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.