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African Connections

The city where I live is one of many middle American spots where refugees from Sudan have chosen to relocate themselves. A few years ago, I was very involved with a group of them who essentially showed up at the door of a church and said, “Hey, you converted us back in Africa, remember? We’re so glad to be here now. We just need a little help …”

I had done some recent graduate work related to refugees and I think that helped me get the “mission outreach” job at the church, which ended up being mainly about working with refugees, as it was a huge and very active project at the time. I learned a lot, by listening, reading, working with local anthropologists, talking to experienced missionaries, and most of all by trial and error. At first, it was a matter of getting accustomed to the accent. Later, I began to understand some of the cultural filters that affected our communication, and the expectations that American missionaries had perhaps inadvertently created.

As I learned more about the history of Sudan — this was back before Darfur was a household word — and the culture of the people I was working with, lots of new questions emerged. Sometimes, faced with raw, overwhelming need and high expectations, I wanted to sit the early missionaries down in front of me and say, “What exactly did you promise these people?” Other times, I thought that if the American Christians and the Sudanese Christians ever really meant the same thing by their faith, we would have advanced Christianity to the next level. At times I thought, “Hey, their interest is just an ethnic thing. It’s part of their identity. The next tribe over is going to the church down the street.” Then I realized that this was a case of the distant mirror phenomenon, and that my main connection to that particular denomination could also be called an ethnic thing. Unfortunately, the whole non-profit, contribution-based structure of church finance did not really work properly in its transplanted context, so there was still a tendency on the part of some refugees to see the church as a source of wealth and power, particularly among the first people who were eager to present themselves as leaders. On the up-side, I experienced the “re-evangelizing” phenomenon first-hand. I don’t claim to know Jesus any better than I did before, but I understand that the church as a social institution can be a powerful instrument of change and a symbol of hope. And that (like science) it is absolutely a double-edged sword.

Among other things, the church is working with a local non-profit to teach English, both spoken and written, to Sudanese women, who have not had as many opportunities as the men to learn English. In some cases English is the first written language they have learned. Sewing classes are also a big hit. The church provides transportation and child care, both barriers to women’s access to education. On Saturdays, there are Nuer language classes for Sudanese children, so that they will not “lose their mothers,” as the organizers say. Those classes may also help the kids go back one day and be able to make a difference.

To my ever-critical mind, the Christian message didn’t quite come across properly in African culture. (Hello! Can we say “distant mirror” again?) But there was a dialog in progress, obviously illuminating for both sides, that was interrupted when the Islamic government threw Christian missionaries out of Sudan. Christianity became a refuge from Islam, or at least a more powerful shield than native animistic beliefs.

The conversation isn’t over. It’s been superseded by incomprehensible violence. The Sudanese government is a collection of thugs. They don’t have the best interest of their citizens at heart and it is ludicrous to take their statements to the international community at face value. I don’t know what the Christian response should be, but I wish that I lived in a country that made human rights the centerpiece of its foreign policy. Some of my Sudanese acquaintances thought we should head to Sudan as soon as we were done in Iraq. I think that, once again, we would have gotten in way over our heads. Force alone would not solve this problem. Our country needs to lead by example. (Note the optimistic use of present tense.)

I wonder whether it is possible to export peace from middle America to Sudan. Certainly the refugees who are here are still closely connected to friends and family who are in refugee camps and who are trying to return to war-ravaged villages. I heard that some of the tribal rivalries waned when refugees got here, as people gained perspective and found that former rivals offered a comforting familiarity. And some have gone back to try to help rebuild. One of the most positive things they may take back is new perspective on gender relations, and education, particularly of women. I know of one young Sudanese woman who is studying public health with the intent to go back and make a difference. I think she can do it, but not alone.

Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo does a great job of capturing the Sudanese and American missionary dynamic. It’s not very hopeful but it’s a great read.

Nuer Journeys, Nuer Lives, by Jon Holtzman, is an accessible, quick overview of some of the cultural issues that come up as refugees are transplanted here. Also not very hopeful.

A Leopard Tamed, by Eleanor Vandevort, a candid missionary.

Making Peace and Nurturing Life, by Julia Duany, co-founder of South Sudan Friends International. It is hopeful.

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