The body of Christ on July 9

There are a lot of things that happen at a General Convention beyond the business of passing legislation: movie screenings, talks, networking, and, oh yeah, worship.

In celebration of the first anniversary of the independence of South Sudan, there was a Eucharist on Monday evening for those connected to the work of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. It was a terrific service: lots of great singing led by the Sudanese there, support from some of the many bishops in the Episcopal Church who have Sudanese congregations in their diocese, an honest acknowledgement of the pain and suffering that has happened and remains ongoing, and much else.

There is lots packed into a General Convention so the service didn’t begin until 9:30pm. As wonderful as it was, I have to say I was a bit weary during the first part of the service. That changed during the passing of the peace when the three bishops in the service took a liturgical liberty to tell the congregation about their relationship.

From left to right, that’s Ruben Akurdit, of Bor, Sudan; Cate Waynick of Indianapolis, Indiana; and Mauricio Andrade of Brasilia, Brazil. Together, they have a three-way companion diocese relationship. Last year, Cate and Mauricio were in Bor together. (Three-way companion relationships are increasingly common. We recently saw the fruit of another relationship in this letter to Rowan Williams from several bishops.)

In their comments, the three bishops stressed how they see in one another the body of Christ: difference (of race, background, culture, sex, etc.) but commonality in worshipping the same God in Christ.

I was completely awake by the time they had finished their short remarks. Then, in the Eucharistic prayer, each said the words of institution (the “take eat” part of the liturgy) in their own language. It is not often that a Eucharistic prayer I have heard so often and know so well can surprise and move me but it did on Monday night.

The act of celebrating the Eucharist in multiple languages with people from multiple backgrounds seemed to me to be so central to what the good news of the body of Christ is all about. And it’s yet one more reason I have hope about the future of the church and its role in God’s mission in the world.

South Sudan, one year on

One year ago today, I was in Juba, South Sudan for the independence celebrations of the world’s newest country. It was a huge event, and I shall not soon forget it, even if my friend here was holding his flag in the wrong spot.

It’s been a hard first year for South Sudan. Not only are there serious unresolved issues in its relationship with what remains of Sudan, it has been beset by inter-tribal violence, plagued by corruption, and unable to address the many pressing social needs of its people.

But when people ask me, as they often do, what I think about South Sudan, my reply always includes the lines, “I have a lot of hope for the future.” And I do. My visits to Sudan have convinced me that the potential in that country is huge.

I am particularly convinced of this because of the continued and powerful witness of the church in Sudan for peace and reconciliation. When Jonglei state was plagued by inter-tribal violence earlier this year, the government turned to Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. He negotiated a peace deal that has held and has created the space necessary for long-term peace-building to get underway. Archbishop Daniel and his Catholic counterpart Paulino Lukudu Loro have issued a statement on their continued hopes for the future of South Sudan.

So when you read the truly horrific news that the continued violence along the border is producing another “Lost Boys”-type situation or the awful conditions in some new refugee camps, I hope that a gasp of horror won’t be your only response. On this July 9—and every other day—I hope you’ll join in prayers for this new nation, read the letter from the archbishops, and think about ways in which you and your church can support our sisters and brothers in Christ in South Sudan.

Together, perhaps, the enthusiasm displayed by this young man can soon become a reality shared by all.

Learning from the past

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?

“We too have a dream…based on the Church’s prophetic stance on justice and peace”

Folks who know I’ve spent some time in Sudan have lately been in habit of beginning conversations with me like this: “Isn’t the news from Sudan awful?!”

I never quite know how to respond. On the one hand, yes, it is true: what filters out in the wider world—and onto top-of-the-hour NPR newscasts—is pretty bad. On the other hand, Sudan and South Sudan are both hugely complex places that make me uncomfortable rendering sweeping judgements. Yes, it seems renewed war between north and south is a real possibility. On the other hand, there’s news of a (church-led) peace conference in Jonglei, a separate, non-border part of South Sudan, which, before the doings of the last few weeks, has been a source of awful news. At the same time, a conflict that has been going on for nearly a year continues in the Nuba Mountains and elsewhere along the border.

So when people ask me this question, I—who have no special insight or knowledge beyond what is publicly available to all—usually say, yes, there’s been some bad news but I have a lot of hope about the future.

One reason for hope centres on the ongoing role of the church in peace-building. Several Catholic and Episcopal bishops recently met in Yei and articulated some of their hopes for the future. The statement is worth reading in its entirety but here are a few extracts:

The Church is not only for Christians nor for South Sudanese. The Church identifies with the poor and oppressed of any creed, ethnicity or nationality, wherever they are…. We bring to the world not the voice of politicians, parties or movements but of the people on the ground, who are suffering a humanitarian tragedy and whose human dignity and human rights are not respected by their own government.

