After a nearly decade-long partnership with the Episcopal Diocese in Renk, Sudan, a group from a Barrington, Illinois, church traveled to see first-hand what their grassroots efforts have provided a world away.
The Rev. Alvin C. Johnson, Jr., rector of St. Michael's Episcopal Church, and two parishioners, Jackie Kraus and Laurie Michaels, were invited by Bishop Daniel Deng Bul of the Renk Diocese to the recently constructed cathedral in Renk, which was consecrated by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on Tuesday, February 28. The event marked the first visit by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Sudan.
As part of the ceremony, Archbishop Joseph Marona of Sudan named Johnson and Kraus as Honorary Canons in the Diocese of Renk as a way to emphasize the missional nature of their work for the diocese and the Church at large.
St. Michael's has been largely responsible for raising the funds needed to rebuild the nearby Renk Bible College following its demolition by the Sudanese government to make way for a road. A new chapel within the Bible College will be named St. Michael's in honor of the Barrington church.
Kraus has visited Renk twice in the past. This was the first trip for Johnson and Michaels, a nurse, who was asked to join the group to observe the situation in the area from a medical perspective.
The relationship with the Diocese of Renk in war-torn Sudan began for St. Michael's in Barrington in the spring of 1997. Kraus, a parishioner at the church, met Bul at a conference where he had led a presentation on genocide. She was immediately taken by the bishop's radiance and energy. "It amazed me how anyone who has seen such suffering and has suffered himself could have so much joy and faith and still be so committed to his people."
By July of the following year, Kraus and six individuals from the Diocese of Virginia -- which ultimately raised funds to build the more permanent cathedral on the site where a grass-and-mud structure had stood -- left for Sudan to see first-hand what life was like for the Christian minority in the country. The bishop, who was studying at Virginia Theological Seminary at the time, subsequently came to Barrington to meet with others at the church and with Johnson. A formal partnership between the Barrington parish and the Diocese of Renk was formed and eventually led to a second formal relationship with the Diocese of Chicago.
Over the first few years, St. Michael's raised funds to purchase much needed supplies and books for the Renk Bible College and to support its operation. Then in May 2005, the shocking news came that the Government of Sudan had moved on their decision to clear the land for a road through the area and that the Bible College had been demolished. Within hours, years of work and dedication had been wiped out.
Later that summer, the Rev. Joseph Garang Atem arrived at St. Michael's with a discouraging update. "I thought I would be coming to give you a progress report on the Bible College," he said, "but instead I have come to ask you to rebuild it."
Within days, parish leaders were communicating with officials in Renk to determine what would be needed to rebuild. An emergency capital campaign raised more than $50,000 in just weeks, and shortly afterward plans for a new building were in place and construction was underway. Not only would the new building replace the smaller building that had been torn down, but it offered many more amenities, such as concrete floors (replacing dirt floors), offices, dormitories, and a chapel.
Johnson believes that the opportunity to experience life in Sudan first-hand, however briefly, is extraordinarily valuable. "My guess is that preconceived notions about others will be quickly dismantled and replaced by the truth," he said. "It is one thing to hear about Sudan in the news and quite another to be there and experience the spirit, the land and especially the people ... We are ordinary people demonstrating how the Episcopal Church lives into its mission," Kraus says. "It's important for churches to live out the Gospel at the grass roots level."