Former ‘Lost Boy of Sudan,’ Anglican Bishop of Aweil, South Sudan, Raises Awareness at YDS
By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.
Distinguished guests in the world of religion are something of a regularity at YDS. But when a film crew from CBS’s 60 Minutes showed up to film the recent visit by Bishop Abraham Y. Nhial of the Anglican Diocese of Aweil in the new nation of South Sudan, it was clear that this visitor was a bit out of the ordinary.
Bishop Nhial was one of the 35,000 “Lost Boys of Sudan” who, separated from their families, fled to Ethiopia to escape the Second Sudanese Civil War that ended in 2005 and, then, from Ethiopia, when that country became embroiled in its own civil war. Less than 16,000 of the Lost Boys survived this second flight.
Remarkably, this former Lost Boy now heads the Diocese of Aweil, among the largest of the Sudanese dioceses and is, by all accounts, one of the youngest bishops to ever serve the Anglican communion. Located in South Sudan’s Northern Bahr el Gazal state, Aweil has an estimated population of 2.8 million and covers approximately 20,852 square miles—roughly four times the size of Connecticut.
Hosted by Berkeley Divinity School and Yale Divinity School, Nhial was on campus Oct. 17-19, where he addressed student gatherings, met informally with students and faculty, and led Berkeley’s Wednesday night Eucharist in Marquand Chapel. Organizaig the visit was Jesse Zink ’12 M.Div., who stayed in Nhial’s house during a visit to Aweil this summer.
For the past decade, 60 Minutes has been following Nhial because of his extraordinary past as one of the Lost Boys—a past also documented in his 2004 autobiography, Lost Boy No More: A True Story of Survival and Salvation, written with DiAnn Mills.
Nhial was born in the Aweil shortly before the Second Sudanese Civil War began in 1983. Before his tenth birthday, the troops sent by the National Islamic Front regime attacked his village along with hundreds of others. Those at home were either taken as slaves or killed. Those who were not home during the attack took flight, like Nhial, to Ethiopia. Not all made it, and many died during the attempted escape.
“The good God kept some of us alive, not because we were more important than others who died, but to be witness to what took place in our country,” Nhial told students in an Anglican Theology and History course taught by Berkeley Dean Joseph Britton as the 60 Minutes camera crew filmed and adjusted lighiting in the Bushnell Seminar Room.
Plucked from the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, Nhial was among the Lost Boys selected to come to the United States to receive an education. After earning his G.E.D., he attended Atlanta Christian College and, following that, moved to Pennsylvania to begin studying for the priesthood at Trinity School for Ministry, an evangelical Anglican seminary.
Nhial is now a U.S. citizen. But despite the option of remaining in the United States, he has chosen to serve the Diocese of Aweil, where he was consecrated this year as the new diocese’s first bishop. “My going back to South Sudan is to give back what I received from God,” he explained, “to give back what I received from the world.”
Over this past summer, Zink was visiting different ministries in the global Anglican Communion, including the recently established Diocese of Aweil. There, Zink stayed in Bishop Nhial’s house, which also serves as the diocesan office, the principle’s house for the Anglican school, the school office, and—thanks to the sponsorship of Trinity Wall Street—the only internet café in the Northern Barh-er-gazal state.
Although things are slowly changing for the better, Nhial voiced serious concern over the relationship between religion and politics in South Sudan—particularly concern over the push by the country’s more radical Muslim groups to establish an Islamic state by force. This occurred in Sudan’s recent past during the civil war, where religious and political persecution of Christians was widespread. “We were being killed because of our faith in Christ,” said Nhial. “But we are willing to die as Christians rather than changing our identity.”
Recently, Nhial has been at the forefront of calls for peace in the hotly contested Abyei region of Aweil and paid a pastoral visit to the region—one of several he has made in his time as bishop—just a few weeks after attacks in May of this year.
On July 9, 2011 South Sudan became the newest independent nation in the world. “We thank God, and we will continue thanking God for hearing our cry and our prayers for us to become a nation,” said Nhial.
The newly independent South Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world. “We have a free country to worship God freely,” Nhial observed, “but the suffering is still going on.” Because of internal ethnic conflicts by armed groups within South Sudan, tens of thousands of Sudanese are displaced. Along with these military skirmishes are severe seasonal rains. And to add to the calamities, noted Nhial, fights over the nation’s natural resources, especially oil, have led to many deaths. Amid the civil unrest, enormous portions of the nation’s people have no homes, no shelter, and no medical resources.
“We are like a child when a child is born,” said the bishop. “We need a lot of good care.” The primary purpose of his visit to Yale, and to the Western world at-large, Nhial noted, was to raise awareness of the plight of the South Sudanese people—their need for aid and help in developing infrastructure, medicine, education, and, most of all, peace. Nhial implored listeners to give aid to the best of their abilities and to ask their politicians to support South Sudan. [During the Wednesday Eucharist, a special collection was taken for aiding Sudanese in Aweil.]
BDS Dean Joseph Britton noted that the weighty issues of justice and reconciliation in South Sudan can serve as a reminder of the relative insignicance of much of the internal squabbling over matters of polity that frequently embroil the Anglican Communion.
He observed that, while Nhial represents one of the more conservative regions of the Anglican Church, it is a testament to the diversity of the Communion to host him at Berkeley, often viewed as representing the more liberal side of Anglicanism.