Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Safely Home with a 'Hope Chest' of Stories To Tell

Dear Friends & Family, 

Thankfully, I am home safely. For that I am grateful. Yet, I am sad as I write because of the recent violence in Juba. The news reports tell the story of conflict which has gone out of control and crossed the line into violence. Many people are hurt; many have died. Ultimately, everyone loses. Please pray for peace to be restored quickly, especially in this season of Advent Hope. These are my friends whom I have been living among for several months, so when the media reports reach me, I see them vividly & interpret them personally, with sorrow.

What follows is a vignette that happened during my last couple of weeks in South Sudan. Perhaps it will help to balance some of the difficult news we have heard in recent days.

When classes were over, the students and teachers had a brief break before the beginning of exams. Students, of course, studied. Teachers finished grading course work, which had to be handed in about a week before exams started. Then the teachers had a few days to attend to other matters in their lives. For me, it was an opportunity to go to Mundri with Bishop Bismark and see the place where Marc Nikkel once lived and taught, when the Bishop Gwynne College was located there.

We left on Saturday morning and because of other duties, we had to return on Monday afternoon. Even though it was a short trip, it was well worth it for me to be able to see these places I had only read or heard about. The journey took between six to seven hours each way to travel the rough road of only 132 miles. The skill of the drivers was really put to the test in order to accomplish this feat. The endurance of the passengers also came into play. We were encouraged with little snacks along the way, bought at roadside shops. Whether it was sodas & milk biscuits or stubby bananas & steamed corn still in the husk, the breaks provided something to sustain us and a chance to look around at many interesting things.

The car ride also gave us time for good conversation. At one point, the Bishop told me about a grassroots initiative known as the Participatory Awareness Process {PAP} that was growing rapidly in the region of East Africa. "It was started by a Kenyan who lives near Nairobi," Bishop Bismark said as he slowed the car, gearing down to take the next dip in the road. "The church and the community are asleep!" the Bishop said emphatically. "The central idea of the process is to identify the needs and resources in the community. Don't wait for someone on the outside to come help you." 

"Scripturally, it is based on the feeding of the 5,000," the Bishop continued. "In one of the gospel accounts, the disciples come to Jesus, saying there is not enough to feed all of the gathered people - only a couple of fish and some loaves of bread brought by one young boy and it would take a great deal of money to feed them. Jesus told his disciples, 'You find them something to eat,'" the Bishop said to conclude his paraphrase of this familiar gospel story. I nodded my head in agreement, a movement made easy by the motion of the car. 

The Bishop told of some the 'miracles' that had taken place in many communities because of the whole-hearted engagement of mostly lay people and some clergy. Miracles like water coming from a new bore hole in the community, or a primary school followed by a secondary school. These miracles have come from the grassroots effort of people who believe in the gospel and are not waiting for outside help. People who are counting their blessings in the face of their difficulties and finding a way to move forward.

This is only one of many stories to be told from the 'Hope Chest' of experiences that I have collected during my time of missionary teaching at the Bishop Gwynne College in Juba, South Sudan. I am counting these treasurers among my blessings as I pray for my friends who are experiencing difficult times. Hopefully, I'll have another chance to tell a story after the holidays. To be continued... 

Meanwhile, may Advent Hope bring you & yours Christmas Joy.

Peace in Christ,

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Graduation at Bishop Gwynne College

Dear Friends & Family,

Greetings to one & all from Juba where we are approaching the last third of the semester at Bishop Gwynne College. Examinations will begin in two weeks and will be in process two weeks after that. The tempo is changing as we are all focusing on what needs to be done before exams - papers to finish for the students, material to cover in class for the teachers. We all know that we need to be ready and that the time is coming, seemingly at a faster rate. This may sound like a description of the 'End Time'. Hopefully, it will be only the 'end-time-of-the-semester'. Either way, 'Come, Lord Jesus'. Please pray for us as we pray for you.

