When the Pharisees witness Jesus eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners they are appalled and want to know why he would risk such scandal. He responds, “Those who are well are in no need of a doctor. For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners. ” He then instructs them to go and learn for themselves the meaning of this quotation, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt 9: 12-13). What does he mean by that? “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Perhaps its meaning will be revealed as I share with you tales from our mission journey to Southern Sudan.
For those of you who may be visiting with us this morning and do not know, a group of eight men and women from our parish traveled to Akot, Sudan the last two weeks of May for the purpose of working and assisting with a newly opened secondary school, or what we would consider a high school, named appropriately enough, Hope & Resurrection. Words cannot convey how miraculous it is that our friends, Jennifer and Darryl Ernst, actually had the audacity to conceive of the school and see it through to its completion. Opening of the school was crucial because in all of Southern Sudan there were only 21 secondary schools—this in a geographical area the size of the United States, east of the Mississippi. And in the immediate vicinity of the school there are approximately 75 primary schools meetings “under the trees” ready to feed into Hope & Resurrection. Until now these kids had nowhere to go to finish their education.
Another purpose of our mission was to be in communion with our Anglican brothers and sisters of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan. What a joy it was to worship with them, have tea with them, and walk through the villages hand in hand in solidarity. I had the privilege of preaching in their newly built church and of deepening my relationship with their pastor, Gabriel, who I befriended last year. During the prayers of the people, Gabriel asked the congregation in their native tongue of Dinka to name their three most pressing supplications. They lifted up the sick of their community, prayed to end the conflict with the Arab North, and to eradicate the disease of illiteracy. Those were Gabriel’s exact words, “to wipe out the disease of illiteracy.” You should know that their pastor is 29 years old and married with three children. He is a student at Hope and Resurrection in the ninth grade. Gabriel is the future of the Anglican Communion in East Africa and he needs to be educated.
Each evening our team would gather for prayers and reflection. On most days the sights and sounds and new experiences were almost too much to absorb. We processed these together in hopes of making sense out of all of it. The question that our team members wrestled with for the first few days of the trip was how they could justify to themselves their reasons for wanting to be there. They knew they were called to be in Sudan, but they could not articulate why except that they wanted to help (whatever that meant). Many had received resistance from family and friends. They were told that there is mission work to be done right here in Richmond; one doesn’t need to travel to Africa to do it. One team member was accused of just wanting to travel to Africa for the trendiness of it. A few were scolded for recklessly and selfishly putting themselves in harm’s way. My own brother was angry at me for abandoning my two young sons. But as the week unfolded the answers we searched for were revealed; our own purposes for being affirmed. We were sacrificing nothing to be there, save for air-conditioning and a flushing toilet.
Apart from the manual labor of making mud bricks and spackling and mortaring walls for the teacher’s living quarters under-construction, we spent time with the students in the classroom and during their breaks. Each of us sat down with the students one-on-one and asked to hear their stories. How old are you? What is your tribe or clan? Do you have a family? How far do you walk each day to get to school? What do you want to do with your education? How do you want to serve your country? We listened, and were astounded by their struggles, by their determination, come hell or high water, to get an education. One student named Abraham Aliap, an orphan, joined the Southern People’s Liberation Army when he was just 12 years old. He was promoted to sergeant major at the age of 15 and served for seven years. He is now 27, married with two sons, has no job, and is in the ninth grade. He, too, is the future of Southern Sudan.
A few of the most startling things we learned from the students is how far they walk or ride their bikes to get to the school. A handful of students wake at 4 a.m. to walk the four hours it takes to get there on time, and after a long day they walk the four hours home. Most of the students walk at least an hour and half to school each way. They make this trek five days a week on an empty stomach. Imagine our surprise to learn that the students are not fed during the day. The American missionary and headmistress there, Mary Higbee, explained that the World Food Program will not supply their meals until the school builds a secure food storage room. This is the room for which we were making the bricks.
