book. Anglicans around the world live some incredible lives of faith. It’s time to learn more about them.

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