Episcopalians, Sudanese partners unite in prayer for a peaceful referendum

January 6, 2011

Vigils, meditation and prayer are uniting people throughout the Episcopal Church and the world around a common cause this week – for Sudan’s referendum on independence to be conducted fairly and peacefully and for an end to the civil upheaval that has plagued the African nation for several decades.

"So many prayers have been answered already, and peace seems to be within our grasp," Robin Denney, an Episcopal Church missionary based in Sudan, wrote in a Jan. 7 e-mail to ENS sent from Juba, the capital city of southern Sudan.

The eve of the historic referendum (Jan. 8) will be a day of prayer throughout southern Sudan, which will decide during the Jan. 9-15 voting period whether to secede from the Islamic north or to remain a unified country.

"The people will gather to raise their voices to God. The vigil will go on throughout the night," said Denney, agriculture consultant for the Episcopal Church of Sudan and a teacher at Bishop Gwynne Theological College in Juba.

Denney said that the people of Sudan are "very aware that the eyes and prayers of the world" are with them this week. "We lift our voices as one, across the boundaries of nations that divide us," she said. "Thank you for being a part of that voice, and that heart."

Prayer vigils and services are being observed in many dioceses and congregations of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, which has long-standing partnerships with the Episcopal Church of Sudan through companion diocese relationships, Episcopal Relief and Development programs and the advocacy work of the Office of Government Relations.

In the Diocese of Missouri, which shares a companion relationship with the Diocese of Lui in Sudan, a 6 p.m. prayer service on Jan. 8 at Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis will kick off an all-night vigil that will conclude at 12 noon the next day. Artwork created by children from Lui will be on display in the cathedral nave throughout the weekend.

In the Diocese of Massachusetts, Grace Episcopal Church in Everett will host an ecumenical prayer vigil on Jan. 8 from 4:30-9 p.m. Grace Church counts many Sudanese Christians among its members.

Several churches throughout the Diocese of Chicago, which shares a companion relationship with the Sudanese Diocese of Renk, will be holding vigils on Jan. 8. Details are available here.

In New York, the Rev. Canon Petero Sabune, the Episcopal Church's program officer for Africa, led a Jan. 7 interreligious prayer vigil beginning at the Church Center for the United Nations and ending with the lighting of candles (an attempt made mostly impossible by falling snow) at the Isaiah Wall on First Avenue opposite U.N. headquarters to begin a weekend of fasting and prayers for peace in Sudan.

During the chapel service, which featured prayers from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Native American traditions, David S. Bassiouni, a permanent resident of the United States from southern Sudan and a former senior U.N. staff member for UNICEF, thanked those who had gathered for their prayers.

"[The referendum] marks a milestone in the lives of people in Sudan; many of us thought we'd never see this day," he said. "We are hopeful that God has brought us this far."

Southern Sudan has never had the opportunity to decide for itself, Bassiouni said, and he asked for continued prayers as Sudanese living in the United States also prepare to cast their votes at polling stations in eight major U.S. cities next week.

Sabune reminded those present that while they were gathering to pray in New York, others were gathering in Sudan and around the world to pray for peace in solidarity.

The American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan will host an interfaith prayer service at 7 p.m. on Jan. 8 at Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia. The Diocese of Virginia shares a companion relationship with the entire province of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. The service will be led by Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders.

Meanwhile, Trinity Church, Wall Street, has created a web page that includes resources for prayer and advocacy for Sudan, including the option to sign an open letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

(For details about local services and prayer vigils for Sudan, check with your Episcopal parish or diocese.)

The referendum is a main provision in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that brought an end to a 21-year civil war that claimed 2 million lives and displaced many more.

Should southerners vote in favor of independence, a transitional period will begin, with the official start of a new nation scheduled for July 9.

For Larry Duffee, Juba is "alive with quiet jubilation."

An Episcopal Church missionary from Fredericksburg, Virginia, Duffee said in an e-mail to ENS that the people in Juba "are so excited about the referendum and for playing their part through voting. There is just such an incredible sense of hope and optimism here, it's truly amazing to be here to witness these historic events."

About 20,000 additional police officers have already taken to the streets for the referendum, Duffee explained. "We will continue to hope and pray that the referendum process remains peaceful and respectful of the dignity possessed by all human beings."

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has called on everyone to pray for Sudan at what he calls a momentous time in its history.

"I urge everyone to stand with the Sudanese people to ensure that the referendum takes place peacefully and that the process and the results are fully respected," Williams said in a Jan. 7 statement.

He called attention to a separate referendum that will be held in the transitional region of Abyei, where residents will decide whether to join the north or the south and where "concern remains for timely implementation of the outstanding elements of the peace agreement."

In the two years Denney has lived in southern Sudan, there have only been two other occasions when the city of Juba closed down for prayer, she explained -- once in June 2009 to pray for peace in Abyei, and again in April 2010 to pray for peace during the presidential and parliamentary elections.

"Both times I was so moved to see interfaith and ecumenical unity in prayer," Denney said in her e-mail. "People set aside their differences, closed their businesses, left their market stalls, closed their government offices, so that they could gather together all over the city and pray. And the fruit of those days of prayer has been miraculous peace."