I'm just back from our annual diocesan council meeting held this year in Hattiesburg. It was fairly low key (with no controversial or problematic resolutions like we had last year). As always, it was a wonderful time to reconnect with clergy and lay brothers and sisters that I don't often see.
Council's theme this year was reconciliation, which is one of the parts of Bishop Gray's vision for the diocese first articulated at a tent meeting in August 2005: "One Church in Mission: Inviting, Transforming, Reconciling." And so most of the reports centered on the ways in which our diocese is involved in ministries of reconciliation.
For me, the most powerful part of council was our guest of honor: the Right Reverend Ezekiel Diing Ajang Malang of Sudan. Here's part of what our diocesan website says:
Bishop Ezekiel was consecrated Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Bor in southern Sudan in 2004. Because of the rapid growth of the Diocese of Bor, the Anglican Archbishop of Sudan asked Bishop Ezekiel to lead an effort to establish a new diocese in the neighboring region of Twic.
This new diocese, to be named East Twic, “will need considerable infrastructure before being formally received as a diocese in the Province of Sudan,” stated the Rt. Rev. Duncan M. Gray III. It is from the Diocese of Bor and the region of Twic that so many of our Jackson Sudanese come.
Sudan is the largest country in Africa, approximating the size of Europe, with a population of 40 million people, 500 ethnic and tribal divisions and 50 distinct languages. The country has been embroiled in a long running civil war grounded in the political, economic and social domination of the non-Muslim, non-Arab Southern Sudanese people, many of whom have sought sanctuary in African refugee camps for years in order to survive the civil war.
Bishop Gray III wishes to establish a relationship with Bishop Ezekiel and the Church’s effort to form the Diocese of Twic East which compliments and adds to the existing ministry the Diocese of Mississippi has with the Sudanese people taking refuge in the diocese.
Bishop Diing's wife Rebecca, and their 5-month-old son, also came to Mississippi. It was their first trip to this part of the world. Last Thursday, Bishop Gray baptized Bishop Diing's son at St. Andrew's Cathedral (Bishop Diing and his wife gave their son the Christian name "Paul"). In responding to the question "Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his life in Christ?" by saying, "We will", we acknowledged the general principle that, for all Christians, baptism is thicker than blood. But it was also another particular way for us to forge a deeper relationship in Christ with our Sudanese brothers and sisters.
My wife attended the clergy spouse luncheon, and Bishop Diing's wife Rebecca attended as well. She told the spouses that coming to the Diocese of Mississippi was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to her, and that when she returned home to Sudan, she would dream about each of the persons sitting at her table.
Meeting in council under the shadow of the economic recession and its impact on our personal lives and on our Church's mission and ministry, the presence of Bishop Diing and his family was a sign of hope. Looking at pictures of the people from his diocese, hearing of their sufferings and their triumphs, and seeing the churches they've built that house thousands of worshipers on Sundays - it puts our economic challenges and theological divisions in a much bigger and better perspective. And so their visit challenged us to look beyond our own situations and fears to how we can give of ourselves in evangelism, mission, and outreach.
"We're all in this together," Bishop Gray said in his opening address and repeatedly throughout this council. May we own and grow into that truth more and more.