The Story God is Telling in Sudan

Reflections by Rev. Andrew Rowell, a Duke Divinity School graduate who taught Letter to the Hebrews and Greek at Renk in July and August of 2007

Andrew Rowell with Renk studentWe spent our evenings in Sudan gathered around the dinner table, where meals of rice, goat and bread were accompanied by stories told by the young Anglican priests who were our students, stories of the struggles and hopes that had carried them through the last twenty-one years of civil war.  As I and my fellow teachers, Drs. Ellen Davis and Peter Morris, quietly ate, our students would tell of conflict and displacement, of years spent in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, of family members lost and home towns razed to the ground.  In the face of these horrors, however, they’d also tell, with deep vigor and hope, stories of the joy and purpose they had found in the Gospel of Christ – stories of their conversions and ordinations and their confidence that God has planted His church in Sudan for His good purposes. They would point to our willingness to come teach them as a sign of God’s work in Sudan, consistently remarking that the opportunity to study with us was a gift worth any sacrifice, as their studies promised to equip them more and more to exercise effectively the Priestly call God had placed upon their lives.

To see myself as a part of the story that God is telling in Sudan was a humbling experience.  Indeed, as I taught Biblical Greek and a seminar on the Book to the Hebrews for a month at Renk Theological College during the Summer of 2007, I was struck repeatedly by how much more I was learning from my students than I was imparting to them.  I may have been teaching them third declension nouns in koine Greek, and the “proper” way to exegete the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. They, in turn, were teaching me a far greater lesson regarding what it means to be a true believer – what it means to hear the call of the Gospel, to lay aside the distractions that cling so closely, and to run with perseverance the race that God sets before us despite the trials that come.  My month in Sudan was hard – severe water shortages, the threat of impending renewal of conflict between the North and the South of Sudan, and the basic struggle of living in a country still in the process of rebuilding itself after two decades of war all combined to make it far from a vacation.  But I would not trade for anything the glimpse I obtained of the Good News in action – a glimpse of how the Gospel can give hope and new life to those willing to lay down their all for the sake of the call of Christ. 

One night a student told of an illness his wife had recently suffered in his home village, a town several days’ journey from Renk by way of the Nile River or twenty-five days walk.  When he arrived in his village to visit his family, he was mobbed by the wives of his fellow students, each of them asking whether their husbands were still alive. I was stunned – and wondered in that moment what struggles I would be willing to endure for the sake of the Gospel.  Even as I emailed back to the states on a daily basis and had a cell phone in my pocket, my students and their families made huge sacrifices in order to learn what they needed to know in order to be effective Priests in Christ’s Church. 

I am almost finished with my Master’s degree at Duke Divinity School and my time here has indeed been a blessing.  But am I as hungry for knowledge of God as my Sudanese students?  Do I cling to my Bible, to the stories of the lives of the saints, or to the content of the Creeds as if the story of Christ is the sole content of my being, the only narrative that provides my life with meaning? Or do I rather treat the Gospel as the “spiritual aspect” of an otherwise quite full and enjoyable life, living as I do as a wealthy man in the West?  I pray that I might actually incorporate what I learned from my students and cling ever more tightly to what Christ promises – that in Him will be found the only life that is truly life.