The Day the Arab Came to Lui!

It is remarkable how easy it is to forget how different we are in Lui.  There are no mirrors except the tiny ones we bring.  Everyone around us is Moru and therefore, “a bit black” as my friend Manyagugu said.  When everyone around you is “a bit black,” you really take notice when someone “blonder” comes to town. 

One day I came home from the hospital for lunch and there were visitors!  Having visitors was a big deal at the time because there were so few people who could come in from outside the country.  One of the visitors was a Moru man that I had met in Nairobi, Kenya that had been the Diocesan Administrator.  I had dealt with him when I was getting ready to go there the first time so I was happy to see him.  The second man was anything but “a bit black”!  He was a tall blond man from the Netherlands.  I thought I glowed in the dark but he was really, really blond.  It’s funny when you see a really white person after a time when you don’t see any.  That was surprising to me but he wasn’t as shocking as the Arab.

When you live with a community, you don’t realize how much you absorb their feelings and reactions until you are faced with the person they consider the enemy.  I had no bad feelings or prejudices toward Arabs or Muslims before going to Lui nor was I particularly fearful of Muslims, but the day the Arab came, I had to face the fact that listening to the Moru stories about interactions between the North and South of Sudan had, indeed, affected me and not for the better, either.  In some ways this, then, is a confession.

The Arab came with my southern Sudanese friend and this Dutch guy so he had to be okay, I thought, but I didn’t feel very comfortable being around him, nevertheless.  He was quiet and I guess, truth be told, he was watching all of us, too.  What was an Arab doing in Lui?  A guy who had come from Khartoum originally!  We were four years beyond the 9/11 attacks so I wondered if I was thinking about that.  But, the Arab had a different story.

Bit by bit, I heard his story from the people in Lui.  He had come from a wealthy privileged family and stood to inherit his father’s position and money.  He studied at university and became an imam—a Muslim religious leader—and was on the fast-track to success in the Islamic north of Sudan.  He was very certain about his faith and confident that he had the answers.  He was the apple of his father’s eye so, what the heck was he doing in the cathedral compound surrounded by people that had been his enemies in the twenty-year-long civil war?  My friends in Lui seemed to have the same questions.  They doubted his story.

The Arab returned to university to work on his doctorate in theology and decided that his real goal was to study Christianity and debunk it.  He knew about Christianity, he thought, and he would do an in-depth study of the Christian Scriptures and take them apart bit by bit.  Or so he thought.  As much as he wanted to find the errors in the Christian Scriptures, he found that he was becoming converted to Christianity.  He sought out the Christian community in Khartoum and found himself befriended by Morus.  He was baptized in the Christian faith but knew he needed to get out of the country because he was in danger.  He planned his escape but was captured, thrown in jail and given a death sentence because of his conversion to Christianity!  The pastor at the church managed somehow to get a stay of execution for twenty-four hours.  There were stories about how he escaped the prison—I’m not sure but I think it involved putting on a burka and walking out disguised as a woman.

Communities of Christians in the Muslim north secreted him out of the country and finally into the Netherlands.  He still felt a call to ordained ministry but now to the Christian ministry!  In order to be ordained, a bishop had to agree to ordain him.  Finally, the bishop of Lui agreed to ordain this Arab, his former enemy.

Would I be this courageous?  I don’t honestly know.  Early Christians faced the same challenges and death threats.  He was taking an enormous risk coming into Sudan even as far from Khartoum as we were in Lui.  Had he been caught there, the death sentence would have been carried out on the spot.  And he wasn’t embraced by the people in the south either!  They had suspicions about him and wondered what he was really up to.  I heard him preach once at the hospital chapel where he told his story but I could tell that people doubted (and maybe feared) him.  I never knew why he visited Lui.  He returned to his ministry in the Netherlands on the next flight with his traveling companions and nobody spoke again about when the Arab came to Lui.

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