AFRICA Cathedral: more than a place of worship

RENK, Sudan -- In the center of this dusty town, a new building is rising up, a building that represents a historical first here.
The building is the Cathedral of St. Matthew, in the Diocese of Renk of the Episcopal Church of Sudan.
It's not the first church here to be called St. Matthew's. That title belongs to the older, one-story building that stands nearby.
But this new cathedral is different.
It is two stories tall.
It has a second-story office, possibly the first one in the entire town. That office has a domed roof and will have windows that will overlook much of the immediate area.
But none of those details makes its construction historic.
What makes it historic is where this cathedral is being built.
Doorway to South
Renk marks the border between the Arabic, Muslim North and the black, Christian South. This is the border region here, a fact made plain every day when we hear the repeated calls to worship from the numerous mosques here. We know that here in Renk, Islam meets Christianity.
That's what makes this Cathedral of St. Matthew so important and its construction so historic: The cathedral, like the town, serves as the doorway to the South, where most people desperately wish to worship freely, to choose their own religion. And where many are choosing to be Christian.
This area wasn't always Christian. For long periods of time, it was predominantly Muslim, in part because there were no Christians here.
In 1964, all that changed. That's when Christianity returned to Renk. That's when Southerners from the Sudan Interior Church -- not foreign missionaries -- came to town to spread the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. The Episcopal Church arrived Renk in 1967, when some government workers were transferred here. But they lived here without a priest until 1989, when Bishop Daniel Deng Bul, the first bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Renk, sent the Rev. Jacob Ajok to serve as priest and pastor. Since then, scores of priests have followed, and the parish has grown by incredible numbers.
That same year, the first Christian church was built, by the Episcopalians, the Catholics and the Presbyterians. It was a simple structure, made from mud, but it sufficed.
In the 1990s, Bishop Daniel built the first St. Matthew's, out of brick and mud mortar. Ever since, he has dreamed of a full cathedral, not to make his own name famous, but because this is where the Episcopal Church is making its stand.
Here to stay
Here in Renk, in the border region between North and South, Episcopalians have decided that they want the whole area to know: They are here to stay.
Despite persecution and obstacles put in their way by the Islamic government, Christianity is here to stay.
Episcopalians here are so convinced of their desire to make this statement that they are willing to forego salaries for their work. Most of the clergy and teachers are not paid for months on end. There often is no money for food or water or for caring for their families.
And still, this building is going up. The roof is going on this very week. Soon, the concrete floor will be poured. Windows will be put in eventually. Each family is being asked to donate a pew. Parishioners will care for the building. And sometime in the near future, perhaps as soon as January, the cathedral will be consecrated.
The money for this construction has come, for the most part, from the Episcopal church in the United States, from donors mainly in Virginia and Chicago, where people believe, as do the Episcopalians here, that this cathedral is more than a simple place to worship.
It is, as everyone here keeps saying, their public proclamation that Jesus Christ is alive and well in this dusty little town on the border between North and South.
XThe Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Episcopal priest serving as an appointed missionary in the Episcopal Diocese of Renk, Sudan. Readers may write to her in care of Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, 700 12th Street NW, Suite 1000, Washington, D.C. 20005.

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