Feeding South Sudan: An Interview with Bishop Joseph

Bishop Joseph Garang Atem of the Diocese of Renk in South Sudan did not set out to be a politician or a fundraiser. The former principal of Renk Theological Seminary, and a man devoted to meditation, he is more at home discussing theology than international development. But worldly concerns, such as how to feed, house and provide medical care for tens of thousands of homeless people fleeing religious persecution and ethnic and political violence, have become his primary mission since South Sudan became independent from Sudan last July.

“I don’t like politics,” Garang said during a recent visit to the convention of the Diocese of Chicago, which has a companion diocese relationship with Renk. “But what leads me to talk about politics is to let politicians outside of my country know what is happening in my country where I am connecting with the grassroots people. We are living with them in daily life, and they come to the church to talk about their pain.”

Pain is a frequent companion for more than 200,000 refugees who were driven out of Sudan by fighting in the Nuba Mountains, which border Renk on the east, and South Kordofan, which lies to the west, between the Sudanese government in Khartoum and rebels previously associated with the south.

The ranks of the displaced are further swollen by people who had been living in what is now Sudan, but felt compelled by either fear or loyalty to flee to South Sudan after independence. These returnees, who are disproportionately Christian and members of ethnic groups more prevalent in the south than in the north, have poured into temporary camps in and around Renk, which is just south of the northernmost border of South Sudan.

“In the rainy season it is very tough,” Garang said. “We need things to take care of people’s immediate needs: food security and health care, but also to take care of them long term, so fuel and building materials. But it is hard to get these things into the country and it can take a long time.”

And so he travels, seeking emergency assistance, resources and relationships that can help build South Sudan’s economy. “You want to meet the needs of those who are in need,” he says. “So my role is to connect the people who are in need to the people who have resources for the development of human beings. We must train many, many different people so they can take on much work for the development of the diocese and the development of the country.” In a lunchtime talk in Chicago, Garang told convention goers that South Sudan was not without economic resources, but that people were not yet able to make use of them. “There is lots of good land, but little knowledge of how to use it well,” he told the gathering convened by the diocese’s Commission on Global Ministry.

“Traditional means of agriculture don’t work as well as we need, so we need a scientific approach. We can grow food, but also, we have sunflower and sesame, and these would create jobs in the refineries making the oil. This would bring a good generation of income for the government.”

The agricultural potential of his own diocese is a subject particularly close to his heart. “Renk is one of the best areas in South Sudan for agriculture,” the bishop said in an interview after the lunch. “It could feed all Sudan if this were done in a good way. … If there were irrigation for a whole year we would be self-sustainable, and feed maybe all Africa, not just South Sudan.”

The next step, Garang said, is to begin building villages and other infrastructure so people can be moved from camps into permanent housing, and, eventually, jobs. However, this work is almost impossible with the border blockaded, fuel and building materials scarce and refugees and returnees straggling in from Sudan.

A number of dioceses, parishes and institutions within the Episcopal Church have relationships with counterparts in Sudan. Garang said he is particularly grateful for Renk’s relationship with the Diocese of Chicago. St. Michael’s Church in Barrington supports Renk Theological College, and a number of other churches in the diocese support parishes, schools clinics and other healthcare ministries.

The Diocese of Virginia and three of its churches—Christ Church and St. Paul’s Church in Alexandria, and St. Mary’s Church in Arlington, also help to sustain his diocese, Garang said. So, too, does the Tyndale House Foundation, which the translation of the Bible into the Dinka language, and provides assistance with communications, transportation and health care.

The need remains great, however, and the bishop is always happy to make new friends. “If I just say, ‘Hey, I need help. Hey I need help,’ nobody will listen to me, ” Garang said. “But if you say, ‘Come and see, and then you will know what to do,’ then they help. That is why we are inviting our friends to come to the area. When they see they get an idea where they want to help.”

Like many bishops in Sudan and South Sudan, Garang has become accustomed to spending time at diocesan conventions in hotel ballrooms, visiting diocesan offices and calling on political leaders in Washington through the good offices of the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. It is not work he trained for, and yet his spiritual practices sustain him.

“In order to do this work you have to pray and make mediation and then you go ahead with this work,” he said. “When you have to make time for prayer and meditation, God will show you what to do.”