Malek, South Sudan

Malek has a special place in the mission history of South Sudan.

The first CMS team, plus a visitor from the Uganda mission. Shaw is back row, left.

In early 1906, six young men—none older than 30—arrived at this community on the east bank of the Nile River, fresh-faced and eager to convert the Dinka people to Christianity. They were representatives of the Anglican Church Missionary Society, and what they lacked in experience they made up for in enthusiasm.

Within 18 months, five of the six were gone, felled by a combination of ill health, incompetence, and sheer frustration at the perceived obstinacy of the Dinka. The one who remained, Archibald Shaw, soon contracted malaria and was sent to Khartoum to recuperate. The Anglican presence among the Dinka was nearly extinguished almost before it had begun.

Shaw returned to Malek and began building a mission station. By the time he retired in 1939, Malek had a school and a church but CMS had found much greater success elsewhere in southern Sudan. Malek continued on as a mission station, but Shaw and others saw their work among the Dinka largely as a story of failure. Such Dinka Christians as there were were former students who were largely disconnected from their traditional way of life.

In time, the independent government of Sudan took over running the school at Malek. But the school was destroyed during Sudan’s first civil war. It was re-built in the 1970s during a period of peace, and then destroyed again during the second civil war.

Today, this is all that remains of the house that the CMS missionaries built for themselves.IMG_7324

But here is the church.IMG_7326

And there’s not only a primary school, but also a secondary school in the community.

In virtually every village around Malek, there is now a mud-and-thatch church, a fact that would have stunned those early CMS missionaries, whose evangelical tours through those same villages are a record of frustration.

The Dinka church on the east bank of the Nile River is a thriving institution. Indeed, the growth has been so quick and comprehensive, that Anglicans in Malek now want the church to carve Malek out of the existing Diocese of Bor and make it a free-standing Diocese of Malek.

One of the clerics in this picture decided it was just too hot to wear a collar.
One of the clerics in this picture decided it was just too hot to wear a collar.

It is this man who now oversees the Malek archdeaconery and is leading the effort to create the diocese. Joseph Akol Gak was ordained in the 1980s, when the school had just been rebuilt (and was about to be razed again). He spent time ministering to Christians in refugee camps in Ethiopia and across southern Sudan. In the span of his ministry, he has seen the Dinka church move from being a socially marginal institution to one that is at the centre of Dinka life.

Regardless of whether or not Malek becomes a diocese, it will still stand for me as an example of the importance of consistent, faithful Gospel witness across generations. The world is always pressing on us the need for results, the sooner, the better. Timelines contract. Horizons shrink. The church is not immune from this pressure.

But mission requires the long view. Sometimes our plans seem frustrated. But when we look closer, we can see the hand of God at work often even despite our best efforts.

“I started under a mango tree”

IMG_4070Samuel Peni, bishop of the Diocese of the Nzara in the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, was recently at the AFRECS conference in Chicago and gave this interview.

Readers of this blog might remember that I recently profiled Bishop Samuel in an article for the Anglican Communion News Service.

Bishop Samuel mentions the work in his diocese to reduce mortality in childbirth. The traditional birth attendant program is underway, but the diocese is looking to expand it. More information on how to support that particular aspect of his ministry is here.

“Hey, we’ve got something good going on over here. Come join us!”

The Church Times this week published a reflection of mine on the role of processions in the church in South Sudan. I write about how time after time when I was visiting churches, it would involve marching through town, a village, or down the road beating drums, singing songs, and making lots of noise. After one such parade down the main street of Akot, I thought:

“Well, aren’t we making a big deal of ourselves!” But then I realised that this was precisely the point. Processions are not simply an expression of the joy and hospitality that people might be feeling on a particular occasion. They are an evangelistic tool: “Hey!” we were saying, in effect: “We’ve got something good going on here. Come and join us!”…

Christianity is a public faith. From an early time, Christians realised that faithfulness to what Jesus had taught them meant that public action was necessary. The early Christians preached on Pentecost, for instance, and defended themselves in front of hostile crowds. You couldn’t be a Christian and keep it to yourself. Anyway, why would you want to?

You can read the rest of the article here. And here are some more pictures of processions, truly an incredible thing to be a part of.

IMG_7163 IMG_7165_2

Supporting theological education in South Sudan

In a recent post, I suggested that if we wanted more women bishops in the Anglican Communion, we needed to support theological education. That comment sparked some conversation on Twitter as people asked just what that might mean.

