Abuna Zacharia Biar Atem, priest and prophet of the Diocese of Bor in Sudan, was the one who called me his father. He was killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army in early October as he traveled with 40 others in a convoy from Juba in Sudan to Kenya.
He once related to me that as a young boy he received a vision while caring for cattle. A great wind entered him, and he began to sing in a language he did not know. He then had a vision of a great disaster falling upon southern Sudan and that everything was destroyed, including the church. He returned to his village to tell the people that these things would come to pass. This was in 1980.
When the second civil war came in 1983, he said that he could not escape into the bush, but had to be in the front lines of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. God continued to stir prophecies within him, he said, and he advised chiefs and commanders and bishops of what God was directing them to do.
During some of the fiercest fighting in Bor Town, he said God told him he must go into the town center and nail three flags to a tree to stop the fighting. He said that despite the fact his body filled with fear, he did it. As bullets flew, he prayed that he would die quickly, rather than having to suffer. He nailed the flags to the tree, and the fighting stopped.
Zacharia was in Ethiopia with the so-called Lost Boys and Girls. He had a dream that they all would be forced to flee back to the Sudan and eventually to Kenya. In his dream, a pregnant woman fell in front of him and began to give birth. Because there were no other women nearby, he had to help deliver twins.
The Ethiopian army in fact started to raid the refugee camps in 1991, and all fled back to the Sudan. As Zacharia was running, a pregnant woman did fall before him and started to give birth, just as his dream had told him. He helped her two sons come into the world.
In November 2004, he had another vision that he must find a crippled priest to say that what he was doing to help rebuild the communities in the Diocese of Bor would be blessed by God. He also was told in the vision that he would find with the priest a man who would come from another country who did not speak Dinka. He would bring a shirt with a particular design, and this would be the sign. He was to tell this man what God wanted him to do in the Sudan.
Zacharia walked more than 1,000 miles, first to Uganda and then to Kenya in search of two men whom he did not know. Other Sudanese in Nairobi told Canon Mark Atem Thuc Zacharia was searching for him, but that he should be wary of him and should not be trusted.
“No,” Mark said, “he is a child of God, and we will not turn him away.” Zachariah was waiting for me in 2005, living with Mark and his family in a tiny two-room space. I had brought T-shirts from my former parish with a shield-design on them. Three days later, in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Zacharia took me aside with an interpreter and for the next four hours related his story and what God had told him to tell me.
He told me of the vision three months earlier, how he had found Mark Atem and how he knew he must talk to me when he saw the shirts.
At the end he said, “You remember the woman that I dreamed of and that actually gave birth to twins? I met her recently. She was so happy to see me and told me that her sons were strong and well. She said that she wanted to give me two cattle in thanksgiving for what I did. I must now give you one of these cattle because I have told you what God wanted me to deliver, and my burden has been lifted.
“The cattle are in the Sudan, but here is the halter which carries the soul of the cattle. Ask the boys back in San Jose, and they will tell you what it means. I have now told you want you must do. I am free. You are now my father.”
Zacharia was a man of profound faith, filled with contrasting qualities. At one moment he could be youthful, filled with jokes and laughter, singing the hymns that carried the faith of his people. At other times he could be absolutely ancient, delivering the word of God with an intense passion and little doubt of what the message meant.
He would sometimes go into the bush and fast and pray for days. People said he was crazy to be alone with wild beasts and snakes. He said that when he was hungry he would just raise his hands to God and become filled with milk.
Our times together were too short. We had just begun to dialogue about how the ancient spiritual traditions that went back to the creator-god, Cush, could be understood within the context of the gospel. Bishop Nathaniel Garang, his bishop, knew of the depth of his faith and mystery of his experience and acknowledged that what Zacharia was trying to do with the two wisdom traditions was much needed.