As we boarded the DC-3 that would fly us out of the Sudan last week, this Bible verse from the Book of Deuteronomy was written on a small piece of paper and placed in my hand: “But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children” (4:9). I read it, and promised the woman who gave it to me that I would never forget. I vowed to preserve our memories of the Sudan forever, and engrave the faces of all the Sudanese we met on our hearts, and to keep the extremes of their lives—life and death, joy and the sorrow, illness and healing—alive. I made that promise and so did everyone else on our mission team.
For those of you who may not know, perhaps our guests here this morning for the baptisms, a team of 14 St. Jamesers left on May 30 for two weeks in Africa. The majority of our time was spent in a tiny village called Akot in Southern Sudan. We traveled 36 hours to reach Akot, landing on its dirt airstrip in a very old but highly reliable DC-3 which probably flew in WW-II. We were not sure whether we should be concerned or not each time the flight attendant led us in pray before take-off. But when we touched down on the airstrip and the plane hit a giant water puddle and was splattered with mud we were thankful for her prayers. That was a new experience for us, and so was getting slapped in the face by the 110-degree heat and the odious smells of Africa when she opened the cabin door and we climbed out of the plane. It was at this moment when we realized we were not in Kansas anymore. Let me just state from the beginning, that the entire trip was an awesome adventure in the truest sense of the word “awe.”
As Christians we go to the mission fields of the Sudan because Jesus asks us to. Jesus never set mileage parameters around caring for the poor and the sick. He just said, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25: 35-37). So as St. Jamesers we go to the mission fields of the Sudan because we can and are able. There are not many people willing to risk their own safety for the sake of the oppressed in what appears to be a Godforsaken country like Sudan so when we were invited by a group of devoted, “Hard shell” Southern Baptists who run a medical clinic in Akot we jumped at the chance.
I expected that there would be some differences/tensions with our new Baptist friends, most especially their recognizing my authority as a female pastor. I had been warned in advance about that by our host. And I expected that our liturgy, they way we worship, might be off-putting at first. It was. But Peter Wilbanks made an interesting early observation that I did not expect. When we woke up the first morning Peter noticed that all the Baptists were reading their bibles before breakfast and he and I, as he so astutely pointed out, were reading the New Yorker and Vanity Fair magazines. Not a good sign. There is a reason the Baptists know Scripture so well! We both realized then that the culture shock wouldn’t just be getting used to seeing the topless Dinka women and the scarred tribal markings on the foreheads of the men of Akot toting AK-47’s. And it got worse before it got better. Later in the week, as we women were laying in our in nightgowns under our mosquito nets trying to cool off in the 90-degree heat of the night, we began a collective fantasy about sharing a fine bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon upon our return when I noticed the silent and horrified looks on the faces of our bunkmates. I knew then that we’d better put a cork in it and ask forgiveness or we would never be invited back.
Our mission in Southern Sudan was three-fold: it was to quell a meningitis outbreak and work in the newly opened medical clinic in Akot that was founded by our extraordinary host, and it was to develop lasting relationships with our Anglican brothers and sisters of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan. During the course of our stay we administered 4,500 meningitis vaccinations and by extension saved a few thousand more lives. And when I refer to “we” I mean the entire St. James’s team learned to give shots. We focused on schools and prisons where clusters of people could easily transmit the virus. Mark Whitmire, in particular, became known for his soft touch for vaccinating babies’ bottoms and for his steely stomach in wound care, more specifically, a botched adult-male circumcision. We also traveled hours to remote sites and set up camp under giant mahogany trees and vaccinated entire villages and provided basic medical care such as treatment for snake bites, scabies, ear infections, and the like.
