A TEC visit to Southern Sudan: Part II

Buck Blanchard, diocesan coordinator for world mission for the Diocese of Virginia, and other representatives from the Episcopal Church recently completed a month-long trip to build and strengthen relationships with dioceses in Sudan. The Rt. Rev. David C. Jones and the Rt. Rev. Frank Gray have also traveled to Sudan to take part in their House of Bishops meeting. The following is the second of two reports filed by Blanchard during the trip. (Here is the first.) In it he talks about the bishops he meet during his travels to dioceses in Southern Sudan. And he describes the House of Bishops meeting he observed.

Click read more to see his report.


February 19, 2009

I’m still here in Sudan. Still doing fine. Still totally safe. Most days are spent visiting a new diocese, along the way experiencing the stark realities of life in the countryside. Mud houses and wood fires. People trying to make a living selling gasoline in old water bottles, or carrying firewood back to their huts. I’ve been thinking about how folks like me always write about the difficulties of these regular folks in the villages. And although that is perhaps the way it should be, there are others here who rarely get mentioned. Like the bishops of the Episcopal Church of Sudan.

I have just finished attending (as an observer) a week long retreat for bishops and their wives held in the town of Yei in the southern part of the country, just north of the Ugandan border. It’s the first such retreat ever held. Almost all of the bishops were there as were most of their wives. A few brought their children. They were joined by Bishop David Jones of Virginia and Bishop Frank Gray, who helped facilitate the retreat. Three other facilitators were the retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, and the current Archbishop of Uganda, the Most Reverend Henry Orombi. Needless to say, purple shirts and heavy crosses were everywhere.

I’ll admit that I get a little nervous around bishops. After all, they are the keepers of the faith for Episcopalians. They carry the mantle of the disciples. Even as Episcopalians, they still stand in the shoes of the fisherman. But in Yei, it was clear that they are also regular guys. Many are quite young for bishops, in their late thirties. The Bishop of Kadugli is 38 and has been a bishop for seven years. Others are in their sixties and have suffered through the full span of the Sudanese civil war.

What dawned on me during the retreat was that these men shoulder the awesome responsibility of rebuilding Sudan after 21 years of horrible war. In the southern part of Sudan, where most are based, the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS) is the largest non-governmental organization in the country. In some areas, 90+ per cent of the population belong to the ECS. When the government can’t provide a service, which is quite often, the people look to the church to provide it.

So these bishops are somehow expected to build schools, hire teachers, construct medical clinics and find professionals to staff them. They are ask to dig bore hole wells, resolve inter-tribal disputes, disarm the population and develop diocesan-wide agriculture programs. And they are expected to do all of that, in most cases, without partners from abroad, with virtually no financial support, no technology, and in a few instances still, without a vehicle to travel throughout their own dioceses.

There’s Bishop Wilson from Ibba, who just lost the funding for his two 8th grade teachers, so has to consider if it is possible for his other teachers to cover – the problem being that those teachers themselves have only a sixth grade education. Or Bishop Benjamin from Yirol, who is trying to close the “hunger gap” in his diocese – the time between when food supplies run out in February and when new crops are ready in September. Then there is Bishop John from Ezo, whose diocese is at the far western edge of Sudan. While he struggles to provide services to his people, the Lord’s Resistance Army has attacked and has driven him from his diocesan home. The area around the church has been evacuated in fear. Bishop John had to flee with others from the town and hide in the bush for several days or risk being massacred.

And let’s not forget Bishop Ishmael, who is working to make Christianity an option in Darfur. He now has established churches in four towns throughout Darfur, including most recently in Geneina, right at the front line of the Darfur conflict. He has done all this without any consistent support from the international church or partnerships with the US church. Don’t even get me started.

But then there is Bishop Bernard in Tourit. The Diocese of Tourit is about the size of West Virginia – the entire state. He has been the bishop for about two years. He has no vehicle to use to travel around his diocese, so he takes rickety buses or bums a ride. He has no cathedral. He has no office. He has no staff. He doesn’t have a companion relationship with a U.S. diocese. He has no other funding. He, his wife and three kids have been living in a single room of a property owned by the Sudan Council of Churches, but now they are being evicted. He doesn’t have a house. So on March 31, he literally is looking at the possibility of living under a mango tree.

We discussed how to solve his problem. He suggested building a two-room mud and tin roof building that he could use for now as a house (one room) and an office(the other room). Eventually this could be converted to the diocesan office when he figures out how to have a real house. I asked him to estimate the costs and to think of a nice building – not over the top but presentable. He came back with an extremely detailed estimate, right down to the nails. He reminded me that, without a vehicle, it would be expensive to transport the building materials, but if we could gather them, he and the people from Tourit Diocese would build the structure. Total cost of a combined house and diocesan office for the Bishop of Tourit of the ECS: $7,500.

Call me crazy, but that doesn’t seem like too much to ask, even for a bishop.

– Buck Blanchard

(If you would like to find out more or to make a contribution to The Episcopal Church of Sudan or a specific diocese, please contact Buck Blanchard at bblanchard@thediocese.net)

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