The Rev. David Bako returned home to Sudan this week with a new master's degree in hand and $15,000 to start a school for children displaced by his country's ongoing civil war.
For two years, Bako has been a student at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where on May 20 he received a degree in theological studies. He also has been active in the parish life of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Great Falls, educating the congregation to the plight of thousands of Sudanese who have fled their homes during decades-long fighting between government and rebel troops.
Now Bako resumes his work as one of three priests at St. Nazareth Episcopal Church in Juba, a city in southern Sudan whose population of 200,000 has more than doubled with the influx of refugees from other Sudanese cities, he said.
The civil war has pitted the Sudanese government, centered in Muslim-dominated north Sudan, against rebels in the south, off and on for 40 years. The rebels primarily are animists and Christians, who make up about one-third of the country's population of 33 million, the priest said.
The government now controls Juba, and the situation is relatively quiet. But the families who took refuge there live in grass huts, and many of their children are malnourished. Most have no place to go to school, Bako said.
During his stay here, the priest--ordained by the Episcopal Church in Sudan--envisioned a two-part assistance program for his home church, most of whose 300 members are refugees. "First you have to start with the stomach," Bako, 41, said Wednesday before his departure. Then comes "the mind."
As part of the first stage, St. Francis collected $7,000 to buy 100 goats for widows and children. Joice Bako, who stayed in Africa with the couple's six children (ages 5 to 20) while her husband was in school, helped administer the project. The idea is to give families a source of food and income--goat offspring can be sold or traded for clothing and other necessities.
Now the Great Falls parish has collected enough money from members and other churches to launch a school for 200 children. It also has promised to provide $15,000 in educational funds each of the next two years.
The school is scheduled to open next month at St. Nazareth, a thatched-roof structure with grass mat siding. The building, which consists of a single 1,000-square-foot room, will continue to serve as a sanctuary on Sundays and be divided into three sections on weekdays for classes, Bako said.
The school will provide one meal a day--standard fare for most Sudanese families, the priest said--and supply uniforms and textbooks. A headmistress and nine teachers have been hired for the coming school year, which continues through December.
Bako said the Sudanese government requires that public school courses be taught in Arabic and English and promotes the teaching of Islam. It already allows some Christian groups--such as Roman Catholics and Seventh-day Adventists--to operate private schools. In some cases, the instructors also teach local languages, such as Zande, Bako said.
The school at St. Nazareth is the first step in what Bako hopes will become a system of Episcopal-run schools in the region. "As Christians, we need to nurture our children in our own faith," he said.
The Rev. Robert Friend, rector of St. Francis, said his congregation's sponsorship of the Juba church has created "a lot of spiritual growth."
"We didn't start out feeling it would change us, but it has," Friend said. "Now when we see news clips of people in Africa who are hungry or displaced, we recognize them as our brothers and sisters. We know them--through David."
The parish has participated in local outreach ministries but has never been directly involved in foreign missions. "We've never done anything like this," Friend said. "That's why it grabbed us so strongly."
CAPTION: The Rev. David Bako, who received a degree May 20 from Virginia Theological Seminary, will start a school in Sudan with money raised by St. Francis Episcopal Church in Great Falls.