"Evangelism is one blind beggar showing another blind beggar where to find food." -D.T. Niles
“Evangelism is one blind beggar showing another blind beggar where to find food.” -D.T. Niles

Here’s the first thing to say: South Sudanese Christians are eager/enthusiastic/desperate for further education. One reason so many South Sudanese converted to Christianity during the civil war was that they realized their lack of education was hampering their ability to assert themselves against northerners. Education and Christianity had always been linked so as they sought education, they sought baptism as well.

Afternoon literacy class, Diocese of Rumbek, South Sudan
Afternoon literacy class, Diocese of Rumbek, South Sudan

That enthusiasm continues today. Teaching and education is a huge part of what the church does. On a local level, that means, for instance, literacy lessons for women. On a broader level, it means that I am continually meeting people who want me to find them “sponsors” abroad who can pay their school fees for further study, whether at the Episcopal Church of the Sudan’s seminary, one of South Sudan’s overmatched universities, or at some place abroad.

There have been a variety of efforts to respond to this need. Thirty years ago, a Theological Education by Extension program was created in which courses were designed, published, and then circulated to be offered in small groups in various dioceses. In the time since, they have not been updated, revised, or augmented, and translation work into South Sudan’s many languages has been sporadic. But in a measure of how important education is—and how few the resources are—I still see these books in use in dioceses. When it’s all you have, you’re going to use it, even if it’s imperfect.

But the major message I get from South Sudanese is that they know they don’t have the resources to do a sufficient job of education; they can’t meet the need themselves. I remember meeting a bishop two years ago. Within—literally—seventeen seconds of meeting me, he said, “My clergy need better education. Can you come start a Bible college in my diocese?” On this recent visit to South Sudan, I spent time at Dhiaukuei, a village that became an important clergy training site during the civil war. The training has dwindled, but people are eager for it to start again. When I visited, I was repeatedly asked if I had come to be its principal and when I would be starting courses.

So how to move forward?

There is, of course, the need to finance scholarships for people to study at existing institutions in South Sudan and abroad. But the vast majority of Christians in South Sudan will never be able to do that. They’re too busy living a subsistence agriculture life that doesn’t allow for time off.

Instead, I have become convinced that there is an enormous unmet need for regional clergy training sessions. I did something like this on a very small scale two years ago. During the dry season when people aren’t busy cultivating, clergy, Mothers Union members, and youth leaders could come to a central point for a week or two for lectures, Bible study, group work, etc. on particular topics.

Lest you think that the teachers of these sessions have to be super-educated, extensively-published, multiple-degree-holders, remember how great the need for education is. I offered clergy trainings as a seminarian. When I did, the students eagerly welcomed everything I had to offer, no matter its imperfections. When I was finished, they asked for more—not only of what I had been teaching, but also of more practical issues, like parish administration, stewardship, etc. You don’t even have to be ordained to teach those topics! In fact, it probably helps if you are not.

I am convinced that trainings such as these would be eagerly welcomed in a place like South Sudan. What’s more, they would introduce Christians from the Euro-Atlantic world to day-to-day life in an inspiring and fascinating part of the Anglican Communion—but one that is also struggling under the burden of ministering in the world’s newest nation. When it comes to building relationships with fellow Christians, there is no substitute for gathering around the Bible together and trying to figure out what it means. The incarnational aspect of these trainings remains their most important aspect.

St. Paul writes, “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding.” (Romans 14:19) Theological education is a route to that goal.

(I would be remiss if I did not note that many of these ideas are developed in much greater detail in my forthcoming book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion.)

Hidden Obstacles to Women in the Episcopate

IMG_0239The woman on the left is Martha Yar Mawut, the archdeacon of Akot in the Episcopal Church of the Sudan. Akot is a see city, so it’s a pretty important role. She was an important lay evangelist during the war, was later ordained, and now, by all accounts, performs her job with admirable skill and talent.

If you believe, as I do, that having women bishops is part of the Anglican charism to the wider body of Christ, then women like Martha matter. Archdeacons are among the prospective bishops of the church. The more women like Martha there are in South Sudan, the greater the chance that one of them will become a bishop.

But I don’t think Martha will ever be a bishop. And thinking about her helps us think through some of the obstacles to women bishops in the Anglican Communion.

The topic of women as bishops came up frequently on my recent visit to South Sudan. Everyone I spoke to—male bishops, male and female priests, lay people—were in favour of the idea. It makes sense. Women played a huge role in the growth of the church during the civil war. Male church leaders know that the strength of their church is in the women.

