Davis, who taught and preached during her 12-day visit, learned that Bishop Daniel’s priority was preparing church leaders to translate the Old Testament into the Dinka language, the tribal language spoken by the largest number of Christians in Southern Sudan. The diocese needed priests, deacons and evangelists who did not have to read and interpret Scripture in English and Arabic, the languages of colonization and persecution. Our multilingual hosts needed to study Scripture in the original Hebrew and Greek.

“Most of the Renk students speak Arabic in addition to another language and several dialects,” says Davis. “They understand, better than most of us, how much can be added or lost in translation.”

Photo by Peter Morris
Professor Ellen Davis preaching during her most recent visit to Renk Theological College.

In 2005, the Visiting Teachers Program began sending teams of advanced students from Duke and Virginia Seminary twice annually to teach intensive language courses. The goal is to “teach the teachers,” says Davis. “The best students will then serve as instructors of biblical languages at Renk and elsewhere.”

The program began with Hebrew, which Davis said Arabic speakers pick up more easily than most native English speakers. Last summer, Phoebe Roaf from VTS continued teaching Hebrew, while Deborah Knott D’07 inaugurated the Greek program, making Renk Theological College the only school in Sudan that offers instruction in both biblical languages.

Teaching people “so eager to spread the Good News they had so recently learned” was an inspiration, says Knott, a Presbyterian pastor in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Without that experience, I think I could lose sight of what ministry is all about.”

Our team followed in July. “Dr. Ellen,” as she is known, lectured on “Torah’s Vision of Holiness.” Andrew Rowell, an Anglican who will complete his master of divinity at Duke in May, continued the Greek instruction and lectured on the Letter to the Hebrews. My role as a pediatrician and public health administrator was to assess the community’s health needs.

Our students came not just from Renk, the northernmost city of Southern Sudan, but from the surrounding dioceses, often traveling for days by river taxi and overland bus. As children or teens, many of them had been forced into the army, or escaped by foot to Ethiopia and then to refugee camps in Kenya.

Converted to Christianity in exile, they returned home as pastors to a flock that grew rapidly during the years of persecution. The Episcopal Church of the Sudan now has nearly 5 million members, twice as many as the United States. During the war, when foreign missionaries stayed away, the young Daniel Deng Bul and other evangelists walked from village to village, and Christianity took root throughout Southern Sudan.

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