Monday, 23 February 2009

A Fabulous Introduction

Our house in Juba

Last week we returned to Juba from almost a fortnight at the first Episcopal Church of the Sudan Bishops' and Spouses' Conference. It took place in Yei, a town near the border with Uganda and the Congo. A beautiful place which is greener and cooler than Juba. The town was liberated by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) from Government forces in 1997 and since then has gradually come back to life. There are a number of congregations and churches in the town and the Church is on the move. Hundreds of young people take turns in leading the worship at the three morning services. The Cathedral choir has a total of 200 members that range in age from about 8 to young adult. They sing and dance using a keyboard and drums. Amazing!

Each new arrival was greeted enthusiastically by members of the Mothers' Union complete with banner, uniforms and musical instruments. They danced and sang a welcome taking people by the hand and leaping up and down.

The first two days of the conference were especially for the bishops' spouses. They were addressed by Mama Phoebe Orembi the wife of the Archbishop of Uganda. This was the first time the wives had come together for such an occasion and the emphasis was on taking an active part in the ministry as well as being housewives and mothers. They were urged to pass on the message to other women in their dioceses. The joint retreat which followed also acknowledged the important role the women had to play, and the bishops were called to look after their wives as their first priority. The Archbishop of Uganda, who was one of the distinguished speakers, pointed out that they were bishops for as long as they held their posts, but they were husbands all their lives. It was a ministry they couldn't retire from! The Church is in the forefront of raising the status of women in the Sudan.
Meeting most of the Sudanese bishops and their wives was a wonderful start for us. They are inspirational - men and women of phenomenal faith and commitment. Their stories of suffering, displacement, deprivation, starvation, intimidation, imprisonment and separation from their families is bad enough. But many of them can tell stories of massacre and unimaginable horrors that they have witnessed that will be with them all through their lives. None of the bishops and parish priests are paid a stipend. They have to find their own housing, transport and food. Mostly this consists of native thatched huts (called locally "tukuls"). Their congregations are in many cases just returning from their places of exile and struggle to feed themselves. Often it is the bishops and pastors who have stayed in their dioceses despite the threat of war and so are the ones tending to the returnees before they have managed to grow anything or find animals to feed themselves. These bishops, pastors and their congregations are among the world's most dedicated disciples, because they know that, in the midst of their pain, the Lord provides. They are so conscious of the power of the Holy Spirit to see them through. They really know how to pray - and the praying comes from the depth of their being. They are living witnesses of the power of what Paul speaks about in Romans 5. The suffering produces endurance and faith. These people have experienced first hand what Paul talks about in his epistles and the Acts of the Apostles. The biblical experience of the people of God in both Old and New Testaments is reproduced here so authentically. This is why the Church has grown and grows still.
So we are now back in our lodgings in Juba and gradually getting ourselves together to make a comfortable place. The bishops' wives presented Tina with a nest of cooking pans (see the picture).

Today we bought some other essentials. We splashed out on a small pressure cooker so we can cook meat more quickly, a fan to keep us cool in the evening when the power is on. (Often the evening is more humid than the day and therefore feels "closer". ) We also have an iron to help us look as smart as the locals - here the men do most of the ironing and since there are not going to be many evening meetings, it might turn out to be Trevor's job. We are venturing to the local market to get food. Last night a local man, Charles the archbishop's chaplain, took us to his favourite restaurant which is very economical. We had chicken which is served with raw onions, peanut butter and bread. They drink a lot of "pop" (Coke etc.) which they call "soda". Although knives and forks are becoming more common, the local custom is to eat everything with the right hand.
Bishop Gwynne College has just been suspended because of the need to address the financial crisis and other matters. The plan is to re-open next year and it will be Trevor's responsibility, working with the college governors, to see this happens. And when the college re-opens we want it to be delivering an upgraded course. So we need your prayers as we tackle this challenging job. But if God can act in this country with the power we have already witnessed, then it will come together. One of the speakers from the Bishops' and Spouses' Conference was George Carey, the retired Archbishop of Canterbury. He spoke some very encouraging words to us. We are honoured to be on his prayer list.

L to R: Mama Deborah (wife of Archbishop of the Sudan), Lady Carey, Lord Carey, Archbishop Orembi of Uganda,
and Bishop Nathaniel Garang, Bishop of Bor and Dean of the ECS.

The primary schools are all off for their long holidays this month which enables us to learn a little bit of the local Juba Arabic before taking on any teaching.

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