When she first met Bishop Bullen Dolli at the Diocese of Missouri's convention in 2005 and told him politely that it would be nice to visit his diocese in the southern Sudan some day, the Rev. Anne Kelsey said she was not prepared for the response she got.
"When will you come?" she recalls the bishop saying. "I was the rector of Trinity, served on diocesan council and had much to keep me more than busy as it was. Southern Sudan was a world away, literally, and I did not think that I had anything much to offer on any kind of mission trip."
Then the following year her bishop, George Wayne Smith, called to ask her to join a diocesan delegation to the Diocese of Lui, where representatives from both dioceses would sign a covenant to establish a companion relationship. "How do you say 'no' to two bishops?" she asked. "You don't!" It was "a conversion experience," she said, describing that visit. "The Anglicans in Lui have survived a terrible civil war, suffer from hunger and disease as constant companions, and have seen their cathedral bombed three times. Under those circumstances, you might expect anger and bitterness and hostility towards those of us who have so much."
Yet, she said, she found only gracious and generous hospitality and tremendous faith. "Worship is fervent and joyful, thronging with children who learn to drum at an early age."
It was these children with whom Kelsey would connect and to whom she will return on Nov. 22 to lead the Lui Children's Art Project. She has plans for 10 workshops in four or five villages with about 150 children. "There could be more," she said.
Preparing for her first trip three years ago, Kelsey had thrown into her suitcase some colored pencils and a sketch pad. "I have an undergraduate degree in art and thought maybe there would be something of interest to inspire me," she said. "One afternoon, I pulled out a plastic chair and sat at the edge of the cathedral compound with my sketch book and pencils and began to draw one of the houses called tukals. "As I struggled with rusty drawing skills, a man came up to me, knelt down and admired the half-finished picture. Then he turned to me and said, 'Will you come and teach our children?'
"It was a beautiful, overwhelming and impossible request, and I didn't want to lie, so I said that I would love to come and teach the children. Going to Lui once had seemed more than improbable; returning looked impossible."
But it is happening now. "The Lui Children's Art Project grew out of that one simple question," she said. "The question remained in my heart until I developed it to present to the companion diocese committee." Kelsey leaves with eight other missioners, including two nurses, from the Diocese of Missouri and will be joined by two others from the Blackmore Vale Deanery of the Diocese of Salisbury in England.
"We're excited about working with the folks from England," she said. When she returns home Dec. 5, she will plan the same workshops for Missouri's own children and then wants to exhibit both the Sudanese and American children's art in a special show in St. Louis in 2010. While she realizes development work is essential in Sudan, from providing clean water and medical supplies to irrigation plans and mosquito control, Kelsey said, "our relationship with Lui is more than raising money, as much as that is needed.
"It is about spending time with people and discovering the commonalities that bring us together as Christians.
"The opportunity for children to create art is an important experience, and one that we often take for granted," she said. "Our children have paper and crayons from an early age, and even when they are quite little they can express themselves vividly. I am eager to give children in Lui an opportunity to exercise creativity, even in such a limited way as a single workshop."
The language of art is universal and speaks without words across the world, Kelsey said. "The Lui Children's Art Project will give them a chance to express what they cannot say in words, both happy things and sad ones as well."