Writing in the Dust

Reflections by Rev. Shirley Smith Graham, Rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Williamsburg, Va., and a 2002 Graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary Graduate

Renk students examine Hebrew alphabet written in sandChad, Mandy, and I arrived in Renk after four long days of travel. We were so ready to follow on in the Hebrew textbook where the previous team had left off. Yet we found that students struggled to remember what they had learned during the previous term.

Conditions were tough: some students had headaches, due to malaria. Many had been required to go back to their homes during the break, to help their family grow crops or tend cattle. Few had access to electricity, making it difficult to study after dark. Some were sleeping directly on the ground without blankets, and as a result did not have the best rest to think clearly each morning. All of them had outsiders claiming to be their teachers: we who did not know either Arabic or their mother-tongue to reach them when our American English failed. We quickly discovered a whole new range of educational challenges.

One day during the morning break, the students gathered outside the classroom in small informal groups to talk over the morning’s lesson. One of the marvels we encountered in Sudan was the students’ determination to overcome challenges and to redouble their efforts. Students would gather together during breaks to talk over concepts they didn’t understand and to help each other. Passing any one of these groups, one might hear Arabic, English, Zande or Dinka languages as students assisted each another.

It was during such a break that I turned from my own conversation and saw one of the women of the class, Grace, drawing with a stick in the sandy dirt of the schoolyard. Insistently, she drew other students’ attention to her project, and soon all the students were gathered around. She continued, drawing in the dirt outside from one end of the building to the other, until her project became clear. There in the gravelly dirt of a schoolyard on the border of the conflict between the north and south of Sudan was written the Hebrew alphabet. And there was the whole class, those who knew the Hebrew letters and those who still did not, reciting them with Grace -- Aleph, Bet, Gimel, Dalet … all the way to Tav.

In that moment Grace looked like Jesus. I had never seen anyone writing in the dust before: I had only read about Jesus doing so, in the Gospel of John, chapter eight, verses 6-8. Jesus is being quizzed by the Pharisees about what should be done with a woman who has committed adultery. In response to the Pharisees’ question, Jesus writes with his finger in the ground, echoing the sign-act of the prophet Jeremiah before him. When the Pharisees persist, Jesus gives his answer: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then Jesus returns to his sign-act, again bending down and writing in the dust. And just as with his predecessor Jeremiah, Jesus’ act so repulses his questioners that Jesus and the woman are left alone, and Jesus has the space to issue that liberating invitation to transformation: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (8.11).

Writing in the dust … Aleph, Bet, Gimel, Dalet … and here is this new teacher Grace, instructing her fellow-students. It was one of those moments that teachers love – when we realize that a whole new world of possibilities and hope is opening up because the students are teaching each other. And in that moment both groups – students and teachers – see that the teacher’s job of equipping is an important but modest one. More significantly, it is following in the footsteps of Jesus.

The Visiting Teacher Program is a powerful agent not just for education but for discipleship. The Sudanese people we seek to equip are the people who will themselves teach the message of God’s covenant faithfulness witnessed throughout the Old and New Testaments to the people they encounter in their ministries as catechists, pastors and priests. The Sudani students will directly share the Good News of God with other Sudanis. We are simply the equippers, like the outfitters who kit up the hikers for their trek. And in the process, moreover, we find ourselves ‘discipled’ – inspired, challenged, taught – by Sudanese Christians many of whom have experienced the privilege and pain of following Jesus more deeply than I.

May God continue to inspire Grace and her colleagues to recognize, in the dust, the marks of Jesus.