Imagining God’s future in Gambella

Mission partners Chris and Suzy Wilson, who help lead St Frumentius’ Anglican Theological College in Gambella, Ethiopia, share the importance of imagination in the face of great obstacles.

Chris and Suzy live in Gambella with their 4 young children.

What has imagination got to do with mission? In The Sacrifice of Africa, Emmanuel Katongole speaks frequently of the imagination. King Leopold of Belgium, and other European colonial powers, imagined Africa to be a site for exploitation and violence. King Leopold may be gone but his ghost persists: the denial and exploitation of Africa remains “hard-wired into the imaginative landscape of modern Africa”. Katongole stresses the need to transform this imaginative landscape, and tells of remarkable African Christian leaders whose stories emerge from “a different social imagination grounded in a story of forgiveness and selfsacrificing service.”

Katongole’s account of the imaginative landscape of Africa profoundly describes the situation in Gambella, Ethiopia. Hatred and rivalry between the Nuer and Anuak communities is hard-wired into the imaginative landscape of Gambella. This rivalry is essentially political and is animated by frequent power-grabs for the regional government and long-running disputes over land rights. Widespread corruption, which makes it easier to exploit power and position for gain, increases the stakes and thereby intensifies the rivalry.

This imaginative landscape has profoundly shaped the churches in Gambella. Monoethnic congregations, denominations, synods and dioceses are the norm. On our side of town, the different church denominations regularly invite one another to a “unity” conference which is monoethnic. Those who question the appropriateness of a monoethnic “unity” conference in the midst of an ethnic conflict can expect to receive a lecture on the value of unity between different denominations.

Chris with Simon, Kech and Ochalla who graduated this year.

In this social context, St Frumentius’ Anglican Theological College was established. Since 2015, we’ve been striving to provide excellent theological education and spiritual formation in the context of a multi-ethnic worshipping community. Each day, students from the Nuer and Anuak communities – as well as the Opo, Dinka, Maban and JumJum communities – gather together. We come together to worship, study, eat and have fun together.

We lift our eyes to God. Our imaginations are fired by visions of God’s promised future, of great multitudes from every nation, tribe, people and language gathered to worship before the throne and before the Lamb (Revelation 7). These visions shape our practices. Morning prayer is a beautiful cacophony of different people responding with the liturgy of their mother-tongue. We sing and drum together: every student at the college can expect to learn two or three praise songs from five different languages. And it drives us to develop new ways of worshipping together: earlier this year, students wrote a single song in which one verse is then repeated in five different languages.

During our four years at the college, many students have testified of their hearts and imaginations being changed. Kech Nyak is one of many students to have publicly repented of hatred during his time at the college. In a video interview in January 2020, he said, “Before I hated Anuak people… but now I have a great love… now, even if there is a fight, I still call my brother Ochalla [an Anuak student].”

On occasions, what we are doing at St Frumentius’ has radiated out into the wider community. In November 2018, after two months of violence and total segregation, a car full of Nuer students pulled up at an Anuak restaurant where Nuer people generally don’t go. These students were warmly embraced by their Anuak brothers and after eating, they praised God together, drumming on the table with empty plastic bottles and singing in Anuak and Nuer.

Students reunite after two months separated by ethnic violence.

In August 2019, several of our former students organised a joint conference for Anuak and Nuer youths. These students greeted one another on the road, washed one another’s feet. Following the conference, they set off to walk home together singing as they went. Gradually this singing became more passionate and they started dancing. They praised and danced for 3km through the centre of Gambella, eventually stopping to pray together at the roundabout which marks the centre of Gambella. Those who experienced these scenes will not forget these beautiful and truthful interruptions.

Yet what is love and unity between 20 students in a massive political, economic and cultural system that seems set on its destruction? Sometimes it has felt like trying to put out a fire with a drop of water. And often the obstacles and resistance have made keeping going a near impossible task. But God calls all of us to be faithful to him and to his promised future. Our God, who gives life to the dead, has changed nations and continents through small numbers of people many times before. And he is able to do that in Gambella through the lives of these young men and women.

Published 5 October 2020

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