Monday, October 01, 2007

Sudan assessment team finds warm welcome for the Brethren.

A three-member assessment team traveled to Sudan from July 8-Aug. 5 to listen to Sudanese voices and to prepare for a decision about where the Church of the Brethren will begin work. The team included Enten Eller, director of distributed education and electronic communication at Bethany Theological Seminary, and Phil and Louise Rieman, co-pastors of Northview Church of the Brethren in Indianapolis, who were interviewed for this report following the trip.

"Our assessment team was blessed with good travel and wonderful experiences," said Brad Bohrer, director of the Sudan mission initiative. "The welcome they experienced in all of their travels was very warm and inviting, with many areas filled with those who remember the work of the Church of the Brethren in the past." Bohrer said the visit found a "strong invitation to come and share the work of rebuilding." The infrastructure of southern Sudan has been decimated by decades of war, which concluded a few years ago with a peace agreement between south and north.

Through a review of the assessment team's findings, the Sudan initiative has settled on the area of Torit as the initial location for a Church of the Brethren mission. The town of Torit is in southeastern Sudan, near the borders of Kenya and Uganda. The target date to begin placing mission workers is Feb. 2008.

Of the choice of Torit as an initial focus for Brethren efforts, "it is reflective of much of southern Sudan, an area of great need and great potential," Bohrer said. "Our purpose in the Sudan Initiative is clear and exciting: we are sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ...working to heal and rebuild communities by addressing collaboratively with those we serve the physical, spiritual, and relational needs we encounter."

The team visited with a variety of Christian bodies in southern Sudan, including the Sudan Council of Churches--a newly merged organization that includes the former New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC) in the southern part of the country, and the original Sudan Council of Churches that represented Christians in the north. The Church of the Brethren has been a longtime partner in the work of both church councils, and also provided staff for primary health care, refugee health work, emergency response, and theological training to the Sudan Council of Churches since 1980.

Church leaders who met with or helped host the assessment team included Sudan Council of Churches general secretary Peter Tibi, Roman Catholic Bishop Paride Taban, Episcopal Bishop Nathaniel Garang, Episcopal Bishop Hilary of Malakal, and the moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Malakal, as well as various pastors' groups. They also visited the Holy Trinity Peace Village in Kuron, which was founded by Bishop Taban. The village does peacemaking work to reduce inter-tribal violence, and might be a model and place of orientation for Brethren mission workers. Political leaders who met with the team included the state governor in Torit.

In several areas, the team found that people know the Brethren through former mission staff Roger and Carolyn Schrock. "They have given the Church of the Brethren a good name," Phil Rieman said.

The Sudanese are "very excited about the Church of the Brethren coming," said Louise Rieman, who stressed that the assessment team tried consistently to talk seriously about the prospect of church planting by the Brethren. They received repeated assurances that "there is room for everyone to share the good news," she said.

The Sudanese people are welcoming help from the outside world, said Phil Rieman, adding that the assessment team found that numerous NGO and nonprofit groups are already at work in southern Sudan. "People don't want a colonial type situation, but are welcoming partners, which thankfully is the Church of the Brethren position," he said.

A note of caution about the Sudan initiative's goal of planting churches came from Rev. Tibi, because the Sudan Council of Churches has valued Brethren support for existing churches. "He'd like the Church of the Brethren to wait to start congregations until after the referendum," reported Louise Rieman.

The referendum is an upcoming decision by southern Sudan about whether to remain with the north as a unified country, or to secede. It is scheduled for 2011. "All indications are likely that the south will secede," said Phil Rieman. Many Sudanese fear another outbreak of violence before or during the referendum, and fear the northern government will not allow it to take place, he said, adding that "it is clear that the referendum will be a wrenching experience."

The tragic effects of decades of civil war and violence were plain to see, the team found. They saw a need for trauma healing and reconciliation work, a lack of development, the destruction of infrastructure including health facilities and schools, a lack of health care, poor nutrition, and little education and experience in democratic processes. The Sudanese "are so far behind the countries around them, they are working so hard to get back on their feet," said Louise Rieman.

Opportunities for Brethren work abound, such as a tremendous need for health care, veterinary care for the cattle on which many southern Sudanese rely for their livelihood, promotion of vegetable gardening and fresh foods as part of the diet, along with economic opportunities that growing and selling fresh produce might offer, a need for psychological care for a population affected by war, and a need for peacemaking work. "Even though there's relative peace, there's need for the peacemaking gifts the Church of the Brethren can bring," said Phil Rieman.

"Of course the Gospel is central" to the Sudan initiative, Louise Rieman emphasized, "to live it as well as to preach it and speak it."

Despite the hardships, there is a sense of hope in Sudan, "hope that God will work things out," in Phil Rieman's words. "God is alive and well and active there. God is very present in the lives of the people," Louise Rieman said.

The Riemans hope that the Brethren presence in Sudan may be one of the factors to help avert instability before the referendum. They also hope US Brethren may learn from the Sudanese, as a people of strong faith. The Sudanese "are our family, they are our sisters and brothers, and they have suffered beyond our comprehension," said Louise Rieman. "My hope and vision is that more people in the Church of the Brethren will long for this opportunity to live with the Sudanese. To learn from them, to share the Good News with them, to learn their good news, and to have the joy of living and learning together."

An incident that occurred as the assessment team prepared to leave Sudan underlined the risky nature of this new mission, and the faith it will require from mission workers. The trip took place in rainy season, when landing strips are not always accessible to the small aircraft that fly in and out of the south. So the assessment team waited at a small landing strip, not knowing when or if a plane would arrive.

However, a pilot "flew in on faith," as the Riemans put it, and the team was able to continue the journey.

For more from the Sudan trip, go to the blog at

Source: 10/1/2007 Newsline Mission Update

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