A Bi-Continental Vocation

Reflections by Megan McMurtry, who taught Hebrew at Renk in July 2006. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, she is studying Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt University

Megan McMurtry with women in SudanAs a relatively new teacher, I have found one of my biggest frustrations to be with students who take for granted the availability of education. To be honest, at times I have done so myself. But in Sudan, virtually everyone I have encountered views education -- any education -- as a precious commodity. Therefore they are willing to make extra sacrifices in order to acquire it (as if their ordinary life did not already involve sacrifices on a daily basis!). The students at Renk Theological College have left their families and villages and traveled great distances -- as much as three weeks overland and on the Nile. They study by candle light and sometimes by flashlight. At first I thought it comical that they would copy down every word or example I wrote on the board with furious enthusiasm. Then I realized that this was a beautiful expression of their intense desire to learn and their gratitude for the opportunity to study.

I first went to Sudan in January 2005, at a time when I was finishing my Master’s work at Duke Divinity School and wrestling with uncertainty about the future. I knew what I wanted to do: I loved studying Hebrew and Old Testament, I loved teaching, and I felt a moral obligation to use the knowledge I had acquired for the benefit of the church. Yet I wondered if that was what I was needed for; my struggle lay in the fact that in the U.S., there is a surplus of people who can teach biblical languages and texts. When Ellen Davis returned from her own first trip to Sudan in 2004, I happened to overhear her telling a colleague about her vision for an ongoing teaching partnership with Renk Theological College (at that time, Renk Bible School). She spoke of the Sudanis’ desire to learn biblical languages and the lack of teachers available for them. It was as though a lightening bolt had struck me: this was work I wanted to do, and for which there was a real need! So six months later I travelled to Sudan with Anna Brawley of Chicago; we were the first team of Visiting (Hebrew) Teachers in the Renk Program.

Our two weeks in Sudan were a momentous time for both the students and me. The Peace Accords between the North and the South were signed while we were there. In the midst of their joy and jubilation at the prospect of peace, the students repeatedly expressed their enthusiasm for the various avenues of education now available to them: primary and secondary schools for the children, the theological college for themselves. Frequently I heard the stunning statement: “Education is even more important to us than peace; without education we can never be free.” Having grown up in the American education system with parents who are educators, and being at the start of my own career as an educator, I was deeply moved and humbled.

When the time came for me to leave Sudan, I felt that I was leaving home, that I now belonged there. In the months following my return to the U.S., I reflected on how this trip might fit into the “big picture” of my life: what would Sudan mean for my own future? I knew then that I would return whenever I could -- not only to share my knowledge, but equally to learn. We Americans have been blessed by relative domestic peace, and we have benefited from our long established educational system. Yet through their endurance, courage, and perseverance, the Sudanese have developed a different type of education, and it is valuable to both the academy and the church. They have insight into the life of ancient Israel and the culture of the Bible, which western academics like me struggle to see through our modern (and perhaps distorted) lenses. They also have a great deal to teach the western church about the nature of Christianity and the role of the church in the world.

Already I have returned for a second summer session at Renk Theological College; I expect to be there again in Summer 2009. And beyond that, I look forward to developing the bi-continental vocation I have discovered, creating opportunities for myself and others to both teach and learn, encouraging dialogue for the mutual benefit of the U.S. and Sudan.