I returned Monday from my visit to Sudan. It was an amazing, and transforming experience. I have accepted a position as the “External Agriculture Consultant” for the Province of the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS). I will be based in Juba, which is the capitol of the south, but I will also be traveling to the 24 dioceses while working on a strategic plan for agriculture development projects throughout the Province. I will begin this position in February, 2009.
I was nervous about this trip, never having traveled alone in Africa, and uncertain about the procedure for getting into Sudan, but it was a grace filled experience of learning to let go, and depend on others. I flew from San Francisco, to Washington DC, to Rome, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Kampala, Uganda, where I was met and assisted by staff of the ECS office in Kampala. Two days later, I flew into Juba, where I was met by Bishop Alapayo of Rumbek, and two other staff members of the ECS, smiling broadly, and greeting me as an old friend. I would love to paint a picture for you of the incredible functioning chaos that is Juba International Airport, a two-room airport that can function without power! But, there is much more I want to tell you.
My first three days in Juba, I spent with bishops from all over Sudan who were gathered for a two week training course. It was a great opportunity to get to know some of them, and I took the chance to interview 16 bishops about the agriculture situation and challenges facing their diocese. These bishops are remarkable people, working against tremendous odds, with hardly any resources, to heal the brokenness that divides their people, and to provide desperately needed services. During the war, Christians were persecuted, people were massacred, and yet, the Episcopal Church of Sudan kept it’s churches and 2,000 schools open amidst the conflict. Now as they struggle to build infrastructure and services, their pastors toil without pay, and many of their churches and cathedrals meet under the shade of mighty trees.
Bishop Paul from Torit preached an inspiring sermon to his fellow bishops where he said “As long as we continue to see Jesus in our midst, we will inherit a double portion of the spirit”. Bishop Ezekiel from Bor explained to me that it is the message of love, absolute love, absolute forgiveness and reconciliation, that Jesus preached, which is the message the people of Sudan need so desperately. Bishop Ezekiel’s passion for preaching the Gospel, as the healing balm that is the only thing that can bridge the divides that racism, tribalism, genocide, massacres, and war have left behind – the only thing that can bring a lasting peace to his people; is a passion that is shared by the other bishops. Three days in their presence completely re-defined evangelism for me.
For these bishops, and the 4 million Anglicans in Sudan, the power of Jesus’ message of love isn’t just a choice of religion. Jesus’ message to take up your cross and follow him, is not a vague metaphor. These are powerful messages of hope, they mean the difference between suffering and healing, life and death, war and peace. The faith that they have is not reserved for Sunday services, their faith is something that affects the way they live their lives.
I spent some time talking to Daria Kwaje, who is the ECS staff officer for The Mother’s Union. This is a women’s movement throughout the church. Members mentor and guide young mothers and those who are new to the faith, in what it means to raise their children in love of Jesus. They give assistance to families who are going through rough times, and they gather regularly to pray.
“Even though our bodies may suffer now, we thank God, because we know that he is about to do amazing things in our lives” – one of the bishops praying on behalf of the assembly.
I also visited Rumbek while I was in Sudan, this is a town in the central part of the southern region of Sudan. In Rumbek, cattle herding is the way of life. I saw the mighty cathedral tree of Rumbek, and the Bishop’s office – a mango tree. I saw children coming to the bishops house to borrow chairs, and then scampering off to their school under a tent. I saw young men and boys with semi-automatic weapons sitting alongside the road. As I walked through town with the bishop’s wife Helena, I saw stores overflowing with cell phones, bicycles, crates of soda, clothing, and many other goods, all of which Helena said had not been available just a couple years ago. I saw stray goats and cows wandering past, children carrying chairs to and from school, young men driving huge herds of cattle, men and women shopping, a huge charter bus preparing for the several day journey to Juba on impossibly muddy roads. What I didn’t see on the streets of Rumbek was heaps of garbage. Helena explained to me that plastic bags have been made illegal, and residents are required to rake up and burn the garbage once a week, because the cows can die from eating the garbage.
While reading the Strategic Plan for the Diocese of Rumbek, The following line jumped out at me. This is a passage of scripture that is the vision of the Diocese:
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10b).
Life Abundant! This sums up for me, my first experience of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. In spite of, or because of all that they have suffered, they live life abundantly. And we from the developed world, have so much to learn from them!
May God bless you this month with an open heart, and the eyes to see how abundant your own life is!