Thanks for your many kind thoughts while I was away. I'm glad to report that I recently returned from Juba - safe & sound. I've thought about you often with gratitude for your prayers & interest...and with some regret since I couldn't be in contact with you during the last part of my stay in South Sudan.
The email system that had worked so well, suddenly had a 'melt down'. Alas, my talks with the provider did not result in restored service. Oh well, that's life, especially in the developing world.
Allow me to share a 'postcard' I wrote in part before leaving. My subject is two heavenly banquets and a wedding....(Not to be confused with the movie entitled 'Two Weddings and a Funeral'.)
Sunday, May 5th
Juba, South Sudan
As I write, it's a rainy Saturday afternoon. Think downpour; long thunder rumbles; roof run-off filling up a big (250 liter) blue rain barrel in the Bishop Gwynne College courtyard. This is the biggest show in town during the rainy season which began very quietly in mid-April.
Since that welcome breath of cool, fresh air brought a good night's sleep for all who live here on the fourth parallel in sub-Saharan Africa, we have seen the cost. Flies overwhelm us and mosquitoes are not far behind. We keep going, appreciating the positive and overlooking the negative when possible.
The balance weighs to the good: leaves color the trees green; grass covers the once brown, bare earth; bright pink blossoms hang heavy on drooping branches. All of a sudden, Juba is transformed by rain, rain, rain, beautiful rain.
The first heavenly banquet took place the week after Easter. Visitors from the UK brought many wonderful gifts, including themselves, from Trinity, their seminary in Bristol and now were preparing to return. The goal was to strengthen the ties of the companion relationship between the two schools.
Their last full day here, they ate lunch with the students and presented them with gifts - special books for the BGC library such as a book of Celtic prayers, a book on writing sermons, and a book about church history.
Many photos were taken by students, teachers and guests trying to capture the glorious feeling that surrounded us that day. At one point, amid the expressions of goodwill, I saw one student laughing with glee. When I asked why, he said, "Because this is so good, so full to overflowing that this is what the heavenly banquet will be like."
The Holy Spirit hovered around us and changed the room from its usual functions of a classroom, a worship space, or a dining hall, (depending on the configuration of the tables and chairs) to a most elegant spiritual abode. Just as the rain had transformed the landscape of Juba, so too the Spirit had transformed the luncheon into a heavenly banquet, a foretaste of the feast to come. Authentic conversation, prayers, and relationships between people and communities filled the room.
The day after their departure, I gave away the last of the tangible gifts from the Bristol visitors - some individual solar lights that will serve students who come to the library after dark seeking knowledge from the books that line the shelves. The student librarian asked me to pass this message on to the guests from Bristol: "Thank you for giving us all of these great gifts of life." "Indeed, I will," I said and I do so now with this message.
About a week later on a Friday afternoon, I made my way over to the house of friends, Larry and Rebecca. On the way, I was drawn to nearby All Saints' Cathedral by the sounds of hymn singing - not what I expected to hear that day of the week. Maybe the choir was rehearsing for Sunday, I thought. When I got closer, I could see what was happening - a wedding!
I saw several BGC students sitting under a covered porch of the church. They were watching what was taking place inside by viewing a TV monitor. Someone was recording the ceremony and a bishop from the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS) was preaching in Arabic. The power of his words came across to me even though I did not understand their meaning. Every now and then the preacher's language changed to English for a moment and he said something I could understand - for example, 'First Corinthians 13' and 'Silver Jubilee.'
As I sat with the students, they provided some translation, so I caught more of the meaning beyond that. The bride and groom brought many 'gifts' to the union, I was told. She is a medical doctor; he is a doctor of law. One is from the Nuba Mountains; the other from Juba. They plan to settle in the Nuba Mountains although that is a contested area where border fighting is taking place. This couple is considered to be 'premier' according to my student translator. Their high degree of education and the large group of family and friends in attendance gave witness to the truth of that comment.
The clothing worn by the wedding party and their guests gave more evidence of them being well-to-do. The style of apparel was a mixture of Western & African. All looked very stylish. The bride's dress was flowing white satin; the groom wore a formal suit with a high cut collar.
After the sermon, the couple took a traditional walk down the center aisle to bring the gifts of bread and wine to be consecrated and shared. The service continued at the altar as if it were coming from The Book of Common Prayer, except the language spoken was Arabic.
The final 'snapshot' took place the last night I was in Juba, on Monday, June 4th. This feast was indeed a Heavenly Banquet.
The school has provided a closing banquet in the past honoring the graduates. This year there were no graduates, only first and second year students, moving up to the next class. (BGC closed for one year in order to rebuild after a time of difficulty.)
Principal Joseph organized a dinner this year to celebrate the hard work of students, faculty and staff. As a bonus, the date happened to coincide with a visit from Dr. Ellen Davis from Duke Divinity School who has been actively working on several projects for education in South Sudan.
The dinner was held under the tent at the ECS Guest House. A full meal had been beautifully prepared by the staff. All the students gathered for a photo before the sun began to fade at 7 pm. Proudly I stood among the group of 23 South Sudanese - my students for at least one semester.
The speeches before dinner included many kind words of appreciation and goodwill. The speakers included the Principal, the ECS Provincial Secretary, the Dean of Students, the Chair of the BGC Council, the President and the Secretary of the Student Body, among others.
Gratefully I received tangible gifts, expressions of the spiritual gifts that we had shared during the past four months. They included a beautiful, framed certificate of appreciation, an African candle stand, a map of South Sudan, an etching of an African woman and a lovely dress made from African cloth.
The letter of thanks presented by the students humbled me beyond measure, especially in front of the assembled dignitaries. It reads in part: "...on behalf of Bishop Gwynne College students, we thank you for giving yourself a time to come from your homeland to this new nation...to teach us. Thank you for having persevered the weather conditions...because of us. Thank you for the Spirit of Love that you have shown to us by being with us for morning devotions and your 'activeness' for your lecture hours which we students noticed. Also thank you for being ... a courageous 'Mother to Us'.
"Please! As you go, pass along our greetings to your family members, ... and to different congregations in your diocese. We shall continuously remember you in our prayers and we wish you to come back...Let God's blessing be upon you in Jesus' name."
Afterwards, I remember writing in my journal, "My life is complete." Thanks be to God for this great blessing in my life. Amen.
Peace be with you, my friends and family. Signing off now as your correspondent from South Sudan, I thank you for your kind attention.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
The Rev. E.J. Hanckel, D.Min.