Meanwhile, when I wrote the last post a few weeks ago, I mentioned that several special events had taken place. A week after the memorial service for the late Principal Joseph, the campus came to life with great vigor because of Graduation!  Due to the conflict of civil war, this has not been an annual event here at Bishop Gwynne College (BGC). Since the school was founded in 1948, those 65 years have yielded 32 graduation ceremonies. So, there was much to celebrate.

Wisely, the weekend prior to the big day, BGC Principal Samuel Marial provided a retreat for the nine graduates who would receive a diploma after three years of study at BGC. In addition, eleven women theologians who had completed a summer refresher course would receive a BGC certificate. 
As it happened this time, one group was all men, the other, all women . The hope, which will be realized next year, is that the BGC graduating class will include both female and male students. 

I see evidence of women being encouraged to reach for higher education at all levels. For example, recently I attended the dedication of a newly constructed girls' dormitory at the Juba Diocese Model Secondary School, whose campus is located just across the road from BGC. There young women and young men are equally represented in the student body. Though smaller in number, personally, I can speak to the caliber of the two women students I am teaching at BGC. Both are at the top of their respective classes - not an easy thing to do under any circumstances. 

At this BGC ceremony, the group of women theologians brought their significant presence to the retreat and to the graduation. These women had been studying theology in Khartoum until the clamp down on South Sudanese residents occurred there after the 2011 Independence of South Sudan. Although they are learning English as a second language, Arabic is their first language. They speak it fluently, with melodic confidence, using the help of a translator if needed.
It was an honor for me to be invited to give the sermon at the closing Eucharist for the retreat on Sunday. After being together for three days, the group had built up a sense of community and rapport that was deeper than language. This close connection fed my strong sense that all who were there needed to be included, no matter what language they spoke. The Academic Dean John Malesh had served as the translator during the weekend and thus I had gotten a chance to see how smoothly it could be done. The flow between speaker & translator added much interest for the listener, it seemed to me. The pauses in first one language, then the other gave the listener time to interpret the meaning and to be entertained at the same time. John agreed to translate the sermon and I believe both of us enjoyed giving it a lively rendition for the appreciative congregation.

In a spiritual way, Marc Nikkel, the missionary who taught in the southern part of Sudan during the 1980's & 90's, was present with us. Both of our retreat leaders had enjoyed a close relationship with Marc, who died of cancer in the year 2000. Even though I never met him in person, since 2004 I have served in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia where Marc, who came from a strong Mennonite upbringing, was canonically resident after he was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. Humbly, I like to say I am following in Marc's footsteps because his writing and his legacy have influenced me greatly.

The theme of persistence ran through the scriptures for that day, the 22nd Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 24). We heard the Old Testament story from Genesis of how Jacob prevailed in his struggle with 'a man' thus winning his desired blessing, but not without being changed. As the sun rose, Jacob, now with the new name of Israel, walked away limping because of the injury 'the man' had inflicted upon his leg. The reading from Luke (18:1-8). included the parable of a widow whose persistence prevailed, even over the resistance of an unjust judge. After asking those in the congregation if they would be among those 'persistent ones' who would keep the faith, I brought up my friend Marc Nikkel as an example of this quality of persistence.

"Another... is my mentor and friend, Marc Nikkel and his good friends who are in our company here today, serving as the leaders of our retreat. First, Bishop Grant LeMarquand who edited Marc's letters into a book entitled Why Haven't You Left Yet? This question was put to Marc in 1987 when soldiers of the rebel forces found him at Bishop Gwynne College, then located in Mundri. Marc and others were still there - teaching, even under the threat of civil war, capture, and a forced march of many miles." 

"'Why haven't you left yet, Marc?' the rebel soldier asked. Marc sounds like one of the Persistent Ones to me... Will you be among that number?"

