Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Bob Towner's Reflections - Part I

This is one of two pre-trip reflections written by the Rev. Bob Towner, rector of Christ Church, Cape Girardeau

You know the one gift which makes you blush. You’re not sure you want to claim it or return it. The gift flushes you out. It reveals your hidden strength (“How did you know I wanted this?”) and betrays your weaknesses (“You think I need this?). I received such a gift recently, in the form of an invitation by my church to go to Africa. Specifically, to join a deputation from eastern Missouri going to the southern Sudan with the charge to build a companion relationship between churches. Our Episcopalians here and the Anglicans there both trace their spiritual roots to the Church of England.

Why me? I don’t speak the language. Surely, you mean someone older and wiser, younger and stronger? What do you expect me to say? What does it mean to be second cousins in a world-wide spiritual family? Does it matter to me?

And what about my people in Missouri? Why should they support this? Why should they care? About Africa, about the Sudan, wherever that is? Why should we invest our money and your time (we pay you, don’t forget) in strangers on the other side of the globe, when we struggle to survive here, when we have too many families in need already at the church door?

I don’t have the answers. But the questions seem good, troubling but right. The learning curve will be steep, but I feel a surge of energy coming. I know, even as I say, let me think about it, that I will say yes.

Africa is a great mystery, which is emerging in the 21st century as a full partner in our planetary destiny. No longer a source of anonymous slave labor. No more a shuffling colonial servant. No more a mineral cache in the back pocket of international capitalism. But how will Africa emerge from all that tragedy?

I can assemble only a few strands of history to weave with a few scraps from the newswires. Church appeals and world relief efforts paint a dull, dun, dreary picture of constant starvation, punctuated by revolution, civil war, refugees, A.I.D.S.. I heft out our many atlases. I am embarrassed I so rarely crack the African pages. Sudan, the largest country in Africa. Sudan, source of the White Nile and the Blue Nile. Geographical features: a few mountains in the far NE and SW, otherwise none. And oil that is a blessing and a curse.

How, in such a barren land, come so many babies? How in a huge land, one quarter the size of the U. S. A., can there be so few cities? Who are these people? How do they live? What, if any, good can I do? How on earth are the good people of southeast Missouri going to connect with these people?

I am not sure I would care to know, but for one big fact. In this large, wide land, in the last generation of the 20th century there has unfolded, under cover of ignorance a huge genocide. There has been a tragic civil war, and since the truce last year, hundreds of thousands more have died. Senator Danforth helped create that truce and is a hero. He is an Episcopal priest like me. Since the truce between north and south, the peoples of western Sudan, known as Darfur, are asking for liberty, and paying with another genocide.

There is a tear between the Muslim north and their capital in Khartoum and the rest of Sudan. This is a huge sore erupting on the civilizational rift, the fault line between two old worlds. But there is a new world rising. And, in spite of this, in the southern Sudan there is a great uprising of faith, a joyful flourishing of Christianity, and the rebirth of an indigenous brand of Anglican faith that puts our American church renewal and growth plans to shame.

How can people with so little of what I value, who are so poor in the goods of our society, have faith? One thing emerges from my initial bewilderment. These Christians I shall meet in the southern Sudan have come to believe in the care and love of God without benefit of material blessing. What are the grounds of their faith? Their God, which on paper at least, is my God, may show that the grounds of my faith are idolatrous. They have something which I need, for which my church here in southeast Missouri hungers. I shall go, like Joseph’s brothers, to Africa, to seek what we need.

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