Jubilation, priestly ordinations, prayers for the dead, and all-night song and dance were among the festivities as thousands converged in Malek, in Sudan's Upper Nile region, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Episcopal Church in Sudan (ECS) in the Diocese of Bor.
"It was really joyful," recalled the Rev. Anderia Lual Arok, priest-in-charge of the Sudanese Community Church at Denver's St. John's Cathedral. Arok, who was among a four-member U.S. delegation participating in the January 31 event, is a Dinka and originally from that area.
"It was especially joyful because in addition to marking the coming of the Gospel, it also was the first time people were together in that area of southern Sudan in 22 years of civil war," he said.
Anita Sanborn, president of the Colorado Episcopal Foundation and another delegation member, said, "People walked for days to reach Malek. They camped out once they arrived but the joy was contagious," she recalled.
"Over 8,500 people gathered in 100-plus degree temperatures for the five-day celebration, some walking three to five days with little food or water," said the Rev. Jerry Drino, executive director of the Episcopal Church's Province VIII and also a delegation member.
"For two days there was no food for anyone and when food was available, it was just one small meal a day. But the joy was tangible. Malek is their Jerusalem, Canterbury and Harvard, all rolled into one. It's where Christianity began for them," added Drino, who is also missioner to the Sudanese congregation at San Jose's Trinity Cathedral in Northern California.
For Arok, the homecoming was bittersweet. "My hometown is about 75 miles from Bor. I left a long time ago. I became a Christian in Northern Sudan and I worked in the Diocese of Khartoum. In Bor, there is not a single building standing, just bush. So we celebrated under the trees."
'Explosion in Christianity'
The region came under heavy attack by the Khartoum government, because many of the Dinka leaders who began the rebellion that sparked the 1983 civil war were educated at Malek, Drino said.
"At its prime, it was the religious, educational and medical center for the Bor region and Jonglie Province, with 1.5 million people," Drino explained. After the Church Mission Society founded Christianity in the region, "from 1906 to 1983 only about 5 percent of the tribes became Christian. Then the civil war came, 2.5 million were killed, 4 million internally displaced, 1 million are in exile, 7 out of 10 women are widows and today more than 90 percent are Christian," Drino said.
The civil war sparked the explosive growth of Christianity, Drino believes, because "they found the Gospel reflecting their own experience; it gave words and hope and promise to everything they were going through. Christianity's belief in a suffering God and the cross's victory over death has really impacted the people and to know that God in Christ died for them so that as they suffer and die in the civil war, God would be resurrected with them was very powerful."
Drino said the festivities involved sharing stories, including one about December 23, 1985 attacks when government soldiers were "killing hundreds and burning everything in sight. A Norwegian reporter covering the conflict could not believe what he saw on the 24th. People came from the bush and began to sing and dance the Christmas songs. He asked how they could do this as they stepped over or past the bodies of their children, parents and family members as they processed to the ruins of the church at Malek. They told him that they could do no other, for this was the birth of their Lord. It's like first-century Christianity."
'A Unique Opportunity to Step In'
Bishop Nathaniel Garang Anyeith of Bor ordained four priests and "called upon people to go to America to become missionaries," Drino said. "They have no material wealth but they can share the gift of faith and spirit that has carried them forward through this long ordeal."
Drino is a board member of the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan (AFRECS), a national network of individuals, congregations and organizations working to mobilize Americans to help building schools, water wells and other public infrastructure in Sudan. He attended the celebration to convey a message: that the West knows and cares.
AFRECS has set a goal to help establish companion relationships among American and Sudanese dioceses. Currently four of the 24 ECS dioceses in Sudan are in companion relationships. The church is struggling to find resources to re-establish churches and medical units. One of the greatest needs is for transportation for archdeacons to move between the villages, because of the vast geographic area involved.
About two-thirds of Bor's population was either internally displaced or fled to Kenya or Uganda during the war. A few have become refugees in the United States, Canada and Australia.
With the infrastructure completely devastated, "there is a unique opportunity for the church to step in and be the primary restorer of the church and society," Drino said. "But so few people know about their needs, there's the risk that the rest of the Anglican Communion won't respond in a timely way, so the threat of other evangelical denominations coming in and seeing the opportunity to proselytize is a real challenge. That's why AFRECS is so important, why it's so important to get the message out."
The needs include rebuilding infrastructure, as well as tukals, or traditional conical-shaped mud and stick houses with thatched roofs. Providing educational opportunities represent another great need, for refugees including the 'Lost Boys' who in some cases have received little, if any, schooling. Supplying formal theological training for clergy as well as assisting in rebuilding medical clinics also represent urgent needs.
"There are very few medical facilities or trained personnel other than those who can distribute the most basic of medicines. Someone could adopt an area so that children could be inoculated. There's the ongoing problem of malaria and nutrition for young infants and children. We're talking about 40,000-50,000 children in an area that has no medical facility," he said.
AFRECS to serve as clearinghouse
Province VIII has set up a special fund for Sudan relief. Dioceses and congregations can also check AFRECS's project registry to learn how to participate in existing projects or even create new ones.
"We have a window of opportunity to step up to the plate as Anglicans and to say that, if our identity is not as a denomination but as a communion, then we have to be in relationship with the world church and especially the neediest part," Drino said. "The United Nations consistently has said that with all the disasters in the world, Sudan is still the most devastated country. The question is, 'who is my brother or my sister?' These are all Episcopalians and because the war has been so complicated and so isolating very few people have really paid attention to them.
"It raises the whole possibility of living in the global village and that, for the sake of the world and sake of faith and renewal of church throughout the world we need to be in relation. If we think renewal is something we can do on our own in our own country, we can't. It isn't where the full human suffering and potential lies. We have to engage ourselves in relationships that help us live into the global village. Sudan, the neediest of places is also the place where the faith is exploding."
Bittersweet homecoming or not, Arok plans to return yearly to offer support and hopefully, to engage others to go along. "I hope people will go to Southern Sudan to see for themselves what the situation is. We need support like rebuilding schools and hospitals, the country. I hope Christian brothers and sisters will join together and help the country. And we need prayer. Pray for the Church in Sudan and its leadership."
For more information about AFRECS, visit the website at: www.afrecs.org
[The Diocese of Bor has a companion relationship with the Diocese of Indianapolis. While visiting the Diocese of Bor in 2002, Bishop Cate Waynick of Indianapolis ordained the first women deacons in the Episcopal Church of Sudan.]