‘When Are You Coming Back?’
Q: What was it like growing up in Sudan?
A: I was born in Southern Sudan, although I have lived most of my life in Northern Sudan. I went there as a displaced student, a “Lost Boy”* at 17. I knew that if I stayed in Southern Sudan, I would face death. I was smuggled into Northern Sudan in a cargo plane. I settled right in the enemy’s camp, like an Israelite in Babylon. My aunt was living in Khartoum, and I stayed there with her almost 23 years of my life.
Q: Have you ever returned home to Southern Sudan?
A: My first time to return to Southern Sudan was in 1999, to the capital of Juba where I was born. Upon arriving, my heart just broke open. The city looked like a ghost town. I couldn’t even hear birds singing. One evening we did a workshop in Juba, and pastors came with torn clothes and dirty collars. They looked terrible. That picture stayed with me. I knew that the time was coming when I would return home to be with these people who were suffering.
Q: In the West, we often associate suffering with God’s abandonment. As someone who has experienced and witnessed much suffering, what would you say to us?
A: When you read the Bible, it tells this truth: 50 percent of Scripture is made up of suffering and the other 50 percent is about the glory that follows. Do you see this? Unless, of course, you are reading a different Bible! We all know suffering—Sudanese and Americans alike. But the American context helps protect people from suffering and convinces them they are in control. However, we need to let things go. We are not in control; only God is.
Q: As a Sudanese Episcopal priest, can you speak more about the church in Sudan?
A: The church in Sudan has experienced centuries of suffering. But despite all the attempts to destroy it, the church has grown. Before the war, there were once only a few hundred Anglicans in Sudan. Now, there are over four million. Whenever a church building was destroyed, at least three or four would rise up in its place. With each building destroyed, more would be built.
Q: How did you become a student at Duke Divinity School?
A: The archbishop of Sudan has a dream to upgrade one of our Bible schools in Juba to the university level, but this will not be possible unless we can train some of our ministers to be faculty. Through my studies at Duke, the archbishop saw a great opportunity to train new leadership for the church. He told me, “Joseph, prepare yourself. We are sending you to America. Someone is coming next month to bring some forms for you to fill out. Then you will go.” I was just doing my job [as priest at All Saints’ Cathedral in Khartoum], and he says this to me!
Q: What has your year at Duke been like?
A: Many people look to Africa and want to offer solutions. They say, “This is what Africa needs.” It has been good for me to realize the professors here do not think this way. In one course, the professor told me, “When I teach this class next time, I will be sure to bring in your perspective.” At Duke, I have often been given the opportunity to provide my African perspective and to broaden my thinking. Duke has helped me love Sudan better and prepared me for the next phase in my life.
Q: What is that next phase? What will you do when you return to Sudan?
A: I have decided to move from Northern Sudan back to Southern Sudan. Coming to America is preparation for this, and my own experience in Northern Sudan gave me courage and confidence. Now I believe it is time for me to return home. Once, a little boy I knew from my former home parish came up to me after I had returned from seminary in Beirut and said, “When are you going back? All the ones who left [Southern] Sudan have never come back.” This boy had seen many leave. His words struck me like an arrow. I told him, “Even if no one else will come, I will come back for you.” God spoke to me sacramentally through this small child.
Q: Do you have any advice for your fellow students at Duke?
A: To me, the one danger I have seen here is too much emphasis on “mental discipleship,” a type of discipleship that doesn’t involve the whole person, only thoughts and ideas. We learn from Jesus that discipleship involves everything, not just your mind, but your body, heart, and soul. So often in the West, Christians focus only on having the right doctrines. We must focus less on doctrinal differences and more on what we have in common. We all follow Christ. Come, let us worship him together.
Partnerships with the Episcopal Church of Sudan
The Anglican Episcopal House of Studies has a deep and longstanding partnership with the Episcopal Church of Sudan that includes:
- Sponsoring the Renk Visiting Teachers Program at Renk Theological College in Southern Sudan twice a year
- Duke professors Ellen Davis and Jo Bailey Wells serving as consultants on the Commission for Theological Education of the ECS
- Divinity School faculty leading an annual leadership seminar for continuing education of ECS clergy in Juba
- Summer field education placements in Juba for AEHS students starting in 2011
- Developing holistic interdisciplinary models to integrate theology, public health, and agriculture
*The “Lost Boys of Sudan” is a term describing the more than 27,000 boys from Southern Sudan displaced and/or orphaned during the second civil war from 1983 to 2005.
Editor’s Note: The Rev. Joseph Taban Lasuba, graduated in May 2010 with a Th.M. degree and now serves on the faculty of New Bishop Gwynne College in Juba in Southern Sudan. Interviewer Heather Bixler, D’11, is a member of the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies at Duke Divnity School. This article first appeared in the 2010-2011 issue of the AEHS newsletter, Perspectives.