Jason Byassee: Stitching the universe back together

Try telling the Moru of Sudan that institutions don't matter.

It’s hard to get any Westerner to say a kind word about institutions. Christians of almost any stripe, from liberal to conservative, Catholic to Pentecostal, are usually united in their condemnation of things institutional. After the ’60s it’s the only way to be, especially in this country.  We like individuals, community even. But institutions are places for frowning clerks and people in white coats with handcuffs.

 In Sudan they don’t have the luxury of being anti-institutional. This is a country the size of the eastern United States with only 50 miles of paved roads. It has 8.5 million people and only 200 physicians. Clergy in the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS) have typically not finished high school or its equivalent, yet they are usually the most educated people in their communities. Half a century of civil war decimates a society’s institutions. While Westerners have usually repented of the tri-fold mission installation (church/school/clinic), those in Sudan would be glad to have more of all three.

I saw the importance of vibrant institutions in Sudan not just by their absence, but also by their presence. Kenneth Fraser was a missionary from Scotland who worked in Sudan after his service in World War I. His wife was a teacher and he was a medical doctor, so when they arrived in the town now called Lui, they opened a school (as was customary in missionary settings) and a hospital (which was not).

Bishop Hilary Garang Deng of Malakal told me about Kenneth Fraser when I asked him about the importance of institutions to Southern Sudanese Christians. He told me “Fraser practiced a wholistic ministry, with the school and hospital and church, that appeals to the mind, the soul and the body.” Such a vision still holds out promise for the church in Southern Sudan. Lise Grande, head of the UN mission in Sudan, told members of our group that the ECS is the most important NGO in the country. The ECS is in every village in the South, and its leaders are trusted by its people. If the UN wants to get something done it does well to have someone in a clergy collar present, or better, someone in a purple shirt.

    “Even today, many Moru are physicians and nurses,” Bishop Hilary said. He contrasted this with his own diocese of Malakal, which also has educated people and faithful Christians, spiritual descendants of missionaries in their area. But they tend not to practice medicine. “In Malakal they only opened a school and a church. Maleks are lawyers and administrators. None are doctors.” By contrast, for generations those Moru growing up near Lui would see physicians treat people and pray with them. And the people more often than not would get better. “When they recover, people see that the messenger was indeed from God.” Just imagine the capacity such a vision would open up for young Moru in waiting rooms. Who wouldn’t want to take part in God’s stitching the universe back together that way?

I wonder whether in their wildest dreams the Frasers would think they could still be having an effect on the vocational imagination of young people in Lui. Surely in more optimistic moments they could see Southern Sudan becoming predominantly Christian -- not by their action but by God’s. How else do missionaries sustain hope when times are hard but by an eschatological vision like that? Yet I’m inclined to doubt they imagined inspiring people into their line of work in the 21st century.

It’s enough to show how wrong our view is of institutions in the West. We assume their presence and so can rag on them, complain about them, denounce them even. But try getting healthy without an institution. Or getting educated. Or becoming Christian. Or doing much of anything else that matters.

Then go tell the Moru and Bishop Hilary that institutions don’t matter.