Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Bob Towner's Reflections -- Part II

Bob wrote this on the eve of his journey to Sudan

I am a pastor preparing for a mission trip to Southern Sudan, to build a covenant relationship between the two branches of the Episcopal Church.

I meet my four companions. One is an archivist from Jeff City, one a St. Louis carpenter, one a church administrator, and the fourth is our committee chair and a veteran missioner. A Sudan slideshow runs constantly, but the pictures mean next to nothing. I remember my father’s “travelogues” and my eyes glazed. We meet a couple of veteran travelers. Their stories are about their Sudanese friends, relationships with people I can’t imagine. This is job one: to build friendship bridges from our world to their world. But from where I sit, they are still strangers.

What gets my attention is the packing list. We have several. One is a wish list from our missioner, a nurse. Another lists our group first aid needs. Then there’s personal items, gear and clothing. It’s like packing for a deep wilderness trip, but in rolling suitcases, not backpacks. Assembling everything proves a formidable task, requiring visits to camping outlets, obscure websites for safari type gear, and countless trips to the drug store.

I have difficulty picturing our destination, Lui. It is not on the map. In fact, none of the many Christian towns and villages in southern Sudan appear on the map. There are two good reasons. First, over the course of the 22 year civil war, the Northern government’s troops burnt a lot of them to the ground. Secondly, the Islamic regime, based in Khartoum will not forward any but Arabic place names to international cartologists (map makers). The Christian and tribal peoples of the Southern Sudan are quite literally in danger of being lost and forgotten.

Chasing down the essentials for our trip does provide me with an imaginative entry into what I am about to experience. We can bring one personal item (my book and Bible bag), one carry on pack and two checked bags. One of my checked bags is filled with group gifts to our missioner. After the gear is packed, fill up the spaces with bottled water, trail mix and nutrition bars. Water is dreadfully scarce and even when it can be found, it is risky. Water borne diseases, even simple diarrhea, spike the child mortality rate in Sudan. Food supplies are meager and dwindling rapidly.

A bare minimum of security has been established since the provisional peace treaty which was facilitated by former Senator John Danforth in January, 2005. But drought wiped out 75% of the first local crop in 22 years. The Khartoum army has driven Dinka shepherds from their hills north of Lui, in order to seize the rich oil reserves recently discovered there. The Dinka and their cows recently wreaked havoc on the remains of the Moru people’s farms. This is Abel versus Cain, the cattlemen versus the homesteaders. It is hard for anyone to get calories. The doctors at the mission hospital, named Samaritan’s Purse, reports that 95% of the children are malnourished.

We need long sleeved, loose shirts and trousers for modesty’s sake, and for sun protection. Lui is five degrees from the equator, and it temperature run 100 + in the shade. There is less and less shade, as the Sahara desert creeps closer every year.

And pack lights, there are almost 11 hours of darkness on the Equator, and the only light bulbs in Lui run off the hospital generator. Southern Sudan is “off the grid.” We are packing in generator for the cathedral.

We pack in our Book of Common Prayer. Though these people were first reached after W. W. I, by a Scottish Anglican physician, they have never had more than a handful of Prayer Books. And bring your Bibles. The Moru Episcopalians trust the authority of the Bible.. I will be going as the team’s teacher and am told these Sudanese are more starved for learning than food. They believe education and faith are the two keys to their promised land.

The evangelical strategy of the late 19th and early 20th century was surprisingly holistic: bring education, health care and people will ask to know Whom you serve. I wonder if this would work in Missouri? All of the schools are Episcopal in this region roughly the size of several counties. And all of them were closed by the civil war. Now there are great plans for more and bigger schools and even for a new theological college. Education is the main incentive for refugees to return to their homeland. Pack notebooks, pens, chalk. School supplies are rare and church offering baskets are blessed when someone tosses in a pen or a pencil.

Now I am packed up and loaded down. Only about #10 of my allotted #140 is personal clothing. Another #10 is for health and hygiene. We will be so far from our American world of consumerism that we will not even need Sudanese money. I pray I am ready for this alternative world, 9,000 air miles and 50 travel hours from Cape County. I suspect I am quite unprepared for the emerging world of central Africa!

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