"Another friend of Marc's sits among us today, in the person of Bishop Bismark of the Diocese of Mundri whom I first met in July of 2008. We had a conversation in the dining hall of Sarum College, at a gathering of Sudanese Bishops in Salisbury, England, before the Lambeth Conference. I remember it well. He told me about a letter that Marc had written to encourage him in the Way of Jesus, in the Way of Faith."

Looking at the Bishop, I said, "Persistence has served you well, as you have followed in the Way, Bishop Bismark." Looking to the congregation, I asked, "Who among us here today will be in that number?"

"Another friend of Marc's" the sermon continued, "is my first Sudanese friend, the Rev. Bartholomayo Bol Deng who organized and led a trip in November 2006 for the purpose of dedicating the Marc Nikkel School located near Bor. That was my first trip to the Sudan. I could go on and on because by extension we are all followers of Marc Nikkel - one of the Persistent Ones who, of course, was following Jesus Christ. Will You be among that number?"

In closing I said, "I am honored to be among this group today - those men and women who will graduate next Saturday from Bishop Gwynne College with a diploma or a certificate that will say to others 'This is one of the Persistent Ones who has stayed the course and run the race with patience and Persistence.'"

Fast forward to the next weekend at the time of BGC's 32nd graduation ceremony when these candidates actually received the papers marking their persistence, having earned the new honor bestowed upon them by BGC. There was much jubilation and excitement among many shouts of joy and sounds of ululation. Often, the men & women received much decoration on their person, in the form of bright circles of shiny material made especially for the occasion. The purpose of generations of strong leaders & faithful followers had been accomplished, with the promise of more to come. Alleluia! Come Lord Jesus! 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Several Special Occasions

Hello Dear Friends & Family,

I hope you are well wherever you are in your journey - geographically & spiritually.

Today, here in Juba, marks the sixth week of my visit as missionary teacher for the fall semester at Bishop Gwynne College (BGC), where I will stay for 13 weeks in all. Since the last post, several special occasions have occurred. I'll focus on one today.

The first of these special occasions took place on Saturday, October 12th to honor the memory of the late BGC Principal Joseph Taban Lasuba, under whose leadership I served in the spring semester of 2012. Personally, I knew him to be a good man - deeply spiritual and deeply committed to serving the Lord..Until ten days ago, however, I did not fully understand how beloved he was by family, friends, BGC community, and the wider community, stretching around the world. It was a lesson well told at "The Prayer for Dedication and Fixing of the Cross" on Joseph's tomb. 

As I approached the BGC New Site from the road, I could see tall white tents sticking up above the wall of the school compound. Placed there to shade the guests from the afternoon sun, they looked very picturesque, as well. Greeting visitors at the BGC gate were students, dressed in their Sunday best shoes and clothes with labels on their pockets to identify their job for the day - 'reception' or 'usher', for example. Several greeted me, and kindly helped me find a place in their dormitory to put my shoe bag until it was time to go. (I had walked the rough road in my sandals and carried my best shoes with me.)

When I saw the new Principal, Samuel Galuak Marial, he welcomed me warmly and gave me a compliment on my beads - about eight or nine strands of small turquoise beads bound together in a necklace. I had bought them from a local women's craft store when I was here in 2012. 

"I like wearing them," I said. "They are my African beads."

"I bet you get a lot of compliments on them," he said.

"Yes I do," I said with a big smile, remembering that I had worn them on opening night of a play co-written by my husband, Scott. A favorite photo of mine was taken then to remind me of that special occasion.

Many special moments filled the afternoon. Here are some highlights.

-His Grace Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul led the ceremony into the fence-like enclosure around Joseph's tomb. It touched me to be so close when the Archbishop gently kissed the cross where Joseph's photo is placed. I was also blessed to see the great care the artisans took 'fixing' the cross permanently on the grave. Soon after that, the Archbishop also preached the sermon, giving Joseph well-deserved praise as one of  the leaders of the new nation of South Sudan. The Archbishop had chosen him to lead BGC, he said, because of Joseph's vision. A vision that saw beyond the cultural view of tribal identity. Then, on a poignant note of respect for the cultural norm, ++Daniel thanked the elders from Joseph's village for allowing his body to be buried on the campus of BGC so that he would be remembered there for future generations.

