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Why haven't you left?

St Mary Magdalene, by Simone MartiniAmerican Episcopalian Marc Nikkel heard this question time and time again during the two decades of his friendship with and work among the nearly five million Jieng (Dinka)* people of the southern Sudan. Born a Mennonite in California, Nikkel became an Anglican as an adult and traveled to the Sudan in 1981 to serve as a teacher at Bishop Gwynne College, the theological college of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan. The first years of his work as a missionary and educator were peaceful, and his recollections of the period are filled with hope and possibility. By the middle of the decade, open warfare threatened the lives of his students and their families. By 1987, Marc Nikkel and three fellow-foreigners on the staff of the college were kidnapped by the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. He was held prisoner on a long trek through remote parts of the southern Sudan for several weeks before being released in northern Kenya. It was in this harrowing context that people—including his captors—asked Why haven't you left?

Nikkel answers this question directly in a newly-published collection of his letters to friends and family:

Above and over all is the Creator God brooding, listening, intently gazing on all that occurs. Under his eye none is bereft. None is orphaned. The compassionate, creating Father is attentive to each loss, each soul that dies, be it that of a young soldier, infant babe, or destitute widow, whether by bullet or through starvation: each is known and beloved. With confidence we affirm that Christ will intervene, will arbitrate and establish that glorious peace which is longing to be born.

Throughout our wilderness wanderings with the SPLA, both of these dimensions seemed to encompass us: the battle that has left two million corpses in its wake, and the awareness of a compassionate God who knows all and is concerned with each life's demise. It is this mystery that held me, this enigma that transfixed me. God is intimately present even amidst what appears to be his utter abandonment. Transfixed, I could not leave. That is why I stayed.

After his release from captivity, Nikkel continued teaching in Kenya for a year before going to Scotland for doctoral studies. But the transfixing, transfiguring love of God he found in the Sudanese wilderness drew him back to Africa over and over during the 1990s. He served as an advisor and theological educator to a church that grew in the midst of intense civil war from four dioceses in 1976 to 24 dioceses in 1999. In his last years, he traveled still with nomadic tribes in the Sudan, attempting to broker peace agreements among warring factions of the Jieng and Nuer peoples.

When Nikkel died in 2000 at the young age of 50, after a two-year battle with cancer, he was mourned on at least three continents and eulogized by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Made a deacon in the United States, ordained to the priesthood in the Sudan, and supported by the Episcopal Church USA as well as the English Church Mission Society, he embodied in his ministry a global communion of fruitful Christian witness, stedfastness and integrity. His life story, as told through his truly apostolic letters, is gripping. It is the story of a heart broken, alabaster jar-like, so that the love within it could be poured out more and more. It is the story of a world where calories are sought-after commodities rather than things to be spurned and burned away frantically; a world where faith is costly; a world where one's pew-neighbours one Sunday (if there are pews) may be gone the next; and where love can bloom in the parched desert of war-torn, cracked earth, if only it is planted, tended and watered.

If you are wearied by Anglican internet life and its sex-centric headlines—and the burden of them really is intolerable—we know of no better antidote and perspective-changer than Marc Nikkel and the Jieng Anglicans. Their lives are modern, apostolic, Anglican, globally interconnected, and the fruits of a living Christian body that is healthy where the world is at its worst. They are a perfect companion for us all this Lent.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 4 March 2007

* English-speakers usually refer to this group of people as the Dinka, but they call themselves the Jieng and so did Marc Nikkel.

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