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!