American Friends of Sudan hear challenge to act for peace, basic human needs

June 3, 2008

"We need you now more than ever," was the message of Sudan's recently enthroned Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul to the fourth annual conference of the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan (AFRECS), meeting in Chicago May 30 to June 1.

The conference participants came from around the Episcopal Church, representing dioceses and congregations with companion relationships with the Episcopal Church of the Sudan (ECS) and those seeking to explore new relationships. One quarter of those attending were Sudanese refugees now living in the United States.

Deng's remarks at the opening session of the conference came on the eve of his return to Sudan after a month-long tour of the United States. He spoke in dioceses and congregations that have companion relationships, met with the presiding bishops of the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and received an honorary doctorate from Virginia Theological Seminary, where he was a student from 1995 to 1997. He was accompanied on the trip by his wife, Mama Deborah Abuk Atem.

Prior to his election as archbishop, Deng served as the Bishop of the Diocese of Renk, in east central Sudan, since 1995. The host diocese for the conference, Chicago, has had a long-standing companion relationship with the Diocese of Renk. Deng has been a frequent visitor to congregations in Chicago during the past decade.

Deng said that after two decades of civil war, Sudan is enjoying "relative peace" following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January 2005 between the Government of Sudan, based in the north, and the people of southern Sudan. Although the political situation in the country is very fragile, he reported that hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced by the war are starting to return home.

This repatriation, he said, is perhaps the biggest challenge facing the country today, as refugees return to areas long deserted, without buildings for homes and schools, and in many places, no clean water.

"These people are starting with nothing," he said. "They are going to suffer, I can tell you that for sure."

Another conference presenter, the Rev. Canon Ian Woodward, vice chairman of the "Diocese of Salisbury-Sudan Link," a 35-year-old companion relationship between the Church of England diocese and the entire province of the ECS, noted that there is virtually no communication or transportation infrastructure. He noted that in Sudan, the largest country by area in Africa (967,500 square miles), there are only 14 miles of paved roads.

Immediate challenges as archbishop
Deng's remarks to the AFRECS conference centered on two major challenges facing him barely six weeks into his leadership as archbishop.

Upon taking office he discovered that many church officials had not been compensated, some for as long as three years. He noted that the situation has obviously affected morale and that several officials had left. The amount of money needed to correct this debt to church employees equals approximately $150,000.

"This is affecting my work as archbishop," he said, "and I strongly need your support to carry out my duty. I want you to send me home with a promise that you will help me clear these arrears to the staff, to roll away the stone and remove the hindrances to our work as the church in Sudan."

The offering at the conference's opening plenary session was designated for the archbishop's discretionary fund, to be used for this purpose.

The remainder of Deng's presentation, and questions from the audience, centered on the second, and even more urgent, challenge facing the new archbishop: the displacement of 120,000 persons as result of the destruction of the town of Abyei by armed forces of the northern government.

Abyei, located in a disputed border area in south central Sudan rich with oil reserves, has been claimed by both northern and southern governments. Deng reported that two weeks earlier, northern forces burned Abyei to the ground.

Deng said he has made a direct appeal to Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) for aid for the people of Abyei and Janette O'Neill, ERD's director of Africa programs, reported to conference participants that it will soon be launched.

Deng said that he has appointed the Right Rev. Francis Loyo, Bishop of Rokon, who also participated in the conference, to head up the ECS' relief work for the people of Abyei and that he would dispatch Loyo to the region immediately upon his return to Sudan.

Saying he fears the fighting around Abyei may be the beginning of a new war which will threaten the CPA, Deng urged AFRECS members to contact their senators and representatives asking for the U.S. government to put pressure on the Government of Sudan. He said he was encouraged to read the joint statement by the three remaining candidates for president of the United States -- John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- released on May 27, pledging "unstinting resolve" about ending violence and genocide in Sudan, especially in the Darfur region.

Deng said ECS would release a statement decrying the destruction of Abyei upon his return to Sudan this week.

He said that it is uncertain if the displaced residents of Abyei will return to their town, but if they do, he said, "they will need everything -- we will have to replace all that was lost." He reported that both an ECS church and school were among the buildings burned.

"The church will stand with the people," he said, "just like we did in war, we will stand with the people now."

An empowering time for women
Following the archbishop's remarks, his wife, Mama Deborah, now by virtue of her husband's election, president of the Mothers' Union of Sudan, spoke to the conference through an interpreter. She said the peace agreement has brought about new opportunities for women's empowerment.

