In the much-loved folk tale, Cinderella is the despised and discounted sister who, against all the odds, wins the heart of the prince and proves to be the hero. My short experience with the Church in South Sudan has me wondering whether it might be cast as Cinderella? In a critique of the role of the international aid industry during the Sudanese civil war, Anglican missionary Andrew Wheeler remarked:
The odd thing about the impressive and ultimately depressing effort that only seems to contribute to Sudan’s helplessness and hopelessness is that it largely ignores the one Sudanese institution that has grown in strength, vigour and competence during the war – the Church, with its people, leaders, buildings and networks in virtually every village in southern Sudan. Certainly in Sudan the Church is the place where the energy to cope with Sudan’s multitudinous problems is generated, where the people who have vision, who have hope, who believe death can be transformed into new life are gathered – and find that prayer and worship, song and dance transform the heart and change the world.Andrew Wheeler, Bombs, Ruin and Honey: Journeys of the Spirit with Sudanese Christians, Nairobi: Paulines, 2006, 153.
This chimes with what I was hearing at a first-of-its-kind Public Lecture and Seminar hosted by Nile Theological College in Juba on Thursday. Church leaders and educators from a variety of traditions came together to respond to my presentation of some themes from current ecumenical mission thinking. One point on which all seemed to agree was the moral authority of the Church in relation to national affairs in South Sudan. Having seen the Church step up to the plate in crisis after crisis, people today have a high level of confidence in the capacity of the Church to provide leadership for the nation. Cinderella has come to the ball.
In a situation where there are many reasons to feel depressed and discouraged, people find hope through their faith. They are proud that the Sudanese national anthem is the only one that both begins and ends with God. It starts with “O God, we praise and glorify You for Your grace on South Sudan,” and finishes with the prayer, “O God, bless South Sudan!” These are not just pious words, they have kept hope alive when there seemed to be every reason to give up.