And for the women of our parish who sewed and are sewing the Pads for Power WomanKind project, you will be interested to know that the three girls enrolled at Hope and Resurrection do, in fact, miss three or four days of school when they menstruate. It was gratifying to give them the reusable sanitary kits that will enable them to stay in class and complete their educations. As a matter of fact, we carried over 70 pounds of these kits and left them with the village elders and a Dutch health clinic that specializes in women’s health issues.
What was different about our time in Sudan this year versus last year was the miasma of tension and anxiety that filled the air and coated everything with a film of uneasiness. We were never afraid or felt threatened—but is was unsettling for us to be staying near a SPLA military regiment that was not stationed there last year and to hear it sing and march and do its morning exercises. About the time we arrived, the Sudanese Armed Forces of the North deployed 12,000 troops to a small town 115 nautical miles north of Akot called Abyei. Abyei remained neutral between the Islamic North and Christian South and was not part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The SPLA in turn called up troops of 3,000 for a standoff. A few heavy clashes broke out in Abyei killing more than 20 soldiers and forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes. Everyone we talked to was afraid the situation could escalate and drag the region back into civil war. At stake in Abyei is control over a large part of Sudan’s oil wealth.
We learned about this conflict through the bush pilots who lived at the compound where we stayed. The conflict also explained the convoys of trucks and armed soldiers that rumbled by on the dirt road right out front of the school. One day we came back from the school and the pilots were unloading injured soldiers to be taken to the medical clinic in Akot for triage. The pilots were contracted by the SPLA to fly in food and medicine and to fly out injured soldiers. They told us not to be afraid because the conflict was still too far north to reach us and if things got dicey they would happily evacuate us. Obviously, this was news we did not report back home.
The reason why I share this with you is because the longer we were there living among the Africans—eating with them, working with them, and worshipping with them, the things seen and unseen that separated us and made us seem so different from them tended to dissipate. When the distractions of our Westernized, materialistic, technologically-driven lives were removed we really did discover that there is little that separates us. The distance we shared between life and death, war and peace, hungry or fed, healthy or sick was alarmingly close. You could almost reach far enough to the other side. Their vulnerability, our vulnerability was palpable. Another thing we learned is that peace is not something only to pray for, but something everyone has the responsibility to create every day, and that we must muster the courage to face the truth about ourselves as well as those we consider our enemies. Through this realization we discovered that we were no longer the “Kawahjahs,” the white people, the curiosities, we were becoming family.
This was the answer to the question of why we were there in the first place. Frankly, we could do very little to help the Dinka or make their lives easier. We were there to discover how the world looks through their eyes. To relive it through their stories and to witness to their daily struggles to stay healthy, to feed and clothe themselves, and to educate their children. Our gift to them was a ministry of presence. Our being there meant that the American people cared about them; that the American Episcopal Church prays for them and wants to be in communion. We could see it in their open faces and their outstretched hands always desiring to touch us. Our Sudanese friends are deeply grateful for the fact that we believe in their worth—they recognize our faith in their humanity, and now we have to protect it, nurture it. This realization was made abundantly clear during our time of worship at the school when we had a closing Eucharist with the students. We know them now; we cannot ever pretend that we do not—they are not anonymous people with insurmountable problems a world away. We made a promise that we will always pray for their well-being. We are connected now through prayers, through their lamentations. When they feel threatened we feel threatened; when they are hungry we are hungry; when they are sick we are sick. Our humanity is eternally bound together by our mutual love of Christ.
Jesus was quoting from the prophet Hosea who prophesized of Yahweh, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (6:6). God desires us to love and to know the Lord and one another, it is not a relationship based on sacrifice, burnt offerings, or in-kind payments. I know you, therefore I love you. That was our mission plain and simple. You know, the truth is we did our best to offer gifts of mercy. We were not in Sudan to make some show of sacrificing the comfort of our pampered lives. No. For all the stuff that we carried over with us—the clothing, school supplies, toys, food and medicine, our most desired gift given and received was one of mercy. Mercy translated as love, not pity.