Monday, April 20, 2009

Peace Journey to Easter

The convoy of three flat bed semi-trucks, half a dozen pick-ups and SUVs, and assorted government and police vehicles, thudded over potholes, fish-tailed through muddy slews, trundled over bumps and rocks, and occasionally zigzagged out into the bush or open plain searching for a passable route, all the while accompanied by the sound of drums and song coming from the 200 singing evangelists aboard the semi-trucks. In all we were, the Archbishop and his wife, three bishops, a hand full of staff, at least 30 pastors, and the 200 strong marching choir. In a week and a half we traveled approximately 550 miles, averaging less than 20 miles per hour, through forest and plain and swamp, across territory plagued by cattle raiders and rogues, stopping at every village and town to greet the crowds who came to welcome us, preach about reconciliation, and pray for peace and justice. This was the Archbishop’s peace, reconciliation, and evangelism tour of Jonglei state.

The Episcopal Church of Sudan is praying for Jonglei State in this time of insecurity. In March more than 750 people were killed, and on Palm Sunday 40 were killed in one village. Cattle raiders ambush the cattle keepers, kill them, and steal the cows, then fighting breaks out between the groups.

We set out from Juba on Holy Wednesday. On Maundy Thursday we were in the town of Bor, which is the capitol of the state. Our marching choir, the “Youth Mamas”, and the youth of Bor, led a prayer march around the town. We stopped, and the Archbishop prayed first at the hospital, then the prison, then at the government offices. Finally we ended up at the town square, where the bishops led a prayer and preaching rally, attended by thousands of people.

Most of the church women in Sudan and some of the men, carry crosses with them. They wave them when singing songs, hold them aloft in testimony, or just hold them as a tangible reminder of their faith. As we traveled along the road, I saw that people carried their crosses not just to church, but everywhere they went: walking to the next village, collecting firewood, hauling water… I wondered if they clung to their crosses because of the insecurity. The Archbishop told me it had become the way they lived their lives—carrying the cross. I was presented with a cross by one of the women, because I greeted them in the name of Jesus, in the Dinka language. So on Good Friday, I had a cross to carry and wave.

One of the villages we stopped at on Good Friday was the village of Kapat, where 40 people had been killed by thieves less than a week before on Palm Sunday. Jerry Drino tells me that some of our Sudanese brothers in the Diocese of El Camino Real lost family members in this village. It is a small village, and the people were obviously crushed by such a tragedy. And yet the Mother’s Union still came out to greet the delegation, singing and waving their crosses. We stayed a bit longer at this village. One of the women was asked to pray, and though I couldn’t understand the words, I could hear the passion of her faith behind her tears, and it moved me deeply. With the cross in my hand and Kapat on my mind, I thought about the meaning of Good Friday. And it seemed that this path we were on was the way of the cross. The suffering and fear and despair along the path is too great for us to bear. But Christ has borne it, and the people have found comfort carrying the cross of Christ.

On Easter, our open-air service in the village of Wangulei was attended by nearly 5,000 people. We continued northward to places so remote they had never been visited by an Archbishop or any dignitary. But the church was still there, cut off most of the year by impassable roads. We passed the conflicted boarder between the Dinka and Nuer tribes, into the Nuer territory. In the town of Ayod we were greeted by the choirs of 4 different denominations, for a wonderful display of Christian unity. We stayed two days, and I noticed the feeling change as we were there. Excitement and hope were building. The Youth Mamas were a particularly powerful witness, made up of many different tribes, on a mission together for peace. People were gathering where the Youth Mamas were camped-out to talk with them and learn from them. The people insisted we stay an extra night so they could slaughter a bull for a feast. The local witch doctor cast aside his magic accessories, and went to the Youth Mamas for prayer. 63 people were confirmed, three evangelists were commissioned, and three people ordained. And after the prayer rally, 5 thieves were caught. The group that gathered to see us off was a very different group indeed than the one that greeted us. Their faces were alight with something I had not noticed earlier—hope, courage, joy.

It was a Holy Week of walking in the way of the suffering, and it was an Easter Week of transformation by the risen Christ. The problems continue in Jonglei, with another clash in the east two days ago, and reports of more than 500 killed. But into this broken and hurting world we proclaim the hope of Christ crucified and risen. And I can tell you with certainty that that hope makes all the difference.

The Youth Mamas

While in my culture the phrase “Youth Mama” might refer to a teenage mother, in the Episcopal Church of Sudan it is a group of marching singing evangelists. The Youth Mamas are made up of youth (into their 30s), Mothers Union, and old women and men. They come from many different tribes, they come from different places around Sudan, and they come together to share their love of Jesus and their passion for preaching the Gospel of love, reconciliation, peace and unity wherever they go. They perform choreographed song and dance routines, they march, and the travel far and near on the backs of semi trucks, carrying their food and mattresses too.

Their costumes may look strange to westerners, but there is powerful symbolism. The colors are the colors of the Sudan flag. They wear crowns of the Prince of Peace, emblazoned with the dove of peace. The over dress (in this case white) is part of the traditional clothing in many parts of Sudan. And because they all are wearing the same thing, it shows the unity among them, across the tribes of Sudan, and among the believers. They march in formation, an army for prayer, and army of peace.

