I once met a man who had been crucified. I remembered him as I experienced some strange events of recent days.
For the past week, the people of the southern Sudan have been voting in a referendum whether the south will secede from the north or remain part of a united Sudan. This, without hyperbole, is remarkable. It was beyond imagining when, long before the better-known troubles in Darfur, the people of southern Sudan and other marginalized areas were being subjected to enslavement and murder.
Under the leadership of President Bush’s Special Envoy, John Danforth, a peace deal was negotiated in 2003, and one part of that deal was a vote on southern independence. At that time, I worked a good deal on trying to find ways to combat the genocide and slavery in Sudan. With many dedicated colleagues, I traveled to the areas most under siege, Abeyi and the Nuba Mountains. We documented the enslavement of the people in Abeyi in film archives that are now at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and in a film, “The Hidden Gift: War & Faith in Sudan,” which also chronicled the plight of the Nuba.
The Nuba Mountains (an area just “north of the south”) are home to a remarkable culture of mutual respect. There the Nuba, whether Christian, Muslim, or animist, lived in peace. For example, one Easter I witnessed the Sufis come to celebrate the great holy day of the Christians with their Nuba neighbors. The Christians help the Muslims with upkeep of their simple mosques.
Such mutual esteem and respect posed a threat, however, in the eyes of the extremist leaders of the Sudanese government, the National Islamic Front. Their vision of Sudan was one of Islamic fundamentalism, and anyone, including Muslims, who objected, was to be silenced. They armed and unleashed the Arab tribal militias against the Dinka people of Abeyi. They sent bombers against the few schools and hospitals in the Nuba Mountains.
I worked with a courageous and outspoken Roman Catholic bishop who warned the West that the Islamic extremism that ruled Sudan (and gave refuge to Osama Ben Laden) would soon attack it. The events of 9/11 proved he was right.
Ironically, the fanaticism of the north, aimed at stamping out both African cultural identity and the Christian church, fueled a burst of Christianity in the south. Now, perhaps half the southerners are Christians.
Saint Bakhita: Sudanese, slave, and saint
Another irony (or is it, as the Bible says, God bringing good from evil?) is that one of the children taken as a slave a century earlier (slave-taking by northerners of southerners has never died out in Sudan), Josephine Bakhita (or the lucky one), was recognized as a saint by John Paul II in 2000. Before and after that day, she gave hope to millions of Sudanese and East Africans.
Why did Christianity grow so explosively in Sudan? Part of the reason is exemplified by that man I mentioned earlier who was crucified. He was a catechist for the Catholic Church. In a war-ravaged land, there were precious few priests, and the life of the Church depended upon the catechists. They were a bit like the Methodist preachers who “rode the circuit” in early America – they traveled around, spreading the good news and renewing the people in their faith.
And for that reason, they were hunted by the extremists. The man I met had been, literally, crucified by his tormentors, who told him to “die like Jesus Christ.” Remarkably, he survived that day, and lived to tell his story, which we captured on film.
The faith he exemplified – the faith he taught others – was widespread and alive in the Sudan I visited those many years ago. It was vibrant, it was deep, it was courageous, and it was inspiring. It was humbling, too. How many of us would risk (let alone embrace) actual martyrdom?
Being with these people, amidst such deep faith, was unforgettable. The liturgy, which speaks of “how beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news,” was made real on Christmas Eve in the dusty, bare Nuba Mountains, as we listened to the cattle “lowing” and hymns were sung. On Christmas day, I stood with them in the shadow of great trees during Mass when we learned the north’s airborne bombers had been sent to kill us. (The bombers did not find our group, though they would return months later to kill children at a makeshift school.) But the peace of the people was amazing; they put their faith in God, and they were not afraid (although I was).
I will never forget those days among the saints. In the coming weeks when the votes from the south are counted, and with the vote in the Nuba Mountains unreasonably delayed, I hope you will not forget them either. Their faith sustains us, in a worldwide communion. If they are eliminated, we are diminished. If we forget their suffering and the justice of their cause, we are condemned. That is what is at stake in Sudan.
Saint Bakhita, pray for us and for your dear land.