Selflessly serving the people of Sudan -- whose lives have been ravaged by a 21-year civil war that claimed two million lives and displaced four million people -- Episcopalians in the Dioceses of Virginia and Chicago have for nine years supported church initiatives for building infrastructure and improving the daily context for thousands of Sudanese.
Health clinics and medical missions, as well as primary and secondary schools that serve several thousand students, are among the beneficiaries to date. Refugee relief and resettlement in Sudan, Kenya, and the United States have also been central to the churches' commitment.
Dedicated Virginia parishes include Christ Church and St. Paul's in Alexandria, St. Mary's, Arlington, and Church of the Apostles, Fairfax.
The Dioceses of Chicago and Renk have had a companion relationship since 2002. St. Michael's Church in Barrington, Illinois, in particular has supported many initiatives, including the Renk Bible College, which trains clergy and evangelists for the church in Sudan. St. Michael's has paid twice for the college, once from the late 1990s through 2004, and a second time after the government of Sudan demolished the buildings to construct a highway.
Other priorities have included Bible translation into Dinka -- the largest tribe in southern Sudan -- assisting with famine relief, clergy support partnerships, as well as helping in human rights disputes such as seizure of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan's headquarters in Khartoum, and support for the peace negotiations, talks which eventually settled the civil war.
"We are a Church catholic and it's important for us to have a world view and reach out to the poor and marginalized," said Virginia's retired Assistant Bishop Frank Gray. "It's a Gospel imperative."
Gray, who has been instrumental in raising funds, was made an honorary canon at the February 28 consecration of the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Renk in recognition of his commitment to the people of Sudan. Construction of the Cathedral took less than a year and largely relied upon resources from Virginia Episcopalians. The Diocese of Renk also dedicated its former church building in Gray's honor.
Four clergy and two lay people from the Dioceses of Virginia and Chicago were also made honorary canons of the Cathedral as part of the consecration ceremony.
Renk, located three hundred miles south of Khartoum, and its bishop, the Rt. Rev. Daniel Deng Bul, have been an important focus of the partnerships because many internally displaced refugees have resettled there.
For Lauren Stanley, an Episcopal priest serving as an appointed missionary in Renk, the Church needs to be committed to the people of Sudan because "they have struggled so hard, and have so little, and they have stayed faithful regardless."
The civil war that ended in January 2005 with the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was strictly ethnic and religious, and the Arab North attempted to impose Islam and Arabic on all the people of Sudan, Stanley explained.
For many years, some southern Sudanese bishops have had to function from locations outside Sudan, such as Nairobi, Kenya, and Kampala, Uganda. Bishops from the north whose headquarters have been in Khartoum have found themselves ministering to displaced people from dioceses in the south.
"But the Southerners, who are black and either Christian or traditionalist for the most part, held fast in their faith, refusing to convert, sometimes losing their lives, sometimes having to flee for their lives," said Stanley, the only American Episcopal missionary currently serving in Sudan. "They would not give up Jesus. They have been bold in their proclamation, even putting crosses on the tops of their huts to tell the whole world they are Christian, regardless of the consequences."
Being a missionary in Sudan has had a huge impact on Stanley, but not only has her work transformed the lives of so many Sudanese, it has also "opened the eyes of people in our churches in America to the faith as well as the hardships of the people of South Sudan," she said. "It has broadened perspectives, and helped both sides stay in communion despite the difficulties that face the Anglican Communion today."
Stanley underscored that the relationship between the Episcopal Church of Sudan and its various partners in the United States proves that faith is the unifying factor throughout the Anglican Communion. "We don't agree on all the issues," she said, "but we stay in communion because we are focused on the mission given to us by Jesus."
Gray believes that "the Global Anglican family can learn a deep lesson about the Gospel from the Sudanese," describing their faith as transformative. "From my fellowship with Sudanese Christians I've learned that God can do anything," he said. "In the midst of persecution these people put all their faith in God."
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, and Sudanese Primate, Archbishop Joseph Marona, were joined by six Virginia and three Chicago Episcopalians in dedicating the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Renk.
The consecration ceremony was attended by thousands of people in Renk, to whom the service was piped out of the church via a sound system. Williams and Marona received a tumultuous welcome from thousands of local residents when they arrived by helicopter.
Jacqueline Kraus, and St. Michael's rector, the Rev. Alvin Johnson, were among those made honorary canons of the cathedral in recognition of their commitment to Sudan. Laurie Michaels was also recognized for her work in the health clinic's operations.
The Virginia honorary canons, in addition to Bishop Gray, were the Revs. Pierce Klemmt (Christ Church) and Andrew Merrow (St. Mary's), and Canon Russell Randle, a Virginia lay deputy to General Convention. The Rev. Anne West of St. Paul's, Alexandria, and Nancy Knapp of Christ Church, Alexandria, were also honored for their hard work in support of American-Sudanese church partnerships.
Stanley, a classmate of Bishop Daniel Deng Bul at Virginia Theological Seminary, served as master of ceremonies during the consecration.
Kraus in particular has made multiple trips to Renk under very difficult circumstances during the war, including a trip down the Nile from Khartoum to Renk on a supply boat, Papyrus, named for Isaiah 18:2 and its reference to Sudan.
Also participating in the ceremony were Bishops David Stancliffe of Salisbury, England, and Andudu Adam Elnail of Kadugli and Nuba Mountains, Sudan, as well as representatives from the Roman Catholic and Presbyterian churches in Renk, a testament to strong ecumenical relations in Renk that were forged during the civil war.
Williams blessed the Bible College during an evening ceremony on February 28 in the presence of school faculty, Renk clergy, and visitors from Chicago and Sudan, who all joined hands with the Archbishop in a circle in the center of the college compound.
In remarks to the Ash Wednesday service on March 1, Randle said that Americans had much to learn from the church in Sudan, especially about unity and forgiveness. To applause, he told the congregation that what unites Christians globally is far more important than what divides them.
"The consecration and its participants demonstrate that the church in Sudan is strong and vital, despite material poverty and very difficult physical circumstances," Randle said. "These events also demonstrate that partnerships for ministry between the United States, England, and Sudan are stronger than disputes about General Convention or Anglican polity.
"Indeed, the clergy and laity who participated, as well as the dioceses they represent, have strong divergent views," he added. "But real ministry on the ground, where the church is in the cross-hairs, is far more important to all concerned here."
An earlier report from the Diocese of Chicago can be found online at: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_72523_ENG_HTM.htm