I had the great honor of traveling with the Youth Mamas as part of the delegation accompanying the Archbishop on his peace, reconciliation, and evangelism mission to Jonglei State. Wherever we went, the Youth Mamas brought enthusiasm, hope, joy, and life to grieving communities. People just couldn’t get enough of them. In the evening people would search them out wherever they were staying, just to be near them, to talk to learn, to pray.

I would challenge anyone to not want to be an evangelist after traveling with the Youth Mamas! I have been wondering what lesson the Church in the US could learn from the Youth Mamas. Evangelism is very different in our different contexts, but we could use some of the Youth Mama’s courage, conviction, joy, and enthusiasm. They know in their hearts that Jesus’ message of forgiveness, love, peace, and reconciliation is the only thing that will be able to bring their people together, who have been torn for so long by tribalism, violence, and war. Perhaps in our country we have lost touch with the urgency and relevance Jesus’ message has in our own context. We could all use a little more peace, love, reconciliation, forgiveness, joy, hope… and not in a “it would be nice” kind of way, in a “the future of the world and humanity depends on it,” kind of way!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Prayers for Jongoli

Please join the Episcopal Church of Sudan in praying for the people of Jongoli State. Violence has been escalating with an estimated 750 killed in March, and more than 100 already this month.

Photo: Archbishop Daniel and Bishops Nathaniel, Paul, and Ezekiel gather with people representing the 6 tribes of Jonglei to pray for peace, during a recent peace rally in Bor.

BBC Article: Sudan Cattle Clashes Kill 750

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Bwana Asifiwe!

That’s Swahili for “Praise the Lord!” That and “Asante sana” (thank you very much) were the two most important phrases I learned on my recent trip to Tanzania. I got to be a part of the inaugural visit for the three-way diocesan companion relationship between our diocese (El Camino Real), the diocese of Gloucester, and the diocese of Western Tnaganyika. It was a small group of us, Bishop Mary and one of our cannons Brian from our diocese, and Bishop Michael, along with several people from Gloucester. At every turn we were overwhelmed with the generous hospitality and kindness bestowed on us, not only by Bishop Gerard and his wife Margaret, but by everyone we met.

We were greeted at the airport by a reception line that stretched from the plane all the way to the terminal. And outside the terminal we were greeted by throngs of people who were singing, dancing, cheering, and waving branches. The women were wearing special outfits they had made for a march for women, and I noticed that they cheered extra loud when Bishop Mary was introduced to them. The crowds of people piled into the backs of pickup trucks, and the singing and dancing continued as our convoy processed down the road. Children along the side of the road joined in the dancing as we passed. And that was just the beginning.

I’ve put off writing this reflection, because I can’t imagine being able to capture this experience in words. I think the best descriptor I can come up with is—the fruit of the Spirit. Bishop Michael envisioned this relationship, linking an African, American, and English diocese, as a way of bridging the divides that threaten our beloved Anglican Communion. Being in communion is in the end about relationship, and these three bishops are building a strong relationship, working through difficulties, discussing the issues that divide us, but most of all, walking together in prayer, faith, love, and joy.

Throughout the week, we visited church after church and school after school, where we were greeted with more of their unparalleled hospitality. The choirs sang songs they had composed for the occasion, the dancers pulled out all the stops, even dancing with pots of fire on their heads at one school. But it wasn’t all moving from place to place, there was also time for discussion and reflection. Bishop Mary and the women in our group had a meeting with a group of women from around the diocese, who wanted to know more about what our lives were like, and share some about theirs. There was also time to visit school children. Mary, Brian, and Michael visiting one kindergarten, presented each child with a cross. And each child in return, performed the traditional greeting of an elder—“Shikamoo” while placing their small hand on your head.

One day was set-aside for the bishops along with the leadership of the diocese, and the visitors to sit together and discuss the issues of the church and share stories. It was a meaningful and open conversation, at times touched by passionate disagreement, or hearty laughter, but the underlying trust, respect, and relationship that had already developed was always present. I kept thinking that what I was witnessing was the knitting back together of the Anglican Communion. Bwana Asifiwe!

On the last day, Bishop Gerard said, “We have been on the mountaintop, I wish I could build three tents, for us and Moses and Elijah, but the time has come for us to come down off the mountain, the world is calling to us, and there is work to be done.” His words spoke deeply, I think, to each of us. As is the case with mountaintop experiences, coming down I felt differently about a lot of things. We speak of being brothers and sisters in Christ, and that has had some meaning to me in the past, but it is much more real to me now. This relationship, cultivated by the Sprit, is deeper than a friendship. On one level, I know that I, or anyone from El Camino Real, has family now to visit in Gloucester and Western Tanganyika, but more than that, I am comforted knowing that my walk with Christ will be deepened and stretched and enriched by the conversations and journeying ahead.

After leaving Western Tanganyika, my travels took me to Dodoma, where I visited my friend Elizabeth who is a missionary there, and met many of the missionaries working in that area. It was wonderful to see their work, and to learn new things, but mostly it was wonderful to have time with a dear friend.

I return to Sudan just as excited about my work as ever, but also inspired to look for the ways that the Spirit is calling me into deeper relationships, conversations, and journeying together.

So my thought for today is—cultivate relationships with people who you consider different from you! It is of our differences and our disagreements that the Spirit weaves a most beautiful tapestry of reconciliation and redemption.