A FEW YEARS AGO, when I asked the head of Renk Theological College in Southern Sudan to name his top priority for the school's faculty and curriculum, he said without hesitation: "We need biblical language teachers."
This was not the answer I expected. Just a few days before, on June 6, 2004, the government of Sudan and the Sudanese People's Liberation Army had initialed the Navaisha Draft Peace Agreement, arresting the genocidal war that had raged for 21 years and left more than 2 million dead in the South and millions more displaced.
Renk Town is the northern gateway to Southern Sudan, and in 2004 the physical conditions at the college were extremely rudimentary if not desperate. In April, the government had destroyed the classrooms and dormitories, ostensibly because they had to build the "Peace Highway" connecting Khartoum with the South through the very center of the small lot belonging to the college. Most of the students had no choice but to disperse until new accommodations could be provided. This was yet another exile, a small repetition of the experience that had dominated their lives since childhood.
With a peace agreement in place, however, church leaders were planning the future of the college, one of five small seminaries belonging to the Episcopal Church of Sudan. The ECS grew rapidly during two decades of intense persecution, to an estimated 5 million members--more than twice the size of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. Most clergy in the region have little or no formal education; the few whom the bishops send to a theological college have been selected because of their exceptional potential.
I had promised to supplement the work of the college's several indigenous faculty members by sending teams of visiting teachers to lead short intensive courses on the subjects deemed most crucial by the Sudanese. I work at persuading American students just to give Hebrew a try, so I was surprised to hear that it was the seminary's first choice. Moreover, crossing the ocean to teach Hebrew in short spurts seemed like a pedagogical stretch.
The leaders of the college held firm, however, and they were unanimous in their reasoning: "We live in the Old Testament. Ours is a tribal culture, like Israel's. We are pastoralists and farmers, like the Israelites. And like them, we have suffered terribly in war and exile, and from oppressive imperial regimes. The Bible is our story, and our people must have it in their own languages. Why should we read it in English and Arabic, the languages of colonialism? Why should we translate it from those languages and not from the original? We all speak several languages; we know how much difference a translation makes."
So Hebrew instruction at Renk Theological College began in January 2005, and twice each year since then a team of two or three teachers has traveled to Renk, 250 miles up the White Nile from Khartoum. Classes are held all day each day for two weeks. The goal of the Visiting Teachers Program, jointly sponsored by Duke Divinity School and Virginia Theological Seminary, is to certify one or more teachers for each language; they will be the "seed stock" from which indigenous study and teaching of biblical languages will grow and spread to other theological schools and universities.
That goal began to be achieved this past July. Father Abraham Noon Jiel was certified in Hebrew; he is the only such teacher for hundreds of miles in any direction. The Greek course at Renk is well under way with a class of 16. The more advanced students tutor the others, and thus prepare themselves to be teachers. Two or three students should be ready for certification in Greek early in 2010.
The students are proud that theirs is the only school in Sudan where both biblical languages are taught on a regular basis, and the pride shows in their attitude toward study. As one visiting teacher observed: "Hebrew without whining--this is a revelation! …