Eight Missouri Episcopalians left family, friends and holiday traditions behind to spend the Christmas season in Sudan. The mission trip was the latest chapter in the companion relationship between the Diocese of Missouri and the Diocese of Lui in the Episcopal Church of Sudan, now rebuilding after more than two decades of civil war. It has also provided the opportunity to develop close and lasting relationships that are invigorating faith communities in both dioceses.
The Venerable Robert Anton Franken, a member of the Missouri team, helped launch the relationship between the dioceses in 2006, a time when there was no running water, sewers, electricity or telephones in Lui. During seven trips to Sudan in the past three years, he has seen a lot of rebuilding in the war-torn country and notes that Missouri Episcopalians have played a key role.
Efforts by members of the Diocese of Missouri have provided a computer and satellite access for the diocesan office in Lui, enabling communication by telephone and email. A $19,200 grant from United Thank Offering will help to establish a grinding mill, which will be a project of the Mothers Union. Missouri also hosted a Sudanese priest, the Rev. Stephen Dokolo, for two years of theological education, enabling him to return to Sudan to teach other clergy.
Another gift from the Diocese of Missouri has eased the burdens of daily life for hundreds of Moru families: the convenience and benefit of clean water.
Since 2006 the Diocese of Missouri has provided for the drilling of six wells in Lui, each at a cost of approximately $17,000, according to Franken, who worked with Lui Bishop Bullen Dolli to select locations for the wells.
Franken explained that they are "deep water wells which don't dry up during the drought season." He said the wells have ranged in depth from 165 feet to 360 feet, all drilled through solid granite, and that the water is drinkable without filtering.
The wells are also about witness, said Franken. "They are all drilled on church property, but open to the community, so it's a real witness about what the church is doing."
The Rev. Joe Chambers, Episcopal campus ministry chaplain at the University of Missouri, Columbia, wanted to join the mission team so he could make a direct connection with the people who are using the wells—one of which he helped to provide.
Chambers was a part of the 2008 Waters of Hope bike ride, a joint project of the Dioceses of Iowa and Missouri. The ride raised $65,000 which went to provide for clean water making devices for the Diocese of Swaziland and for one deep water well in the Diocese of Lui. A similar ride through Missouri in 2009 will seek to raise additional funds for clean water projects.
Chambers says that Missouri's goal is to provide a well for each of the seven archdeaneries of the Diocese of Lui. That goal will be exceeded by the time the next mission team from Missouri arrives this May, as arrangements have been made for three new wells to be drilled, paid for with funds already given by Missouri Episcopalians.
Missouri missioner Debra Smith said the team witnessed first hand why providing clean water is one of the Millennium Development Goals.
"We saw how much healthier the people in Lui look, especially the children," she said. "And because they no longer spend time at water holes spooning water into containers, some women have had time to enter adult education classes to learn to read their own language."
Smith's husband, Missouri Bishop Wayne Smith, told the diocese's 2008 convention that mission transforms the missioner. "That's the great secret," he said, "missioners then scatter transformation among the communities who sent them in the first place."
Debra Smith said the transformation generated through the relationship with Lui has "spilled over" throughout the Diocese of Missouri and that there is "an awareness of the vastness of creation and how small the world really is."
No place has this been more true that at the Church of the Advent in Crestwood, whose rector, the Rev. Dan Handshy, was a member of the Missouri team, making his first visit to Sudan.
In 2006, the Church of the Advent established a sister relationship with the congregation in Lozoh, in the Diocese of Lui. One Sunday, Handshy announced to his congregation that the church building in Lozoh had been destroyed in a grass fire. After church an eight-year-old boy came up to Handshy and said, "Why don't we have a bake sale?" They did and raised $450 from the sale of hot cross buns baked in large part by children. The money was sent to Lui along with a large ceremonial check signed by Advent's Sunday School children.
Upon entering the one-room diocesan office in Lui, Handshy said he froze and tears began to run down his cheeks. There was the large check, framed and hanging on the wall. Bishop Bullen reported that the check is taken out and used in catechism classes as concrete evidence that the Diocese of Lui is part of a larger family, the Anglican Communion.
"That's what this relationship is about," said Handshy. "We now have very young children who have a real sense about what the Anglican Communion is."
Smith said the trip was more than a project, "it was a visit to friends, the only real way we have to check in with some people we have come to love."
"Maybe we go to inspect wells or photograph a chapel or check on the grinding mill progress, but the real purpose in our visit is to see our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ," she said.
The Christmas trip to Lui, including an unexpected meeting with Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, the primate of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, provided an opportunity to talk about the issue of human sexuality—an issue that has caused controversy throughout the Anglican Communion with some repercussions in Missouri this past year.
On July 22, 2008, while attending the Lambeth Conference for Anglican bishops, Deng held a press conference during which he called for the resignation of the Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the openly gay Bishop of New Hampshire. He said Robinson should resign in order to preserve the unity of the Anglican Communion.
Deng also said that homosexuality is not "approved by the Bible" and "is not part of my culture." He said there are no gay or lesbian people in Sudan.
Following Deng's comments, a number of people in the Diocese of Missouri called for the termination of the companion relationship with the Dicoese of Lui, some of them members of Handshy's parish, which is an "Oasis" congregation that has been explicit in welcoming and involving gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons.
Yet, Handshy reported that the Advent congregation was so involved in its relationship with Lozoh that it could not see severing its relationship with Episcopalians in Sudan, despite the hurt caused by Deng's remarks. The parish submitted a resolution to the 2008 convention of the Diocese of Missouri that affirmed the commitment of the diocese to the "work of inclusion of all the baptized in the whole sacramental life of the Episcopal Church" and also affirmed Missouri's commitment to the Episcopal Church in Sudan "despite the sometimes painful differences with Archbishop Daniel in our understandings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
In the rationale for supporting the resolution, members of the Church of the Advent said, among other things, "we cannot afford to do without the gifts we received from our fellow Christians in Sudan." The resolution was adopted overwhelmingly.
On the second day of the trip, the Missouri missioners attended the dedication of new offices in the neighboring Diocese of Mundri. There the group encountered Deng, who was on hand to preside at the service. Handshy said that within five minutes of the group's arrival Deng brought up the remarks he had made at the Lambeth Conference, saying they were "the feelings of my people and I was there representing my people."
Handshy reported that Deng also said that the feelings of his people were not necessarily his own feelings. To Handshy, Deng's remarks seem to leave open the possibility that this own views about Bishop Robinson might be different or more complex than his people.
Whatever his beliefs, Deng made it clear to the group that the Episcopal Church of Sudan is staying in the Anglican Communion, even if they disagree on some issues.
For me to hear that," said Handshy, "was worth the price of admission."
Smith reported that she had the opportunity to have "a really good conversation" with Bishop Bullen about issues of homosexuality, including the belief held by many in the United States that they are born that way. She reported that this seemed to be "new information" to Bullen, who asked "hard and honest questions." Smith said there are significant cultural differences that make it difficult for the Sudanese to wrap their minds around how we see this issue.
"What's important is that we are talking about this with them and that is not derailing the relationship," she said.