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Rural Mission: Challenges and opportunities for all of us

Posted on: July 31, 2008 1:58 PM
Related Categories: Lambeth Conference 2008

“This is why we need the Anglican Communion,” sighed Bishop Hilary Luate Adeba of the diocese of Yei, Sudan, after an hour-long discussion of the enormous challenges of rural mission during a Bishops’ Self Select Session on Wednesday.

Water, health care, food, and employment are indispensible, yet all are in short supply in many dioceses across the Communion. Without them, disease, conflict and hopelessness overwhelm many of our sisters and brothers every day. 

Many rural dioceses encompass vast, yet sparsely populated, geographical areas, making transportation and communication critically important. The Diocese of Vanuatu, Melanesia covers over 800,000 square kilometers. In order to visit each of his priests, Bishop James Ligo undertakes a 3 week-long journey by air, truck, boat and on foot. 

Government health assistance doesn’t reach many villages in his diocese, so the Church must step in. In places where there is no running water, sanitation is poor and medical care is almost nonexistent. He observed that if the Church could help provide running water, it would go a long way toward alleviating many serious problems.

Water is also an extremely precious commodity for Bishop Ossie Swartz’s Diocese of Kimberly and Kuruman (Southern Africa), which is perched on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Bishop Swarz told of a six year-old child who recently experienced rain for the very first time in his life. 

For Bishop Emanuel Arongo in Tamare, Ghana, the Sahara desert is more of a problem as it steadily expands into his diocese. But even rain is a mixed blessing. The rainy season should last from May to October, but lack of water commonly delays planting until July. Sometimes, when the rains finally arrive, too much water all at once leads to flooding, crop destruction and even more hunger. Flooding and rapidly flowing water also increase the numbers of blackflies, whose bite transmits the parasite causing river blindness.  

Of course, HIV/AIDS is rampant all over the globe. Bishop Swarz said that his priests now spend most Saturdays conducting funerals rather than making pastoral visits to parishioners in their homes. AIDS has turned society upside down as parents bury their children, stigma further isolates those already suffering, and there is an increasing need to teach people how to take care of the dying at home. But it is not only parishioners who are dying: “it’s servers and priests who are dying—it is OUR problem!” declared Bishop Swarz.

In the Diocese of the Northwest Territories in Australia, Bishop Greg Thompson shared that for many indigenous people, addiction, malnutrition, kidney failure and other chronic diseases result in an average life expectancy of just 47 years.

Once again, so much bad news can lead to a sense of hopelessness. But the bishops, clergy and laity of these dioceses are meeting their challenges with determination and creativity.

In his first week as a new priest, Bishop Arongo was talking about God’s love with three siblings afflicted by river blindness. “If God is so loving, why are we blind? And who made the flies?” they retorted. Though the theological questions still linger, the experience led Arongo to appeal to the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind. Although the Society did not normally work with churches, they made an exception for his area. Other agencies have also helped. Now, the diocese assists with prevention and medical treatment for river blindness, as well as assistance for those whose blindness is irreversible.

Anglicare, an agency founded by the Diocese of Northwest Territories, provides health care and disaster relief. In just ten years, Bishop Thompson noted, it has become the largest non-governmental organization in the region. 

Thompson also offered a moving vision of collaborative, holistic ministry. He told of the Pandanas tree, which has very long leaves with long and menacing spikes at the ends. Most people leave the tree alone, but aboriginal women know how to reach into the heart of the tree, get the young leaves and weave them into baskets. Thompson said that he believes his role as bishop is to help weave a basket of many cultures—comprised of people from widely varying ethnic, economic and social groups. Christian ministry should be holistic—focusing on body and soul, communities and individuals, and welcoming lay ministry and ordained ministry.

How can the rest of us help? “Come visit us and see what we’re trying to do!” exclaimed one bishop. Another tangible need is networking—rural bishops are very interested in learning about and connecting with Anglican, ecumenical, secular and governmental agencies with whom they can partner to provide water, health care and education. 

In addition, we can begin to re-imagine theological education so that it is accessible to lay persons as well as future clergy, and ensure that it includes health education as well as theology and pastoral care. If we do this, Anglicans across the Communion can become better and healthier followers of Jesus, our teacher and healer.