Martin Luther King famously said, “I have a dream”. We too have a dream, a vision, a conviction. Our dream is based on Gospel values; on the Church’s prophetic stance on justice and peace; and on the dignity of each human being, created in the image and likeness of God. Where others see problems, we see the presence of God and the opportunities which God’s presence opens up for us. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted (Luke 4:18). Our dream is an expression of this Good News….

We dream of people no longer traumatised, of children who can go to school, of mothers who can attend clinics, of an end to poverty and malnutrition, and of Christians and Muslims who can attend church or mosque freely without fear. Enough is enough. There should be no more war between Sudan and South Sudan!

Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be recognised as children of God (Matthew 5:9). We take this very seriously, and we stand committed to do all in our power to make our dream a reality. We believe that the people and government of South Sudan desperately want peace. We believe the same is true of the people and their liberation movements in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. We do not believe, however, that a lasting peace will come unless all parties act in good faith. Trust must be built, and this involves honesty, however painful that may be. We invite the International Community to walk with us on the painful journey of exploring the truth in competing claims and counter-claims, allegations and counter-allegations. We invite them to understand the peaceful aspirations of the ordinary people, and to reflect that in their statements and actions.

So, get involved in Sudan. Pay attention. Become an advocate. Do what the bishops are asking and walk with Sudanese on “the painful journey of exploring the truth.”

Is the news awful? In many places, yes. Is the situation without hope? Absolutely not.

News from Sudan

If you have been reading the news from Sudan lately, you will know that it is not good, and that the two countries are teetering close to all-out war.

Here is this, from Bishop Abraham Nhial of the Diocese of Aweil, with news from his diocese on the border between north and south. (I travelled with Abraham to one of the critical border regions last July.)

Dear all,

This letter is to update you all about the current war situation in South Sudan, as many of you have seen it in television and it read it in the newspapers, the war is back to us. As we are watching television and reading about what going on through the newspapers, we learnt that many people are killed, wounded, displaced and their properties are looted or destroyed by the soldiers from Sudan government leaving them in horrible situation.

As I write this letter many of displaced people go to bed everyday without food even one meal in a day is not there, leave alone shelters to protect them from the rains and no clothing to cover their skinny bodies. The displaced persons have experienced great trauma and great suffering now more than ever because no one was affecting war again soon. In fact, people were preparing to cultivate their farms and they were working hard to start new life the new nation.

This letter is to inform you friends of the Diocese of Aweil that two thousand eight hundred and sixty people are displaced by the recent fight in the North Barh el Ghazal State. Therefore, I am appealing to you all, individually, a church and a community to pray for us, advocate on our behalf and consider to support if you can to save the lives of your brothers and sisters in Christ from dying of hunger. Please may you all show them the love of Christ the need now at this difficult time in their lives. I will becoming to USA on May 08 and I would love to visit some of you if you want me to speak in your church, business, school or community  gathering etc.

As usual, I am truly thankful for everything you do every single time. There is no bigger blessing than friends like you always stand with us in time of trouble like this; may God bless you and reward you all for your services.

With love always!

Bishop Abraham Nhial
ECS Diocese of Aweil
South Sudan

It’s worth underscoring that advocacy really does matter and that the United States can play a significant role in this situation in preventing the outbreak of what would be an incredibly disastrous war. Have you talked to your senators or representatives lately? Now’s a good time to start.

House of Commons Report Calls for More Support for Episcopal Church of Sudan

From time to time on this blog, I go on about how in many parts of the world, it is the church that is the main organization in society able to deliver goods and services to the people. I’ve found this to be true, for instance, in South Sudan where the weak government struggles to make its presence felt while the church is in every last village and community.

The church isn’t perfect but at least it’s there and provides a basic sort of social infrastructure. It was a view best summarized for me by a Sudanese priest who told me last summer: “We are the church. We are always on the ground!” Unfortunately, as I’ve noted before, western media seem incapable of understanding what a different role the church plays in a non-western context.

There’s a new report from the British Parliament’s International Development Committee that reaches this same conclusion and calls for its own Department for International Development to be more intentional about partnering with the church.

This is particularly true on education, say the report’s authors:

When allocating funds for its development projects, DFID should as far as possible seek to strengthen and complement the limited internal capacity that already exists within South Sudan. We have some concerns that DFID’s decision to fund the United Nations rather than the Episcopal Church of Sudan to deliver its school construction programme misses an opportunity to do so.

The same is true for the important work of peace-building and reconciliation that is going on in South Sudan. The report highlights the role people like Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul of the Episcopal Church of Sudan have played in negotiating peace in some very difficult situations:

It will clearly take time to build the capacity of the GRSS, army and police to take on primary responsibility for peacekeeping and mediation. In the meantime, DFID must not disregard the constructive role that the Sudan Council of Churches can play in this area.

Reports like these are easily lost in the swirl of government paperwork and I don’t expect any major changes in policy. And it’s worth noting that the report has a bleak outlook on the immediate future in the world’s newest nation—that is probably the major take-away here. Still, it’s nice when the government can start pointing out what has long been obvious to all involved, and maybe begin to shape policy in new directions.