Seeking ways to help

Episcopalians inspired by Sudanese faith at conference
March 31, 2006

Bruce and Carol Rinehart raised several thousand dollars recently to help build schools in southern Sudan, deepening an involvement that began when they agreed five years ago to mentor Sudanese refugees they met at their parish in Denver.

Yet the couple soon discovered that sending money to Sudan is no easy task – it requires a hard-to-obtain permit from the federal government because the United States says Islamic extremists who run the government in Sudan support terrorists.

Eager to chat with other Episcopalians navigating the bureaucracy for a permit to help war-weary civilians in southern Sudan, where a war ended last year after killing more than 2 million people since 1983, the Rineharts flew to Trinity Cathedral in San Jose, Calif., in February for a meeting of the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan.

The organization encourages advocacy and prayer about Sudan, raises awareness of dire needs in that country and provides a forum for people to compare notes as they separately try to strengthen southern Sudan and the Episcopal Church of Sudan, one of few institutions that retained influence in southern Sudan during more than 20 years of war.

The Episcopal Church has roots in Sudan, the largest country in Africa, that date to 1906, when missionaries ventured into a region with no tradition of Christianity or formal schools and little contact with the outside world. More recently, Episcopalians in the United States sent money to support missionaries who braved desperate conditions during the recent civil war, which former President Jimmy Carter has called “the most long-lasting and devastating war in the world.”

Surge of interest

A surge of interest in Sudan flowed through Episcopal congregations nationwide when the United States resettled about 3,800 refugees known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan” in 2000 and 2001. Separated from parents by war, these young men endured and witnessed enormous suffering and came of age with a desire to learn and a strong Christian faith, with many worshipping in Episcopal congregations in refugee camps.

Never before had a group of refugees arrived in the United States with so high a concentration of Episcopalians, said Richard Perkins, director of Episcopal Migration Ministries. “When they got to this country, they felt an instant connection with the Episcopal Church. All over the country, there were clusters of Sudanese who made a rather early connection with the Episcopal Church.”

One “Lost Boy,” 26-year-old James Magai Majak, said members of an Episcopal parish in San Jose drove him to and from school and work, helped him study and paid for his textbooks at DeAnza College. “They are building my future,” he said.

The arrival of the “Lost Boys” triggered a wider interest among a large number of Episcopalians in conditions in Sudan, the largest country in Africa and one torn by strife between Arab Muslims in the north and blacks in the south who follow Christianity or traditional animist religions.

Worshippers in the United States began to educate themselves about violence in Sudan and lobby for change. They learned that President George Bush appointed former Sen. John Danforth, an Episcopal priest, as a special envoy to encourage peace talks between the northern government and southern rebels, talks that resulted in a landmark peace deal on Jan. 9, 2005. Intrigued, several Episcopalians in the United States ventured to Sudan on mission trips. And plenty who did not travel nevertheless wanted to help.

With this groundswell of interest, several Episcopalians with a history of involvement in Sudan formed the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan in 2004. Among its priorities: a “project registry” scheduled for the organization’s website with the goal of giving people in various parishes concrete ways to help, says Nancy Frank, a retired missions and outreach coordinator at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Rochester, N.Y., and AFRECS’ executive director.

“We’d love to see more companion relationships between Episcopal churches in the United States and the Episcopal Church of Sudan,” she said.

At the conference in San Jose, about 150 native-born Americans and Sudanese refugees compared notes on packing for a trip to Sudan and dealing with the lingering effects of trauma among refugees. The Rineharts picked up tips about obtaining the permit to send money to churches and charities in Sudan.

Long-time Episcopalians who traveled to the conference from around the United States said their faith deepened in the presence of Sudanese who seem so devout and optimistic despite the chronic violence and despair that has gripped their country.

“The quality of their faith renews our faith,” says the Rev. Richard Jones, a priest and professor in Alexandria, Va., who is AFRECS president. Bruce Rinehart echoes that theme.

“Seeing their faith has definitely changed my faith,” he said. “Given all that they’ve experienced, it’s remarkable that they have any faith at all. You say, ‘Who am I to complain?’”

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