She noted that the interim constitution in the south requires that 25% of legislative and governmental executive offices be filled by women. She also reported that several women have been appointed to positions in the peacemaking process, including her own mother.

"I am happy to witness the development and progress of women in southern Sudan," she said, "and I also hope that someday a woman like me can become bishop."

Reuniting the Lost Boys
Among the four million refugees resulting from the second Sudanese civil war (1983-2004), were approximately 27,000 boys, either orphaned or displaced, commonly known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. The young boys escaped, often making excruciating journeys, to relief camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. In 2000, some of the Lost Boys were resettled to the United States. Various sources report that nearly 4000 Lost Boys, now young men, are living in 38 cities in the United States.

The 2008 AFRECS conference brought together nearly 30 of the Lost Boys both for a time of reunion and for some, presentation to the gathering.

A group of Lost Boys was resettled in Chicago in 2001 to apartments located just two blocks from St. Paul's by-the-Lake, an Episcopal parish in the Rogers Park neighborhood. Learning of this through sources she had developed through a relationship with the church in Sudan beginning in 1997, Jackie Kraus, a member of St. Michael's Episcopal Church, Barrington, Illinois, and an AFRECS board member, informed St. Paul's rector.

She accompanied the Rev. John Heschle on a visit to the boys and the beginning of ministry to and with them that continues to this day. Since 2001, the boys have met weekly at St. Paul's for both fellowship and worship. One Sunday a month, Heschle provides a service of Holy Eucharist. He has provided pastoral care to the boys and has offered St. Paul's as the venue for several services to remember relatives who died in Sudan.

At the opening session of the conference, the Commission on Global Mission of the Diocese of Chicago, honored Heschle and the members of St. Paul's for their service to the Lost Boys of Sudan.

"We only did what God calls us to do," said Heschle, "to take God's grace into this world, to open our doors, to welcome the stranger."

"The Sudanese have changed my life," he said.

Sharing successful models of help
A significant part of the conference was devoted to the "nuts and bolts" of companion relationships in Sudan. A series of plenary and small-group sessions provided an opportunity for those already involved in Sudan to share experiences and resources that can lead to effective partnerships. This included the sharing of some remarkable success stories.

Following trips to the Diocese of Kajo Keji in southeastern Sudan by Bishop Paul Marshall, Connie Fegley and others beginning in 2002, the Pennsylvania-based Diocese of Bethlehem launched the "New Hope Campaign." Most of the funds raised will go to building schools and the Canon Benaiah Poggo College. The campaign has now exceeded its $3.6 million goal and is now striving for a $4.1 million dollar "stretch goal."

Fegley, speaking on behalf of Marshall, said the project and the diocese's relationship with the church in Sudan has been exhilarating and energizing. She also noted that Bethlehem has "the same diversity in issues" that other diocese have, but that the mission work in the Sudan "has helped to knit us together."

"Many people believe this is the most vital aspect of our diocese," she said.

The Diocese of Missouri has decided to focus on clean water in its companion relationship with the Diocese of Lui in southern Sudan. Archdeacon Robert Franken, who coordinates the companion relationship and who attended Deng's enthronement, reported that Missouri has paid for the drilling of six deep water wells to date, each at an approximate cost of $17,000.

To reach fresh, clean water, the wells need to be drilled through solid granite. The deepest well dug to date is more than 350-feet deep.

Franken said that the relationship with Lui is receiving "growing interest and wonderment" throughout the diocese.

"It's also an incredible challenge because the more needs you meet, the more you understand what they don't have," he said.

The Diocese of Missouri's canon for communication, Sandra Coburn, a veteran traveler and former teacher in Sudan, also attended the conference. She reported that Missouri recently sponsored "A Walk for Lui," which raised $19,000.

"That's another well," she said.

Coburn also reported that Missouri has received a $19,000 grant from the United Thank Offering, which will be used to purchase powered grinders for use by women in the Diocese of Lui. In addition to easing the preparation of grain for family use, the grinders will also allow the women to grind additional grain as a source of income.

The Rev. Stephen Dokolo, a priest from Lui, currently studying at a theological seminary in St. Louis, also attended the conference representing the Diocese of Missouri.

Entrepreneurs for the homeland
Many Sudanese living in diaspora, have not been content to sit idly by as Sudan begins to rebuild and repopulate. A special session of the conference provided an opportunity for Sudanese refugees, several of them Lost Boys, to showcase projects they are mounting to provide aid and relief to their homeland.