-Other members of the clergy served their duties well, whether as the MC, a speaker or a scripture reader. We were noticeably touched when we heard the Dean of All Saints' Cathedral read the story of Lazarus from John's Gospel. It seemed that many of us there were 'seeing' Joseph come out of his tomb, like Lazarus did when Jesus called him. A sad moment, full of emotion for us all.

-Towards the end, brave children sang songs for all the adults. They began by entering the worship space in a line, slowly walking in matched step to the front of the congregation. They stopped near the place where Esparansa, Joseph's widow, sat. Then the children sang several songs, led by Jane, the oldest of the three Lasuba children. She looked lovely in her colorful dress and neatly braided hair. After awhile, we heard the sound of the women voicing their emotion and their approval in the high pitched sound they make for such occasions. Ululation, it is called, and once you have heard it you will never forget it. As for making that sound myself - nope, not possible for me. At the end, when the line of children were walking away from the 'tent of meeting', two women, dressed in white and marked with the insignia of the Mother's Union, came forward to wish them well. They waved over the tops of the heads of these children with handkerchiefs as if to say, 'may your spirit rise to the heavens as we bless you.' 

-After the ceremony, the children came out again. This time each one carried a bit of soap and a colorful kettle, made from plastic into the shape of a tea pot. These were filled with water which they poured over the hands of waiting adults who would then have clean hands to eat a meal together. The youth also carried water bottles and meal boxes out on big metal trays which they distributed to the grown-ups. Many 'shukrans' (thank you in Arabic) were murmured between adults & children.

When it was time to go, I was blessed to have a few words with Esparansa. "You honor us with your presence," she said with a smile as we parted ways.

"I am honored to be here," I tried to say through deep emotion. Words failed me, I pray the meaning did not. 

My BGC student friends retrieved my bag and we chatted for a few minutes while I changed shoes for the walk home. One of them said in a gracious way, "When people come here and ask about this grave, we will be able to tell about our Principal Joseph and it will be passed from one generation to the next." This was said in a place where sometimes only civil war has been passed from generation to generation for decades. 

We also received a blessing on the way home, because the storm which was threatening held off  for a little while longer. The ten minute walk back to the Old Site with Canon Trevor and 'Moma' Tina Stubbs was blessed by a sprinkle, not a downpour, of rain..An African blessing of sorts on a day filled with sorrow and hope. 

On reflection, I am most grateful that I could be present for this moving ceremony. Of course, I could not be there in May when Joseph died and was buried, but I was one of those brokenhearted by the news of his death. My sadness came to me from two other deaths as well - my mentors and friends in Sewanee - Don and Sue Ellen Armentrout - whose burial services in April and September I could not attend. My great sadness for all of my departed friends was wrapped up into one soulful package and I felt a great salve, like the balm of Gilead, come to heal my grieving, sin-sick soul. In the name of Jesus, I give thanks for this and for the peace that passes all understanding. Amen.

Until the next time, my friends,
Peace in Christ,



Sunday, October 6, 2013

October 5th, 2013: Update from BGC

Dear Friends & Family,

Greetings in the name of our Lord. I hope you & yours are well, wherever you may be. 

All is well here at Bishop Gwynne College (BGC) in Juba, South Sudan. I've been here not quite a month, since my departure was delayed by five days because of a leg injury that needed medical attention in the US before I could travel safely. Arriving on Tuesday 9/10, I was glad to be present for the school's opening service at All Saints' Cathedral on Wednesday 9/11. Jet lagged, of course, but at least I was present and felt the warm welcome of Principal Samuel G. Marial, Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul and many of the students whom I remember so fondly from teaching them in 2012. It took about a week to get over the time difference of seven hours and begin sleeping at night & staying awake during the day, for the most part.

