God, Give Us a Way to Serve Sudan

Episcopal News Service. May 8, 1998 [98-2163]

Margaret S. Larom

(ENS) What could we say? What could we do? The stories of suffering that we heard and the expressions of love that we received from the Christians of southern Sudan were equally overwhelming.

We came with suitcases crammed with gifts sent by our parishes and friends -- scarves, crosses and pins, vestments, calendars -- but they seemed pitiful trinkets to hand over to a starving, oppressed, lonely people. We made speeches offering messages of love and solidarity from the churches back in the United States, but knew even as we spoke that words are not enough.

How can you repay the gift of care? How can you respond to love, to need? How can you even measure up to the inspiring example of people who, with passionate conviction, are bringing to reality a new faith and a new nation?

Try to imagine what it feels like, to arrive hot and dusty from a journey, and have a woman reach out, press her hand to your heart, and joyfully breathe the word dor, Dinka for peace. Then, to be led to a chair, and to have her kneel before you to wash your feet. For me, gazing at the thin arms of an old woman cradling my leg as she dried each toe, the emotion was surprised, abashed, grateful joy.

The Rev. Canon Patrick Augustine of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, later wrote, "They washed our tired feet with soap and water. They dried them with such tender love and care. To the Western mind, it is a subservient act of female suppression. In the Sudanese culture, it is honoring the guest....These were our mothers and sisters who touched us with their highest form of love. Our hearts were filled with gratitude and I shared my yearning with another team member: 'I pray to God to give us opportunities to be servants of Christ to this Sudanese community.'"

For Nancy Mott Frank of Rochester, N.Y., one of those moments came when she saw an old woman kneel to be confirmed at the village of Wuningor, dressed only in a tattered blanket knotted at her shoulder, exposing soft withered skin and sharp bones. Nancy began giving away her clothes from that day forward. Soon, she decided to extend her visit so that she could help the Rev. Karin Lindsay (who already had dedicated her three-month sabbatical leave from a parish in Southwestern Virginia) conducts a weeklong women's course there.

Simple, direct action made us feel better. But there are no quick fixes, and hard situations demand complex solutions. Everywhere we were confronted with signs of need and dreams for the future. As our hearts were buffeted by pain, grief, joy, awe, laughter, anxiety, shame, exhaustion and excitement, our minds whirled with questions. How to make an effective response? Is it better to do something for an individual or for the community? Is it right to help one, but not another?

Here are a few examples of stories we heard.

Jane Anita Ananias, 22, held us spellbound in a Kakuma tukhl as she described "dangerous times" that began in 1991. A Christian from the Kakwa tribe, she was at a home-economics college in Juba when the Arab government insisted that the students give up English and concentrate on Arabic. When she and some other girls refused another demand, to convert to Islam, they were jailed for a month.

When she got out, she went home, only to find that her father (an Episcopal priest), her mother (the church secretary) and seven siblings had been jailed as well. She searched, to no avail, and then sought assistance from family friends. The tale of the following months and years is sad -- "I could find no one to take care of me; no one was responsible for me." She ended up at Kakuma in 1995. Since then she has repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, filed applications for resettlement, so that she can get an education.

"To me, being self-reliant seems something wonderful, the root of life. It is too hard for us young ones here! This is the time for the future, for getting educated. In Sudan, we only know war. We don't know the modem world. Let us go out and tell the story!"

Another sobering encounter occurred at Kakuma Refugee Camp when we met Daniel Yoor, a promising young evangelist whose spine -- and life -- were shattered by a bullet during an attack on one of the Episcopal Church compounds last August. We went to greet him on a Sunday morning in February, exhilarated by the experience of worshiping with 7,000 singing, praying people. We were shocked into silence when, gathered around Daniel's wheelchair, we realized that he would soon die without our help. He had received no physical therapy, no nursing care except from relatives, was unable to eat without vomiting.

The decision was made to send him to Nairobi for emergency treatment, while we went on into southern Sudan. Our young driver, Jeremiah Kinyua, accepted the assignment without a qualm, though it meant 15 hours on the road with a man who might not survive the journey.

Daniel is alive, but have we really saved him? Paralyzed from the waist down, he requires special facilities that are hard to come by in East Africa. Now other decisions must be made, and fund~ raised, to establish him in a setting he can manage.

Day after day, night after night, the Episcopal Church team heard about such dilemmas, and wondered how we could ever make a difference. After three weeks of living with the Dinka people of Bor, in crowded refugee and displacement camps as well as isolated villages in liberated parts of their homeland, the Americans asked the bishop who had invited and led them on the journey, "Did we accomplish anything of what you wanted?" He smiled and nodded: "You came."

The Rev. Mark Atem, pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan's Zone 3 at Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwest Kenya ("home" to some 57,000 people), gave me a letter just before we left for the chartered flight that would take us into southern Sudan. It was an appeal for help for his people, but first, in a way that seems as natural as breathing for these Christians, he gave from his heart.

"Dear, it is your strong and consistent faith that obliged you to experience this difficult and exhaustive journey, which has taken you from the most advanced country to the remotest, poorest, hottest and most insecure village (Kakuma R. Camp).

"Had it not been for your strong faith in Jesus Christ and God's people for whom Jesus sacrificed his life, you could not have minded so little about your security and managed to stay these days with us in a poor and insecure shelter.

"Dear, as you might have learned, we have been living in this camp since 1992. It is the war intensification and its adversaries that brought us here. Because of the war effects, many youngsters are orphans and many mothers here are widows. All in all, the whole Christian community here is in a complete state of [destitution]. Whatever is provided by UNHCR [the UN refugee office] does not cover our basic needs; there is insufficiency in clothing, food, shelter, education and health.

"Dear, we have mentioned all these not because you would be able to address them all but to raise your voice high so that the world community will awaken to our plight."

For us to raise our voices high is little enough to ask from men and women who lift high the cross, literally and figuratively, in ways that inspire and challenge all who have experienced the Christians of Sudan.

At Kakuma, and even more inside Sudan, we witnessed a people beaten down by man but raised up by God, They are wandering in the wilderness but have seen the Promised Land, Every word of the Bible speaks to them, Their survival is a triumph of the holy and human spirit that is a clear message to us and to the rest of the world, Being among them is a privilege.

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