Doctoral Research, accompanied by a Greek Chorus

On the surface, the purpose of my visit to South Sudan is pretty straightforward. Since I am writing a dissertation about the history of the church here during the 1980s and 1990s, and since that was a period of civil war from which few written documents survive, my primary goal is oral history interviews with the men and women who were central to the church during that period. It’s relatively recent, so many of them are still alive and active in ministry.

Sounds easy, right?

IMG_0017Last week, I was trying to find a woman named Mary Aruay. During South Sudan’s civil war, she was a critical evangelist who travelled all over her county, founding about two dozen churches, mentoring hundreds of young people, and ultimately laying the foundations for her home area to be turned into a thriving archdeaconery where before it had no churches of any kind. It is an accomplishment all the more remarkable for the fact that she was a single, childless woman in a society in which marriage and children are prized.

The first thing was to locate her. Aruay is now retired and living in Rumbek, where I am staying, so it spared me a trip to her home county. But it’s not like South Sudan has many street names or numbered houses. You just kind of have to know where a person lives and then start heading in that direction and ask for the person as you go along. This means I was traveling with John, the bishop’s assistant, who was also doubling as my translator. We only had to ask once before we found our way to the church near Aruay’s home.

While we waited for her to arrive, a stream of other people came to see us. It’s not often a khawaja makes it to this part of town, so there were lots of young children. But several older people came as well—clergy, youth in the church, the archdeacon of the area—who wanted to know just what this khawaja thought was so interesting in Aruay to come all this way to see her.

Eventually, Aruay herself arrived and we launched into the interview. I used to be a reporter. Most of the interviews I did for that job involved pulling people to the side of a room or talking to them in a sound-proof studio. That is, they were more or less private affairs. Not here. To have a khawaja ask an older woman questions about her life was just such a strange and mysterious event that the crowd we had gathered decided to stay. Their contributions were various. One child fell asleep and started snoring. Another fell off the bench he was sitting on and started crying. A few of the youth spoke English and at a few moments decided John’s translation was not good enough and so offered their own. Some of the other clergy occasionally thought that they had a good answer to my question—or that Aruay’s answer was missing some crucial detail—so they freely volunteered their own answers. So much for the private interview. It was like having a Greek chorus peering into my conversation.IMG_0022

To them I am not just a doctoral student (which is a hard concept to communicate in a place where so few people even graduate from high school) but a priest and a fellow Christian. When I was done asking questions about the past, they wanted to tell me about the present and the future—their plans to turn their archdeaconery into a diocese, the challenges they currently confront, and how important it was to them that I had come to visit. We finished in prayer.

My understanding and expectations of my research are shaped by knowledge of a certain cultural form—the private, one-on-one interview. But that’s a cultural form that is largely foreign in South Sudan. Much more common than one-on-one conversation is the group conversation of everyone sitting around together under a tree. What I perceive as people butting in to my conversation is really just them doing what they always do.

And in the end, it didn’t matter. I got some great information from Aruay—and some of what other people said will be helpful too. And they seemed to appreciate my presence. Over the weekend, she sent a message to the bishop: “Thank you for sending that khawaja to see me so I could tell him my story. I now feel like I am leaving something behind for others.”

Thinking again about church membership: neglected evangelism tool?

LarkNews has a satirical story about church membership:

Faith Community sent polite but firm letters to families who attend church services and “freebie events” but never volunteer, never tithe and do not belong to a small group or other ministry. The church estimates that of its 8,000 regular attendees, only half have volunteered in the past 3 years, and a third have never given to the church.

The story is funny, as it is meant to be, but it also gets me wondering about what we mean by church membership. The Episcopal Church has detailed canons about what it means to be a member of a congregation, how one transfers one’s membership to another congregation, etc. It’s all there in Title 1, Canon 17. Here’s a snippet:

A member of this Church removing from the congregation in which that person’s membership is recorded shall procure a certificate of membership indicating that that person is recorded as a member (or adult member) of this Church and whether or not such a member:

Upon acknowledgment that a member who has received such a certificate has been enrolled in another congregation of this or another Church, the Member of the Clergy in charge or Warden issuing the certificate shall remove the name of the person from the parish register.

I’ve been a member (I thought) of a handful of Episcopal congregations in my life. I have never once done this. Has anyone?

The thing is, I think membership might be something we want to reclaim more actively in the church. So much of the world today is about minimizing commitment—people want one-off obligations, if they want obligations at all. It’s not only churches that are having trouble getting people to join. It’s political parties, service organizations, and (famously) bowling leagues. (In my mind this lack of commitment is related to prevelance irony and sarcasm in society: why commit to something when you can make fun of it?)

But Christianity is (inter alia) about a life-long commitment to God in Christ, and the church is where we experience that commitment. Membership is how we express that commitment. Commitment is one of many ways in which Christianity is counter-cultural.

The trouble is, as attendance/membership has declined and the Euro-Atlantic world has become a more secular place, the church has responded not by highlighting the importance of commitment, but minimizing it. Here, take communion, some say. You don’t even have to be baptized! The Episcopal Church welcomes you! You can belong before you believe!

There may be good reasons to say these things, but the point here is that the church comes to sound more and more like the world around it: you don’t have to commit. Along the way, our canons on membership appear to have become a casualty.

I visited a church once that had membership forms. It was such an unusual thing to see that I picked one up. The form invited me to give my information and have a meeting with the priest. That kind of form I had seen before. But what this form also said was that if I became a member, I would publicly affirm my commitment to the church in a liturgical fashion during a Sunday service. I had not seen that before. I was a visitor so I didn’t fill out the form, but I found myself impressed by it. Among other things, it indicated to me that this place really took itself seriously. (This is not the only way of showing you take yourself seriously, of course.) I should say this church was going like gang-busters when I was there.

There can be a real reluctance in the world these days to draw in-out lines. But I wonder if that’s not what the church needs to do sometimes. This is not a hostile act. On the one hand, we might say, “These are members of the church, and this is what members of the church do.” (That, more or less, is what our canons already do.) On the other hand, we say to those not in the church, “And we can’t wait for you to come join us and be committed to the transforming love of God in Christ as well. And we’re so eager for you to join us, that we’re going to come to you and show you how we’ve experienced that grace.”

It would certainly be different than what the world is used to hearing.

I’m genuinely curious (as always) how you think this might play out in the congregation you know best.

“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?