The Episcopal Church of the Sudan has ordained women for about a dozen years. A few are archdeacons, canons or, in one instance, a cathedral dean. In fact, on a rough estimate, I’d say the proportion of female clergy in ECS compares favourably to that in the Church of England, given that the C of E has ordained women as priests for roughly twice as long

Nor is there any canonical impediment to women bishops in South Sudan. When ECS made the decision to ordain women as priests and deacons, they (sensibly) concluded that it did not make sense (theological or otherwise) to deny women to be ordained as bishops.

So there are women like Martha in leadership in dioceses—not many, but some—and there is a path towards women bishops. So why aren’t there any?

The answer I heard, time and again, is education. Given the civil war and the lack of resources in South Sudan, training for ordination is of a necessarily ad hoc and contingent nature. Some people go for a few months to a vernacular Bible college or a diocesan training course, others are fortunate to attend ECS’ English-language seminary, a very small handful have studied abroad. For a variety of reasons, women clergy, by and large, are less educated than their male counterparts.

But ECS has a de facto requirement that its bishops be able to speak English so that they can take part in churchwide meetings. They also have to have some kind of diploma or degree. These are good requirements to have, but it means that many women who perform faithful, important ministry in their local context are unable to be considered when it comes time to elect bishops. Martha could greet me in English, but all my conversation with her was through a translator.

None of this is to minimize the unique array of cultural obstacles women in South Sudan face in pursuing leadership. But to people who know only about the “African church” that it is some kind of misogynistic institution, you would be surprised how much support I heard for women bishops in ECS.

There has been good news of late for supporters of women bishops: the first woman bishop in the Church of Ireland and the Church of South India, the first woman ordained in the Church of England elected bishop (albeit in New Zealand), and canonical changes in Wales to permit the possibility of women bishops.

So much of the debate about women bishops focuses on the canonical changes necessary. That’s good, but it’s not enough. The lesson of my recent visit to South Sudan seems to be that if you want more women bishops, support theological education.

UPDATE: Conversations sparked by this post led to a second post laying out ways to support theological education in South Sudan.

“A safe place to do risky things”

I’ve just finished Andrew Atherstone’s brief biography of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. For a book that was produced on such short notice, it is excellent. Atherstone does a terrific job of trawling through Welby’s publicly-available writings to paint a picture of the interesting, intriguing, and complex person now in the see of Canterbury.

Some of the interesting bits of the book have been quoted elsewhere. One bit that stuck with me, though, which I have not seen elsewhere is Welby’s emphasis on risk as a Christian virtue. When he was at Liverpool Cathedral, he encouraged members of the congregation with the phrase, “This Cathedral should be a safe place to do risky things.” It is a view, Atherstone argues, that has informed Welby’s ministry.

So I’ve been thinking about risk and the church lately. And to that end, I am off on a visit to the church in South Sudan that begins this evening. I’ll be bringing my copy of Atherstone’s biography to donate to the library at Bishop Gwynne College so students there can also reflect on our new archbishop. Stay tuned for posts from South Sudan (and in the meantime, read about my past visits there).

Thomas Bray’s unfinished project

About eighteen months ago, I spent some time at a seminary in Nigeria. Shortly after having a contentious conversation with a group of students’ wives about homosexuality, I peeked into the library. This is what I saw:IMG_1774

I’ve also spent time at a seminary in South Sudan. There, I also found a lot of people who found homosexuality to be difficult to reconcile with Christianity. Their library looked like this:IMG_2652

At Yale, where I went to school, I had access—literally—to millions of volumes and all the latest scholarship. At both these seminaries, the books are relatively few and are overwhelmingly old: there were few that were less than thirty years old. Yet at both places, I found students who were eager to read whatever they could get their hands on.

Think about where theology and the church were thirty years ago on the question of homosexuality. In that context, is it any wonder that we have such sharp disagreements on these issues?

The church commemorated last week Thomas Bray, a seventeenth century priest, who was instrumental in founding the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK.) (He was also involved in founding the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which was instrumental in bringing the church to the American colonies.)

Bray’s idea in founding SPCK was that Christians should have access to Christian scholarship and literature. He envisioned libraries in churches and an educated clergy. SPCK helped start some of the first libraries in the American colonies that focused on church-related material.

When we look at these libraries in places like Nigeria and South Sudan, we are reminded that Bray’s work is not yet done. There are really important insights of the last generation that have not been shared yet with our sisters and brothers around the world, and not just on questions of sexuality. (The Anglican Theological Review’s Seminaries Abroad Gift program is one very small way in which this work is being done.)

