Bishop Bismark Ministers to Mundri from the Shade of Christ’s Faithfulness
As a child growing up in what is now Mundri, South Sudan, Bismark Monday Avokaya moved from the home of one relative to another, dodging war and awaiting the slaughter of a costly black goat—the price required of his father to purify his home from divorce and make way for the return of Avokaya and his two siblings.
“I moved more than six times,” Avokaya, now a bishop of the Diocese of Mundri, said in a recent interview. His father was often drunk and regularly beat his mother. On one occasion, Avokaya defended her with a broomstick. Life out from under his father’s roof, however, was only sometimes better. “Some of my relatives were very good, others not very good. I didn’t have a home of my own.”
Neither did many Sudanese. The decades-long conflict between northern and southern Sudan claimed thousands of civilian lives, displaced millions, and spread disease and famine across the region. A peace agreement in 2005 ended the war, but tensions continue in South Sudan, which split from Sudan to become the world’s youngest country following a 2011 referendum.
Parishioners of Tore Wandi, 80 miles south of Mundri, meet for worship in a grass-thatched, open-air shelter. Tore Wandi was attacked in 2009 by the Lord’s Resistance Army, which killed 13 and abducted several whose fates are yet unknown. The once rurally scattered families have since decided to live in a more closely knit village, and the parishioners have slowly been accumulating sheet metal and wood to construct a more permanent church. Building supplies are still needed.
This past December, soldiers loyal to South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir clashed with those loyal to his former vice president, Riek Machaar, pitting against each other the country’s two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. The conflict has displaced farmers and fisherman and scattered livestock. The United Nations is now urging immediate action to stave off possibly “the worst food crisis in South Sudan’s history,” Hilde Johnson, chief of the United Nations mission in South Sudan, told The New York Times. Cholera has reportedly broken out in the capital city of Juba.
The war has not reached the town of Mundri. But the people who live there mourn the loss of husbands and sons who have served with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, they share fields with herdsmen and their flocks who have fled the conflict in the western half of the country, and they prepare for a famine predicted to affect the entire country.
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it,” Avokaya said. “We grew up in war and will grow old in war.”
As a bishop, Avokaya leads memorial services for slain soldiers and comforts the surviving widows and children. He listens to complaints from farmers and bee keepers affected by an influx of displaced herdsmen with their flocks, all vying to sustain their livelihoods on scarce resources. He councils the members of his congregations to plan ahead for food shortages by planting more and selling the excess.
These war-time tasks vary little from those the bishop would do during peace. Like anyone in a perceived leadership role, people in Mundri approach the bishop and his wife for everything from money and food to wisdom in settling disputes and emergency transportation to the nearest hospital in Lui—some fifteen miles away down a dirt road. His job is to listen, to counsel, to speak, to comfort, and to share whatever church-provided resources he has with the community.
“You can’t say no,” Avokaya said. “You are assumed to have all the answers. You are considered someone who has everything.”
A woman once flagged down the bishop’s car, asking for money. Not having any money, he turned her down. “How can you say that?” she replied. “You are the chief of this town!”
In October 2013, flooding destroyed buildings in Yeri and damaged crops and gardens throughout the region, a hardship not only on farmers, but also on families that depend on what they can grow to supplement what they earn.
The bishop’s wife, Rina, heads up a group they call the Mothers’ Union. She and other women of the church ride motorcycles down dirt roads, visiting the sick, grieving, and families with new babies. They lead workshops on health and hygiene. They weave baskets and make pots. They garden staple foods, such as maize, groundnuts, and sorghum.
“She never sleeps!” Avokaya said.
A dirt road leads to the capital city of Juba, as well as to Lui, the site of the nearest hospital. Avokaya often serves as the community’s ambulance driver, rushing laboring women and the dying to the hospital. The fifteen-mile drive takes one hour.
The bishop first considered church ministry after attending a Christian conference while in his final year of secondary school. One of his school teachers invited him, and when Avokaya at first refused, the teacher visited Avokaya at his work place and asked his supervisor’s permission for the time off.
“I gave every kind of excuse I could think of, but my teacher was persistent,” the bishop recounted. “He kind of dragged me there.”
