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The Midwife and the Bishop: New African Chapters in the Book of Acts

November 16, 2009

Taban, Emmanuel, Angelina

I am blogging this week from Teaching Communities Week at Duke.  Two years ago Mississippi activist John Perkins and theologian Charles Marsh were the witnesses for this program.  Last year Jean Vanier of the  L’Arche ministry with the disabled, and theologian Stanley Hauerwas.   This year’s theme is An Oasis of Peace:  Forgiveness, Advocacy, and Community.  This is the first of several posts.

A couple years ago I challenged a Christian magazine editor about an article on missions in Africa I found disappointing.  He pushed back, “But show me the alternative.”

I had few stories to tell at the time. But now I know the midwife and the bishop.

Angelina Atyam is a Ugandan midwife and mother of a daughter abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army.  Bishop Paride Taban is a Sudanese pastor working among marginalized people far from the cities.   Angelina founded a ministry of forgiveness and advocacy through the Concerned Parents Association. Taban–after decades of civil war and the deaths of more than two million people in Sudan, upon his so-called “retirement” at the age of 70–founded the Holy Trinity Peace village, a new community of different ethnic groups and faiths which stands as a living alternative to the violence.  In 1998 “Mama” Angelina received the United Nations’ highest award for human rights work.  They forgave the rebels, says Angelina, “because God said put this right.“  “As for me I am a blind man,” says Taban.  “The one who can see is God.”  Their journeys made no sense, they say, apart from the call of the living Christ.

Angelina and Taban’s stories are like new chapters in the Acts of the Apostles: visions of a peace village born in a humiliating jail; journeys toward unimaginable forgiveness; imprisonments and beatings for the sake of the gospel; new Pentecost-like communities across lines of division; miracles of escape; people living “like animals,” said Taban, discovering they are human beings loved by God.  Angelina’s prayers reverberate like an Old Testament prophet.  Taban’s stories come like parables from Galilee.

My colleague Emmanuel Katongole, the week’s theological voice, described their stories as “holy interruptions” in our lives.

John Perkins is "discovered": became one of "top 50 books to shape evangelicals"

At kairos moments in the life of the church, in God’s time, lives interrupt us from the wilderness to reveal a way out of the darkness of our time.  In the early 1970’s John Perkins was an unknown Mississippi pastor building a beloved community in the middle of nowhere after a near-death jail cell beating.  Once “discovered” the significance was clear.  “Nearly a martyr – surely a modern day saint,” said Senator Mark Hatfield at the time.   The early telling of John Perkins’ story and a small incarnation of hope in Mississippi began to re-shape the church’s imagination about its mission in a broken world.

As Jean Vanier of L’Arche said to us last year, “The Word being made flesh also makes it possible for our flesh to reveal the Word.”  Just as the Word made flesh interrupted Galilee, just as Perkins’ body interrupted Mississippi, so the flesh of the midwife and bishop reveal amidst the trajectories of bitterness and polarization which plague us that “the way things are is not the way things have to be.”   God is always interrupting the world with signs of hope, though often not in the places we expect.  But can we see it?  Will we pay attention?

"Oasis of Peace" worship at Duke

We are paying attention here.  Saturday 100 people from Durham and the area gathered at Duke Divinity School for an all-day workshop.  Last night 200 more were at Blacknall Presbyterian Church for an evening of story-telling.   Today was a keynote lecture “Daring to Invent the Future: The Madness of Angelina Atyam and Bishop Paride Taban.”

The midwife and the bishop interrupt the polarizations and false peace we easily settle for from our homes to our marriages to the divides of our denominations, cities, and world.  One is an interruption of forgiveness.  The other is an interruption of incarnation.  Listen to their voices in the upcoming posts this week.

[Next post: The Interruption of Forgiveness: An Interview with Angelina Atyam of Uganda]

About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. His writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers with Chris Rice.

Related Reconcilers posts:

Also See:

Last 5 posts by Chris Rice

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