The commemoration of Thomas Bray is an opportunity to reflect on a visionary Anglican. But more importantly, it’s a chance to reflect on the vital need to continue his important work.

News from Abyei

Here’s a picture I took a year ago:

That’s Bishop Abraham Yel Nhial, bishop of the Diocese of Aweil in Sudan. I took the picture when Abraham and I were in Abyei, the contested border region between north and south, which is part of his diocese. The bridge behind him was destroyed in attacks in May 2011 by a northern-allied militia. Its destruction meant, at the time of our visit, that Abraham was unable to visit all parts of his diocese, including the town of Abyei, the centre of the region. Instead, we went to Agok, a town in the southern part of the region where a huge number of people displaced from Abyei had sought refuge, many in a church school.

I just heard from Abraham that he made it to Abyei, this time with the Archbishop of Sudan, Daniel Deng Bul. They have only just returned and have—to date—a very short report to share. Nonetheless, it is devastating to read:

An Episcopal Church of Sudan delegation led by Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul has just returned from a visit to Abyei. They were shocked at what they saw. The town is deserted apart from “a few stragglers”, and has been completely destroyed. One eye-witness from the delegation described it as reminiscent of World War II photos of the aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities. Only the mosque was untouched. The Catholic church, Catholic and ECS schools, boreholes, administrative offices, government houses, power station, shops, even the latrines, have all been destroyed. The UN forces are perceived as being biased against the Dinka. There appear to be no humanitarian agencies working there, as apparently it is consider part of Sudan and they do not work cross-border. A huge number of refugees from Abyei, perhaps as many as 100 thousand, are in Agok with very few basic services. The people simply ask for what is their right under the Abyei Protocol of the CPA, agreed by both parties: a referendum in which they can choose their destiny.

The Church will be releasing a full report, with pictures and video, in the near future.

Details to follow. In the meantime, an item for your prayers.

The “law of homogeneity” in the church

One of the (possibly the only) downsides of the high profile Desmond Tutu had in the 1980s and 1990s is that other eloquent, faithful, and prophetic African Anglican leaders were overshadowed.

I thought about that as I was preparing for my class on Sudanese church history last week. Bishop Francis Loyo of Rokon has been bishop of his diocese through the long years of civil war. He’s seen the Episcopal Church of Sudan in all its glory—and its pain.

In 1999, he wrote an article called “The Church Today As I See It.” A (rather long) excerpt is below, which I gave my students on Saturday. As the new nation of South Sudan continues to be confronted by tribalism (and churches in the U.S. increasingly mirror the partisan division of the country at large), I find his words to be important, more than a dozen years after they were first written:

Will the church languish in conformity and accommodation? Or will the Church bring the power and presence of Christ to bear on the Sudanese national crisis? The Church in Sudan must apply the test of practical Christianity. In the present situation both the Christian faith and freedom are being destroyed. Therefore, the Church in Sudan must do everything possible to overcome this false alternative. Christians can only overcome this when the Church becomes radical again and seriously considers who it is that they believe in and what the authentic experience of God actually is. To achieve this the Church in the Sudan must rediscover the long forgotten subversive traditions of freedom in the Bible. To believe in God means nothing less than to experience one’s own liberation. The name of the true God means freedom. Only be experience of the true God can the Church in Sudan know true freedom. The truth of human freedom is love. It leads to unrestricted, solid and open communities. Only this freedom in our communities can heal the wounds which oppression has caused and continues to cause in Sudan and in its Churches.

The Church in the Sudan is seen as the “Church of hope” despite the difficulties which the Church is undergoing. The Church in Sudan advocates a human community that is not only based on the similarity of its members—the same race and same language, the same class, the same views and the same morals. These are the things that always bind people together. We find people who are different from us disturbing. That is why we love our friends and hate our enemies and despise strangers. People have built up societies based on class, or caste or systems of apartheid according to the laws of homogeneity. The power which drives these societies is self-righteousness.

The Christian Church lives quite differently to this law of homogeneity. It lives in recongition of other people in their otherness, and that means reconciliation. “Here there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you are Christ’s, then, you are Abraham’s offspring and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3:28-29) This is the peace that the Church in the Sudan advocates—a peace in Christ who has broken down the dividing wall between us, taking the hostility through his flesh. (Eph. 2:14)

The driving force behind the Church in Sudan lies in the righteousness of faith which is founded on reconciliation through God. The Christian community in the Sudan begins at the very point where fences and walls are set up between human beings, where nations are divided, countries are separated, and families are split.