The message from a Nigerian conference leader particularly struck Avokaya.
“Jesus came to his own people,” Avokaya remembered him saying. “But his own people rejected him. But those who received him and believed in him, he made them to become the children of God.” That message resonated with Avokaya. “I had been longing to be someone’s child, but my problem was I had not yet received Jesus.”
Avokaya remembered seeing his sin for the first time and wanting to surrender his life to Jesus. “It was not really a dramatic experience, but I do remember crying with the cry of joy. I felt like the disciples during the transfiguration. I just wanted to remain on the mountain.”
In June, workers broke ground at the construction site of a strip mall on church property. Avokaya hopes that members of the community will rent space for small business that will in turn create jobs and income in the community, expand the marketplace, and create mall-lease profits for the church.
But, to Juba Avokaya returned to finish his semester. When asked on an English exam to write about a career he aspired to, Avokaya wrote about becoming a pastor. Though he had once dreamed of becoming a doctor, he worried less about his career.
“My worldview changed,” Avokaya said. “He purposed me. He knows what he wants me to do. I need to pray that he will show me.”
The same elegant simplicity in thinking guides the bishop each day as he interacts with the poor.
Drawing from a principle he learned from one of his teachers in seminary, Avokaya tries not to let anyone walk away empty-handed. “If God has given us something, we share it,” the bishop said. “If we don’t have it, God knows it.”
Avokaya has witnessed the difficulty of sharing the Gospel without at first acknowledging physical needs. He remembers when a group from a nearby Bible school visited Kakuma Refugee Camp. They brought with them “fancy instruments and a big platform.” But, just before the preaching began, a voice cried out, “Wait! Wait! Please give us some food!” Having no food, the group from the Bible School had to pack up and leave.
The challenges of ministering among the poor and war-weary are many. Out of fifty-three congregations in the Diocese of Mundri, only three worship in concrete buildings. Eight worship in semi-permanent structures. The rest meet in grass-thatched buildings or open-air shelters, six of which have been recently lost to fire or war. Traditionally, Episcopal congregations support the larger parishes. In Mundri, it is the other way around.
Avokaya believes that the best way to address poverty—and sustain the work of the church—is to build up the community.
“There is a saying that if you give a fish to someone you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish, you feed him for life,” Avokaya wrote in a missions update to West End Presbyterian Church. “However, we have come to understand through experience that it is not enough to train someone to fish . . . Better to empower him to own a fish pond.”
In June, with partial funding from Serge, formerly World Harvest Mission, workers began building a strip mall on land owned by the church. Avokaya hopes that members of the community will rent space for small businesses that will in turn create jobs and income in the community, expand the marketplace, and create mall-lease profits for the church.
Bishop Bismark attends a Wowo parish worship service. In 2009, the church burned to the ground, the result of fighting between Jur and Yirol West communities in Mvolo County. The Christians who live there have since fled, though some are beginning to return.
This and other income generating activities will hopefully support other projects, including the construction of a solar-powered water pump, a vocational school, and an emergency health clinic.
“I must submit to you that the needs are so broad and so deep that there is almost no area in which the Episcopal Church and [Serge] are not ministering,” Avokaya wrote.
Perhaps today’s seeds will produce tomorrow’s harvest.
Avokaya told the congregation at WEPC on a recent Sunday morning the story of Archibald Shaw, who arrived in Malek, Sudan, in 1905 as one of the first missionaries to the southern region of the country. Shaw had hoped to make disciples of Christ, but not many were eager to hear his message. The people of Malek raised cattle, and for fun, wrestled. Shaw engaged in both.
After ten years in Malek, Shaw counted one convert to Christ. He planted a tree and prayed. “If it is God’s will that there be Christians in Malek, then let this tree survive. If none, let it die.”
Last November, more than one-hundred years after Shaw had planted his tree, Avokaya stood in its shade. There were more than ten-thousand gathered for a service at the nearby church. The town was to form its own diocese.
“His blessings go from generation to generation,” Avokaya said.
Pastor Kevin Greene contributed reporting to this story.
Avokaya is serving as WEPC’s visiting theologian this summer. He and Rina are also enjoying a much needed break from their work, but look forward to returning in August.