From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Sudan's `bull elephant' leaves for home
John Rollins <email@example.com>
26 Oct 1998 20:37:53
Sudan's `bull elephant' leaves for home
by Jerry Hames
(Episcopal Life) The man affectionately known as "thon
akon," or bull elephant, by thousands of refugees throughout the
Episcopal Church in Sudan has left forever the desolate region
along the Kenyan border where he worked with those displaced by
the 15-year Sudanese civil war.
The Rev. Marc Nikkel, the Episcopal Church's first
missionary appointee to Sudan in 1981, returned to California Oct.
12 to spend his remaining days with his ailing father, Reuben, and
his sister. Surgery in London in late September revealed that
Nikkel has advanced stomach cancer; and further operations are not
During a stopover in New York on his flight to California,
Nikkel was hospitalized for five days with chest pains. He
received blood transfusions and antibiotics to fight pneumonia in
his right lung.
During the visit, he met with Presiding Bishop Frank T.
Griswold and presented a 3-foot-high ebony cross ringed with
bullet casings to the Episcopal Church Center. Symbolic of the
crosses that hundreds of thousands of Sudanese carry to show their
faith in perilous times, the cross will hang in the center's
Nikkel's biggest disappointment in the days to come will be
the separation from his Sudanese friends, who had become family.
"You are in my thoughts during the day and in my dreams at night,"
he told them in a letter written from London. "My heart is seldom
far from you."
A legacy for the Sudanese
A tall, well-built man, Nikkel, 48, was a dominating
presence among the Jeing, or Dinka, Sudan's largest ethnic group
for nearly two decades. Almost single-handedly, he directed the
Episcopal Church's concern in the region and worked with the
expatriate community in Sudan to raise the level of international
"Seeing Marc in refugee camps or in villages inside southern
Sudan, I was struck by the love and respect they have for him,"
said Margaret Larom, on the staff of the Anglican and global
relations office at the Episcopal Church Center, who led a church
delegation to Sudan in February. "By serving them where they are,
enduring hardships by their side, laughing, crying, working,
always teaching, he has earned their undying affection."
Nikkel's missionary service has left a legacy to the
Sudanese. In the most rapidly growing church in the Anglican
Communion, he worked for years in isolation until recently,
teaching, serving as adviser in theological education and training
clergy, teachers and women's leaders.
His bond with Sudan was consolidated in 1985 when he was
abducted with three other expatriates by the Sudanese People's
Liberation Army, held for two months while trekking 150 miles,
often mingling with the destitute and displaced. Throughout the
civil war he documented the origins and development of
Christianity among the Dinka, which earned him a doctoral degree
at the University of Edinburgh in 1993.
Speaking with labored breath in a New York hospital, Nikkel
credited Bishops David Birney and Heath Light with encouraging him
to take the road that carried him halfway around the world from
the Mennonite Brethren farming community in the San Joachim
Valley, where he was raised.
Even before he entered Fuller Theological Seminary in 1980,
he experienced African culture when, with his family, he visited
western Zaire for a year, where he used his graphic arts skills to
create books for illiterate people. At Fuller in California, he
became a close friend to several Ugandan students when that church
was under persecution by the dictator Idi Amin.
A faith to die for
Nikkel said he became intensely interested in church martyrs
and what it meant to live in a society in which Christians were
being persecuted. He remembered the afternoon when Birney, former
coordinator of overseas ministries at the church center and
himself a former missionary in Uganda and Botswana, visited him at
Fuller. Nikkel asked for an opportunity to go to Uganda.
"I told him the history of my Mennonite background, about
our peoples being refugees for generations," Nikkel recalled from
his hospital bed. "I told him I wanted to learn about the faith
that someone is willing to die for."
Birney responded immediately, Nikkel said. "You want a
suffering church," he said. "Then Sudan is the place for you."
Birney said he had been searching for a year for someone to
be a tutor at Bishop Gwynne Theological College, the only
pastoral-training center in Sudan. "I thought, dear Lord, I will
never get anyone, particularly a Westerner, to go and live under
such primitive conditions. Very frankly, I couldn't find anybody.
"The theological college was pretty well destroyed [from the
civil war]; it was rural, primitive, shelled and bombed out. Marc
has one of the richest inner lives of any person I have ever had
the privilege to know.
"When I met him, I knew I was in the presence of a very
unusual person where the lack of money and material possessions
didn't matter as much to him as relationships with others."
Nikkel was at the college for a year when he met Bishop
Heath Light, then bishop of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia,
who was at an Anglican Partners in Mission consultation in Sudan.
"I stayed at his house a couple of nights and traveled with
him throughout the country from mission to mission," recalled
Light, who said he was immediately impressed. "We talked with a
view to ordination," said Nikkel.
Heart and soul of a poet
The result began a companion relationship between
Southwestern Virginia and Sudan that continues today. "He's a
person who looks robust, but internally he has the heart and soul
of a poet," said Light, who retired in 1996. "He has great ability
with words and with his hands," he said, describing how Nikkel's
descriptive letters and painted murals in the college chapel
Describing how he convinced his diocesan standing committee
and commission on ministry to sponsor someone for ordination whom
they had not yet met, Light admitted the diocese was
"adventurous." Nikkel received a year's leave, studied at General
Theological Seminary and wrote the General Ordination Exams. "He
aced them," Light said; he ordained Nikkel to the diaconate in
A year later, Nikkel was ordained a priest under the hands
of the Sudanese bishops on behalf of the Diocese of Southwestern
Virginia, beginning a highly unusual relationship between the
Church Missionary Society of England, which sponsors most work in
that country, the Episcopal Church and southwestern Virginians
Nikkel's years in Sudan have had what he calls "distant
periods" in relation to the sponsoring bodies. "During those times
I felt pretty well alone," he said. But, more recently, that has
changed, he said. "The last two years have been a period of
consolidation, and grass-roots ties [with local congregations]
Nancy Frank, an advocate for refugee work at St. Paul's
Episcopal Church in Rochester, N.Y., is one of those about whom
Nikkel talks. She went to Sudan with the Episcopal delegation and
was at Nikkel's bedside in New York.
"We've given a lot of money, but more important has been the
support," she said. "We have taken on the education of a
seminarian and his family . and now a second parish in the diocese
has done the same."
She said Nikkel awakened the parish to mission during his
visit two years ago with the Sudanese archbishop. "He makes a
connection with refugees, Sudanese and faith. People listen hard
to what he has to say and how he expresses the pain and joy of the
Nikkel recounted his Sudan experience. "I've been thinking a
lot in recent days about death and resurrection," he said. "I've
been thinking about the enormous power of these years to me."
Nikkel said much of his experience in Sudan has become part
of his own roots. "It has been the melding of my own person, being
accepted-almost a rebirth-within the indigenous culture."
His nickname, thon akon, followed a custom by which Sudanese
honor foreigners. "It is a name that reflected their deep respect
for me," Nikkel said. "The Dinka have ways of forming you in their
image [in a way] that says: `You are our person and you will do
well to us.' The Dinka formed me through every part of my person."
--Jerry Hames is editor of Episcopal Life.
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