Classes started on that same day, so I moved on quickly to teach the Mission & Evangelism class for third year students that afternoon, followed by New Testament Introduction for the first year students on Thursday morning. Then after a few days break over the weekend, came New Testament Texts for the second year students on Monday morning. 

The second week, just as I was getting into the groove, I came down with something that was awful for a few days, but not serious in the long run. Through a friend I was able to get in touch with an American doctor. The consultation was a great help to my peace of mind because of her reassuring diagnosis. That short-lived misery is behind me now, thank goodness, and as my friend said with a smile, at least I'm 'still above ground'. Yes, thank you, my friend, for those comforting words. One cannot be too sure of these things anywhere, I suppose. I'm very glad I lived to tell about it from half way around the world.

Now, after a predictable time of transition, classes are going well, I'm happy to say. The students are eager to learn and inspiring to teach. Together, we have a lot to cover this semester. By the grace of God, we'll get it done. I hope you will keep us in your thoughts & prayers. 

As you may remember from previous postings, the Old Site at BGC, a charming brick building in the perimeter style around an open courtyard, is a comfortable, though by no means luxurious, place to live. City power that we celebrated last time, comes & goes, but we do have solar back up, always with plenty of sunshine available. Most of the time, treated water from the Nile is available from a tank located on a tower so that gravity pulls it down the pipes. Standing like a sentinel by the back door, the tank gets refilled periodically, so bathing regularly isn't a problem. Rain water collected in a big blue barrel is our back up when the tank occasionally runs dry. I'm glad I've gotten good at bucket bathing. Something I learned at camp many years ago, still works. 

Last year I spent a lot of time & received a lot of frustration trying to get internet connection. This year I have invested a reasonable amount in a 'gadget' that enables good connection most of the time. Thankfully, that is not the challenge that it  once was. A big improvement, I'd say, especially because it makes it easier to phone home on Skype, a spiritual necessity. The school & I shared the cost of two items that will stay here at BGC - a mobile phone to call people locally and a battery fan that can run for several hours after it is fully charged. That's especially helpful while going to sleep. So, life in Juba is as good as it gets, if you ask me.

Enough for now, my friends. I wanted you to hear from me before too long. Please know that I appreciate your kind attention and your support, financial & spiritual. It enables this ministry of missionary teaching here at BGC among people whose courage and faith inspire me everyday. Hopefully, as we travel together through these postings, I will be able to convey to you a sense about the many and various ways the Holy Spirit is working here. May the Lord bless you & yours as the journey continues for all of us. Until the next time,

Peace in Christ,


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

September 24, 2013: Let there be light!

Greetings to Friends & Family on this fine day from Juba, South Sudan.

Today marks two weeks to the day since I arrived to teach at Bishop Gwynne College (BGC) for the fall semester of 2013. When I was last here, I taught for the spring semester of 2012. Many things have happened in every aspect of life - personal & professional, here & there, now & then. I struggle to know where to begin. The big news of the day will serve to open a new chapter of life in Juba.

Power, power, wonder-working power! The city is providing electricity for the first time in more than a year. At the moment I'm sitting under a bright light that fills this small the BGC compound where I'll be living for three months. The wall fan turns from side to side, stirring the cool night air with a gentle breeze. These things may seem commonplace to you dear reader, but I think they are cause for celebration. Alleluia! Here in Juba, we do not take these things for granted. Relying on solar power works in some measure., let me hasten to add. Still, I could get used to the ease of turning on the light or fan with so little effort. Simply turn on the switch!

Earlier today, someone said that the city officials want to make sure they are reelected. Providing the citizens with power may translate into votes, thus keeping the politicians in power. For whatever reason, it is a welcomed change. Please pray with us that this improvement will continue.

At the end of a long day, that's it for now, friends. Much more to come as the journey continues.
Grace & peace to you & yours,