I will never forget one dusty ride we took back from a refugee resettlement village called Paloych after a long day of vaccinations and a ceremony of thanksgiving on our behalf by the tribal chief and government officials. The chief presented us with a black goat and three fly-infested, prehistoric lung fish that had been baking in the sun all day. After the ceremony we piled in the back of a pick-up truck with the goat who promptly urinated on Patrick Woodward’s shoes, the nauseatingly smelly fish, and a soldier who pointed his AK-47 at us the entire one and a half hour ride back to camp. It wasn’t all a loss because we did spy along the road a pack of baboons and a new born Maribu stork with a wingspan the size of me.
But you know we also go to the mission fields of the Sudan for ourselves. We go because it forces us to stretch and grow and face our fears. It forces one to trust in God and to surrender to God’s will. It forces one to look directly in the face of deprivation and the ravages of war. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the barrage of war and disease as is reported in the newspaper and on television. The ravages of Iraq, the Middle East, and even Darfur have made us numb. I am just as guilty as the next person of dehumanizing these suffering people and compartmentalizing their daily struggles so as not to affect me because when it is all said and done what difference can I really make in their lives? Ah, this way of thinking is sinful. It was Mother Teresa who said “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” And while my next observation may sound foolish or obvious to you, it struck me one day while we were there that the Dinka have feelings just as I have feelings. They have wants and needs just as I have wants and needs. And they become fearful and vulnerable just as I become fearful and vulnerable. Their children cry just like mine and get hungry just like mine. Their blood is red just as mine is red. I also had the realization that when danger comes to their compounds and villages they have no where to hide. Their mud huts don’t have locks much less doors. Their only option is to outrun anyone who would threaten them. This is why we must always try to help them. This is why the expression of our faith must be incarnational. It is a faith that says, “Like Jesus, the Dinka is in me. My eyes are his, my hands are his, my soul is his.”
We also travel to the mission fields of the Sudan because that is where we have no where to hide—where are worst selves or our better selves are exposed, and where we as parishioners of St. James’s are adopted into a new family. In a place where there is no electricity, air-conditioning, cell phones, internet access or email, no toilets to flush, and only rice and beans to eat, one learns to count on one’s team members for emotional support, one’s sanity and side-splitting humor and entertainment. After one particularly hot evening laced with Sophomoric jokes and cackling laughter focused on the side effects of our unremitting diet of rice and beans, Nancy Goodall exclaimed: “Oh God, I’ve fallen into my own people.” And then on our last night together Dick Bennett made a toast with these words: “I don’t have enough room in my suitcase to bring home all the love that I feel for this group.”
And you know we also travel to far away mission fields hoping for a few gifts from God but with no real expectation of anything except maybe a changed heart or two. One day as we all sat eating our lunch a nurse in the clinic rushed out to tell Dr. and Mrs. Deal, our hosts, that a woman was in labor. And knowing that it was Mary Kathryn Woodward’s wildest dream to see a child being born (as her own three were delivered by cesarean section) the Deals told Mary Kathryn to run to the delivery room. It wasn’t even 20 minutes later when she came out crying tears of pure, unadulterated joy regaling us with the birth story of baby Stephen. As soon as the midwife suctioned the baby’s nose and mouth and got him breathing she wrapped him in a blanket and placed him first in Mary Kathryn’s arms. It was then that Mary Kathryn was given the honor of naming him, and she named him Stephen after Bobbie Smith’s deceased son. Blessings abounded for us as we witnessed no deaths, only new life and lives resurrected because of modern medicine and the caring touch of so many missionaries.
Suzanne Hall’s observation was that we left Akot better than we found it. Suzanne is certain that the generous spirit of the Dinka people inspired us to be more generous of spirit. Generous with our gifts, our smiles, and any number of the small tender mercies we could provide. And we learned another thing, one’s particular brand of religion really doesn’t matter, the good works we contributed were the links that formed a chain of love.
There is always hope for Southern Sudan and its people—hope of healing and peace. Like the hope of rain that eventually fell on us a few nights and cooled everything off. It replenished our spirits and gave us strength to carry on knowing that nothing oppressive lasts forever.