It is mid-morning on a Sunday in late March. The hot, equatorial sun is already warming up the day and still, an hour before the church service begins, the songs of praise are already rising above the enormous tree that provides shade to the hundreds of worshippers gathered below.
Seating is limited to wooden benches and plastic chairs--a boy of about five years of age even brings his own to guarantee a good seat. Generally, the women sit together in one section with many of them dressed in white dresses and headscarves (the uniform of the Mothers' Union), shaking bells and other handheld instruments along to the lively hymns in the local Dinka language. The children gather in another section, the smaller ones occasionally wandering around hand-in-hand looking for family members. The men, the smallest group at this service, are on the margins of the gathering of about 1,400. Many of the adults hold distinctive long, wooden crosses through the service (see related story, p. 11).
Despite the challenges of everyday life in Sudan, the church--as it is in many parts of Africa--is growing. But churches in Sudan say they must contend not only with a nation that is rebuilding after two decades of civil war, but also with the presence (and growth) of Islam. Churches also complain of rumoured conversions to Islam based on inducements of scholarships, money and material goods.
In south Sudan, in the Episcopal (Anglican) Church of Sudan (ECS), the diocese of Rumbek (with the help of the American evangelical organization Samaritan's Purse) recently opened 10 churches in one month. Where buildings do not exist, the church meets under trees. Simple head counts are done each Sunday and gatherings of 1,500 people or more are common at the Dinka-language service in the city of Rumbek, the capital of Lakes State, said Rev. Elijah Magel, a priest in the diocese. A remarkable 5,400 faithful attended the outdoor Easter Sunday service.
Down the road, the Roman Catholic bishop said his church also continues to grow. At most services, there are as many worshippers outside the church as there are inside. The 350-seat Holy Family church in Rumbek recently added a 7:30 a.m. English-language service to take the burden off the other three Sunday services (held in English, Arabic and Dinka languages). Bishop Caesar Mazzolari, an Italian-born bishop whose tanned skin reveals his 27 years in the African sun, said that as the believers increase, the numbers of catechists are chipped away. Often they are lured away to better-paying jobs with non-governmental organizations in the area (as the capital of the Lakes State in south Sudan, Rumbek is home to many NGOs and aid agencies). "We give them $45 per month, but the, NGOs give them $1,000 per month.
The church operates schools in the area and the numbers of confirmands would make North American church leaders envious. "Sometimes, they tell me to expect 70 and I get 150." At his largest confirmation service, he laid his hands upon 1,200 young people ("I had help!"). His diocese covers 135,000 sq. km and it has 11 so-called "huge missions," each of which has many chapels and prayer centres that meet under trees. And serving those growing numbers are just 30 priests (six of whom are native Sudanese, the rest are from abroad, including South Korea) and 1,300 catechists.
Bishop Mazzolari says in a country where Islam is always an appealing alternative, his church suffers from the lack of proper Christian formation. "If we don't have catechists who are mature, we can give only surface knowledge. Then, as Islam comes along, (Muslims) can easily punch through that superficial knowledge."
Meanwhile, Christians face ever-present restrictions in practising their faith in the predominantly Muslim/Arab area of northern Sudan, said Ezekiel Kondo, bishop of Khartoum, one of the biggest ECS dioceses. …