Onam Liduba is one of the Chicago Lost Boys and a member of the Pari Tribe from Lafron, Sudan. In 2006, after 19 years away, Liduba visited Sudan and discovered that Pari families, widows and orphans are returning home to Lafron, but that a basic infrastructure is not in place. Yet, more than 2,000 Pari children will attend primary school this fall. Onam has launched the Pari People's Project Back-to-School Drive to provide the children with kits containing both educational and personal hygiene supplies. He will personally deliver the kits in late July.

Aduel Riak is one of the few Lost Girls of Sudan, one of only 89 who were able to resettle to the United States. A graduate of Brandeis University and an associate director of the New Sudan Education Initiative (NESEI), she has spearheaded an initiative to build a school in her home village of Malek, which was actually the birthplace of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan.

With help from donors and NESEI, which has already opened one school in Sudan, the Melek Academy will open in April 2009 to provide education for young girls and women.

Awer Bul was one of the first Lost Boys to come to the United States in 2000 and is a gifted artist. Samples of his oil paintings graced the hallways of the AFRECS conference. Before settling in the United States, he resided at a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, where he created the African Refugee Art Club. The purpose of the club was to use art to deal with the traumas of the atrocities of war, separation from family and loss of home and homeland.

Now, with a $5,000 research grant from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he is a student, along with private donations, Awer will travel back to the refugee settlement in Kakuma to conduct the "Children of Sudan Art Workshops." The art that is created in the workshops will be brought to the United States to be sold, with proceeds going directly to the original artists. A documentary film will also be produced about the workshops.

Other examples entrepreneurship by Sudanese refugees for their homeland include The Sudan Boma Mission, the Lost Boys School for Sudan, Southern Sudan Health Projects and Ayual Community Development Association.

Increasing companion relationships
At the AFRECS Annual Meeting, held in conjunction with the conference, president Richard Jones announced that one of the organizations goals in the coming year will be to increase the number of formal companion relationships with the Episcopal Church of the Sudan.

Current companion relationships include Albany with the Province of Sudan, Bethlehem with Kajo Keji, Chicago with Renk, Indianapolis with Bor, Missouri with Lui, Southwestern Virginia with the Province of Sudan, and Virginia with the Province of Sudan.

AFRECS will be aided in that effort by a retired U.S. bishop who has just taken on a unique role. Meeting on April 21, the day following Deng's enthronement, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan elected the Rt. Rev. Francis Gray, former assistant bishop in Virginia and former diocesan of Northern Indiana, as its commissary in the United States. He will represent and speak for Deng and be involved in efforts to bring awareness to the needs in Sudan and help to fulfill the Sudanese Church's vision of developing companion relationships for each of its 24 dioceses.

"The Episcopal Church in the Sudan wants to develop more partnerships with American dioceses, churches and institutions and that is going to be one of my primary responsibilities," said Gray. "Sudan needs prayers, partners and resources."

A time to act
Throughout the conference, given the fragile state of peace and the intense humanitarian need in Sudan, there was a constant theme: take action now. Many presenters said that the Episcopal Church in the Sudan is turning to the Episcopal Church in the United States, with its vast resources, for help at a crucial time.

Jackie Kraus reminded participants that Deng has said that help is needed more now even than in time of war.

"The American church needs to listen to the cries of our brothers and sisters in Sudan," said Kraus. "We need to give of our resources and become the foundation so they can become self-sufficient."

Anita Sanborn, president of the Colorado Episcopal Foundation and an AFRECS board member, says Americans need first to learn about Sudan, to understand what is at stake politically, to understand the fragility of a country that is "fighting to maintain peace."

"Sudan is a strategic country," she said, "and they need us. They need our money and they need us to be there with them, just like people were present with us during our revolution. We have an opportunity to strengthen the church in Sudan, which is a pillar of civic society."

Despite differences and divisions between north and south, Franken, also an AFRECS board member, says people need to be unified in ways of responding to Sudan as a whole.

"It's not Darfur or north or south," he said. "It's Sudan as a whole that is struggling to maintain peace and rebuild. We need to create development for a whole country and a whole people."

"So, its prayer, first," said Kraus, "but then action…action now."

-- Joe Bjordal is Episcopal Life Media correspondent in the dioceses of Provinces V and VI. He is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.