The Church in the Sudan must resist every kind of separation if it wants to remain the community of the Church and to minister to people. But even in the Christian Church the law of homogeneity prevails again and again. There are national Churches, Churches of particular races or ethnic groups, middle class Churches, Churches in different social classes. All these are heretical in their practical behaviour, for they spread enmity not reconciliation and their effect is to exclude and not to invite. It is only when congregations can be made up of Black and Arab, poor and rich, uneducated and educated, handicapped and non-handicapped, that there will be a witness to divine reconciliation in this hostile Sudan.

Congregations like this will have a difficult time. They will be despised and pushed aside. They will become congregations under the cross. But they are the sign of hope for the Church in the Sudan because what they do in their divided society is reconciling and healing. The Church in the Sudan must encourage policies of reconciliation always and everywhere. It is only through reconciliation to self and one another that the vicious circle of revenge is broken among Christians. It is only through reconciliation that the law of retaliation is abolished. It is only through reconciliation that hostility is overcome. But Christ teaches us that there can only be reconciliation on the foundation of the sacrifice of oneself and on the basis of righteousness and justice. It can never be at the expense of other people and on the ground of injustice.

The hatred seen in the divided Sudan has eaten its way deep into the Sudanese thinking in both North and South. It is always fear which teaches people to hate their opponents, and the person who preaches hate spreads fear. Politically, Christ is not against the Muslim in the Sudan. He died for them too. God reconciled “the world” to himself and that includes the other religious or political parties. That is why a Christian cannot become the enemy of his/her enemies. Christians in the Sudan need to see Christ in those who hate them.

But loving one’s enemies does not mean being subjected to the system of one’s enemies. Or saying nothing about their hostility. Love of one’s enemies presupposes immense assurance and liberty. It has to be intelligent so that it can understand the fear that makes the enemy hostile, and it has to become inventive in order to change the situation so that enmity becomes unnecessary.

I took this text from But God is Not Defeated! Celebrating the Centenary of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, 1899-1999 (Nairobi: Paulines, 1999), pp. 39-40.

“You converted because of the songs”

My class of Sudanese Episcopalians last Saturday considered the rapid conversion of many Dinka to Christianity in the 1980s and 1990s. For the teacher, this raises an interesting conundrum: how to teach about something which the students experienced firsthand. The solution? Prompt them to talk about their experience and try to provide some concepts to frame the experience in terms of mission and how and why people convert.

What is so fascinating about the conversion of the Dinka is that for many decades European missionaries tried—to no avail—to convert the Dinka. What happened when the missionaries left, however, is that the Dinka were able to encounter Christianity on their own terms and in a way that was coherent with their culture.

I got a lesson in this in my class on Saturday when one student told me about how he converted. Singing has long been important to Dinka culture; indeed, in many ways, it is the chief artistic expression. Before war decimated the Dinka homeland, young men would tend cattle in camps. They’d wrestle, talk about women, tend their prize bull, and, in the evenings, write songs about all of it. If it was a good song, it would be sung by others and passed around.

When the Sudanese civil war sent many of these young men into exile, they did the same thing: composed songs about their experience. Only this time, the experience of displacement had (for a variety of reasons we can talk about in another post) introduced Christianity to their mix. In one refugee camp of tens of thousands in Ethiopia, there were two Sudanese pastors. These pastors held services under the trees and taught the boys songs about Jesus. The boys would learn the songs and go back to their shelters and teach others. As they learned more, they began to compose new songs about Jesus. The good ones began to spread. The Gospel was being transmitted to the culture in the most culturally-appropriated medium. As the student said on Saturday, “You converted because of the songs.” The message they were transmitting was appealing and it was unencumbered of the culture of the European missionaries.

This, for me, is a textbook example of the way in which Gospel and culture can come together and lead to the mass conversion of a people. It’s one thing to preach the Gospel. It’s entirely another thing to preach it in a way that people can interpret in light of markers they already know.

So Saturday’s class got me thinking: what’s the equivalent in American culture? North Atlantic culture, we are often told, is moving away from Christianity. In some places, it is outrightly hostile to the faith. This part of the world is now a chief “mission field.” So how do we speak to non-Christians in this part of the world in a way that will be understood?

One challenge, of course, is the fracturing of culture and media. There are now so many sub-cultures (in a way there weren’t necessarily in Dinka culture) that to think about hitting on one method is probably foolish. Still, the reason I’m so fascinated by mission history is that I think it has lessons for us today.

So… in our own time, what’s the equivalent of converting people by song?