Mission and Transformation: A Mutual Calling

Dean Penny “on the ground” in South Sudan,
with another missionary

I have always had the greatest admiration for missionaries, but I have never thought of myself as a missionary. In days of yore, missionaries were people who went to distant and uncivilized corners of the earth, lived incredibly uncomfortable lives, and often died horrible deaths, all for the sake of the Gospel. I am far too fond of my creature comforts and frankly too much of a coward to seriously consider the missionary life. But in April 2013 I grasped the nettle and, along with two parishioners, fulfilled a commitment my parish had made in 1998, for members of the church to visit a school and a diocese in South Sudan which we supported with funds and prayer. It was a very short visit: just a week in all, a few days in the capital, Juba, and a few in Ezo, a little town in the far southwestern corner of the country, a mile from the border with Congo and the Central African Republic. It was a life-changing experience, as we learned for ourselves just how isolated the Christians in Ezo are, how vulnerable they are to the frequent incursions of the Lord’s Resistance Army, how distant from adequate medical care, how utterly lacking in the physical infrastructure (roads, factories, raw materials, money) that we take completely for granted. And all this was before the current civil war flared up last December.

The most transformative aspect of the visit was the building of relationships with the Bishop of Ezo, his wife and their people, and with the school board and students of the St. Francis Basic School in Juba, as well as some of the diocesan officials in both Juba and Ezo. They were deeply moved by the simple fact of our presence with them: they said that our visit told them that the world has not forgotten about them. Once you have grasped someone’s hand, once you have heard their stories of suffering and loss; once you have eaten in their house, once you have prayed together, received Communion together, praised the Lord together, the Spirit binds you together with that person; you become aware in new ways of being the Body of Christ, joined through baptism with people on the other side of the world. Our hosts asked us to consider returning and staying for an extended period, to teach and study and pray with them, an invitation we all hesitated to respond to because of the obvious danger of spending any length of time there.

Since I returned from South Sudan I have continued to think about our friends there. I have kept in touch as much as possible; I have prayed for them; I have kept some photos as screen savers on my computer. And when I moved to San Diego I learned that one of the churches here, St. Luke’s in North Park, hosts a large contingent of Sudanese Christians. After the St. George’s Day Evensong in May I ran into Steve Turnbull, the Bishop’s Warden at St. Luke’s (the church is an aided mission of the diocese and Steve is the Bishop’s representative there) . As we talked, we became simultaneously aware of a door opening: a natural opportunity presenting itself for my brief Sudanese experience to provide a bridge between our congregations; a chance for the Cathedral to exercise its calling as the mother church of the diocese by forming a supportive connection with a much smaller congregation, sharing experiences and resources in a mutually transformative way.

Dean Penny preaches at St Luke’s

The people of St. Luke’s are a collection of Anglo Americans and people from various African countries. The Sudanese members, some of whom have a history as Lost Boys of Sudan, serve in several leadership capacities. My conversations with the people in South Sudan taught me that entire generations of Sudanese have been subjected to severe trauma, not only those who made the thousand-mile trek as Lost Boys and Girls, but the multitudes who were exiled from their home regions, who spent their whole lives in refugee camps, who have forgotten or were never taught how to cultivate their ancestral land, who were kidnapped and forced to serve as child soldiers, who have watched loved ones die of childbirth, simple infections, malaria, malnutrition or HIV/AIDS. In the face of all this suffering, the beauty, resilience and faith of the Sudanese people is breathtaking. We who have lived in safety and comfort all our lives have much to learn from them. We also have much to share in the way of theological education, computer skills, material resources, and friendship.

The Rev. Susan Astarita serves part-time as long-term supply priest for St. Luke’s. Susan, Steve, and I hope to nurture a special relationship between the two congregations, so that we can collaborate on projects such as St. Luke’s online presence, Vacation Bible School, and youth activities. Margaret Liggett and Lucy Larabee serve as the Cathedral’s liaisons to St. Luke’s. Margaret will be helping to organize St. Luke’s library. Our new tech group, coordinated by Brooke McGillis, is offering online expertise. As a first step in developing this relationship, I preached at St. Luke’s on October 26. Over 30 Cathedral members, including most of our teenagers, came with me to worship with the congregation and enjoy their hospitality at lunch, beginning a get-acquainted process. It was a very enjoyable morning, with joyful singing and drumming, a well-attended children’s homily, and a welcome for a parishioner who had just returned from a visit to South Sudan. On February 15 (World Mission Sunday) Susan and one of her lay leaders will preach at the Cathedral and offer a forum about the journey, both physical and spiritual, taken by the Sudanese to San Diego. On May 17, the day after our calendar observes The Martyrs of Sudan, we will hold a special Evensong for Sudan and South Sudan at the Cathedral, and members of the Sudanese community will help to lead the worship. We will host a reception following the service. In between these liturgical events I hope that we will find many opportunities for joint ministry as the relationship evolves over time.

It turns out that being a missionary doesn’t have to mean spending your life in a distant land. It can mean traveling a couple of miles to a very different congregation and opening the door to friendship. The Church’s definition of mission is evolving from an outdated concept of “converting the heathen” to that of opening ourselves to being transformed by those we regard as “other”. Our new sense of mission has more in common with the disciples in Luke’s Gospel (chapter 10) whom Jesus sent to receive hospitality from the stranger, than it does with the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19. I look forward to the possibilities for mutual transformation that our relationship with St. Luke’s may offer us. I hope you will join me in the adventure.

PS: If you want to learn more about the plight of the Sudanese and the journey of the Lost Boys, I recommend the recent movie “The Good Lie.”

The Very Rev Penny Bridges

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