Among the Divinity School’s partners is the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, which grew dramatically during a 20-year civil war when millions of Southern Sudanese were killed or driven into exile. In 1997, Professor Ellen Davis made a promise to Bishop Daniel Deng Bul of Renk Diocese in Sudan, who was then her student at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va. Once peace arrived, Davis said, she would travel to Renk to teach. The Visiting Teachers Program, with a focus on developing a curriculum in Hebrew and Greek, is the outgrowth of that promise. A public health component was added last summer by Dr. Peter Morris, M.D., M.P.H., M.Div., whose report follows.
We knew it would be wet.
We also knew about the mud. Our summer in the United States is the rainy season in Southern Sudan. We came in sandals and within days of our arrival were given high-topped Wellingtons.
The banks of the White Nile had overflowed bringing the nourishing silt that feeds the sorghum and rich plains of Southern Sudan. But the flooding of 2007, among the worst in living memory, had also collapsed the tukhls, squat mud-and-dung walled huts with peaked thatched roofs that serve as homes throughout the region.
The biblical parallels were more than poetic. As we began our six-hour drive south from Khartoum in the dim morning light, the sun slowly broke through the overcast skies. The sides of the roads shimmered with floodwaters blown choppy by the wind. The blacktop cut a path and parted the “seas.”
We came—a divinity school professor, a student and me, a recent graduate—to what is likely the poorest province of the Anglican Communion. In the midst of the flood, we brought Greek Bibles and instructional texts.
It was just what the bishop had ordered.
The Visiting Teachers Program at Renk Theological College, a collaboration between Duke Divinity and Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS), was born of a deep friendship between Ellen Davis, professor of Old Testament and practical theology at Duke, and Bishop Daniel Deng Bul of Renk Diocese.
Davis had promised the bishop she would come to teach in Sudan whenever peace came to the war-torn country. That promise was kept.
A tenuous peace came in 2004 when, after 21 years of war and the deaths of more than two million Southern Sudanese, peace agreements were signed between the Islamic Government of Sudan and the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army. Davis arrived 10 days later.
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.”
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.
Rowell found that English worked more easily for social banter than for teaching. “It was very challenging to teach Greek or to lecture on an epistle as complex as Hebrews. Even with an interpreter, it was hard work for us all.”
As a physician and epidemiologist, I took a completely different set of skills to Renk. A health clinic was under construction on the college grounds and will provide new resources to treat the malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia that take so many young lives. To assess the most urgent needs, I talked to anyone and everyone who could shed light on health issues. Most often, that was the women.
I also treated infants, children and their mothers, and taught seminars in public health—all in the middle of a flood-ravaged landscape. Windswept rains blown nearly horizontal quickly pooled into deep brown puddles. The slick and slimy mud sucked our boots deep into the muck, or sent our feet sliding out from under us.
Aid arrived each week. Our tukhls, safe above the flood plain, also housed international teams that set up tents and supplied food to displaced families. Engineers worked to get the water treatment plant on line, and public health and emergency room nurses taught local health advisors to watch for signs of epidemic diseases like measles and cholera.
Most days the water was not safe for drinking, cooking or washing, so we improvised. We set up barrels to catch the run-off from the corrugated zinc roofs of the cathedral and the new college chapel. But soon, the rains stopped and drought followed, baking the ground cracking dry.
Yet through flood and drought, hospitality persisted. Bishop Daniel and Bishop Hilary Garang Deng of Malakal, a neighboring diocese, joined us every evening for dinner. They talked about Sudan and its wars, and framed those stories as stories of faith. The church is not only providing infrastructure in the stead of an emerging government in the South, but is the very heart of the community.
“The scope and effectiveness of the Sudanese church’s outreach is hard for us in the United States to grasp,” said Davis, who coordinates the Visiting Teachers Program with Jo Bailey Wells, director of Duke’s Anglican Episcopal House of Studies and associate professor of the practice of Christian ministry and Bible. “Strengthening the college’s educational mission is at the same time a way of meeting the humanitarian needs of Sudan.”
Perhaps a tenet of public health outreach applies best to mission: “Listen to the people and help them achieve what they, not you, want.” For example, our hosts wanted to improve maternal and infant health by training the faithful to serve as health care educators in their respective communities. The new health clinic, which now shares common ground with the chapel and classrooms, is evidence of the imagination, faith and hope of Bishop Daniel and the Church of Sudan.
The very existence of the college is a feat of the imagination. Before Bishop Daniel came to study in the United States, he had never attended a school that was not subsequently destroyed by government troops.
Just six weeks before Davis arrived to teach in 2004, the government of Sudan razed Renk Bible School for road construction. Classrooms, library and dormitories have now been rebuilt and expanded under the leadership of the principal, Fr. Joseph Garang Atem. As a result of the Visiting Teachers Program, the Bible school is now a diploma-granting college and its curriculum is expanding. Recent courses include a “Manna and Mercy” seminar led by the Rev. Alan Storey of South Africa—an intensive week-long study of the biblical story, focusing on peace and social justice—and Jo Bailey Wells’ classes on Anglicanism.
“The students were hungry for lessons about the larger Anglican Church and impressed to find their place historically as the earliest missionary church of the Christian faith,” said Wells. “Tradition has it that Philip (Acts 8:26-40) brought the gospel to Sudan.”
The vision for Renk continues to grow, with plans to expand to a degree-granting university by 2015. “This is crucial if there are to be indigenous scholars and professors among the next generation of Sudanese Christians,” said Davis. “The Episcopal Church of Sudan has identified Renk as the college best positioned to make that move in this decade.”
After several weeks in Renk, we retraced our route back to Khartoum. The floodwaters had largely receded; the brown landscape had been transformed to a lush emerald green. In Sudan, on the ground and in the church, the wind blows and breathes, and the Spirit renews the face of the earth.
Peter Morris is a pediatrician, epidemiologist and medical director of Wake County Human Services in Raleigh, N.C. He earned his master of divinity degree at Duke in 2007 and looks forward to helping establish public health education and services under the umbrella of Renk Theological College.