A Sense of Hope

Reflections by Phoebe Roaf, a Virginia Theological Seminary graduate who taught Greek and Hebrew at Renk in July of 2007.

Phoebe Roaf & Deborah Knott with Renk studentsLast summer, I traveled to Southern Sudan to work and live with Sudanese priests at Renk Theological College. The wonderful hospitality I received from my Sudanese brothers and sisters far exceeded anything
I anticipated. I was warmly embraced as their sister in Christ without any reservations.

I went to Renk Theological College with Deborah Knott, a 2007 Duke graduate. Our trip began with an overnight stay in Khartoum. Although the drive from Khartoum to Renk typically takes 8 hours, we were on the road for 12 hours as a result of flooding caused by excessive rains. Our driver made many detours because the roads were often impassible. Despite this unexpected beginning to our trip, we arrived safely in Renk.

We lived with Fr. Joseph Atem, the Principal of the College, during our stay in Renk as there are no hotels there. Deborah taught Biblical Greek to the Sudanese priests and I taught Biblical Hebrew. We had two wonderful weeks with the students, faculty and staff of the College. Our students faced many challenges but we encountered men and women who are eager to learn and are committed to spreading the Gospel. Their enthusiasm and love for God motivated us to share as much as we could during our brief stay.

In addition to interacting with the students during class, we also ate lunch with them which provided an opportunity to hear their personal stories. Two of the highlights of my trip were preaching at St. Matthew’s Cathedral during a Sunday service (my sermon was in English but was translated into Dinka so that the congregation could understand me) and taking a trip along the Nile River.

In reflecting upon my travels in Sudan, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the difficult task facing the Sudanese in rebuilding their country with the remarkable resilience of the people. I observed a strong work ethic, a tremendous sense of hope and an emphasis on education among the Sudanese Christians. First, the Sudanese Christians I encountered have a strong work ethic. They moved back to areas devastated by decades of fighting before public services were restored. In Southern Sudan, there are no emergency services or trash collection. The government provides electricity for about one hour every evening. There should be running water from 7 am to 7 pm but water was often provided for only a few hours per day when I was there. Access to health care, schools and jobs is extremely limited.

Instead of waiting for the government to respond, these Sudanese Christians have taken the initiative and carved out an existence in a barren land. Their basic approach to life is communal so they survive by working together. They are quite resourceful and have figured out ways of adjusting to their circumstances. I am not sure whether my family and friends could survive under these difficult conditions.

In addition to a strong work ethic, the Sudanese Christians have a tremendous sense of hope. Their primary focus is not the dire nature of the situation they are facing. Instead, they look to the future with great expectation and believe that better times are ahead for their country. They have ambitious dreams and are doing everything within their power to accomplish these dreams despite their limited resources.

Finally, many priests at the College stated that education is the key to the future of their country. They are willing to make great sacrifices to further their education. Their immediate families often live hours away from the College and regular communication is costly and difficult. Because the male students are the primary breadwinners for their families, their absence often means their families must rely upon the generosity of friends to meet their daily needs. I was struck by how little these priests complained, especially in comparison with seminarians in the US.

The Sudanese have much to teach us about appreciating what we have and making do with less.

I am more mindful of the need to conserve resources as a result of my travels and I have adopted several new practices. These include turning off lights when I leave a room, taking smaller amounts of food at meals so that I do not waste food (I can always go back for seconds if I do not have enough) and recycling plastic, glass and paper. I am more intentional about giving thanks for the blessings in my life which I tend to take for granted. I should have been doing these things all along but somehow the importance of conservation and thankfulness was brought home based upon my time in Sudan.

I am thankful for the opportunity to work with the persons I met in Renk and in Khartoum and I hope to travel there again someday. My travels were made possible by grants from the Seminary Consultation on Mission, VTS’s Committee on International and Cross-Cultural Programs, the Dean’s Discretionary Fund, and contributions from family members and friends.