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From St. Louis to Sudan, local Episcopalians build wells and relationships that both run deep

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 5, 2009 - When the sky in Lui, Sudan, fell dark, Robert Franken sat outside for a while. In the compound of mud huts that housed him for a few weeks this past December, he looked at the stars after another day's work in a world quite different from his own.

Then, through a fence of bamboo, Franken saw the lights -- not the bright stars' lights from above, but a steady stream of headlights floating in a line half a football field away.

The world has changed, he thought.

And Lui, where the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri has been in partnership since 2006, had changed, too.

The road, still dirt, but smooth and free of bombs now, brought cars and motorcycles, commerce and possibility. It also brought accidents, danger and death.

Franken's wife, Nancy Kinney, saw change as well on her second trip, from small things like people offering sodas in aluminum cans instead of glass bottles, to big things, like babies free of the reddish tints in their hair, which once indicated anemia.

Change was happening in Lui, and a team of eight people from St. Louis and other parts of the state were there to help create and witness it on this trip.

But what really mattered, Franken thinks, was less visible.

"The value of the relationship is not in the doing," he says. "It's in the being."


In the late winter of 2006, Franken left his St. Louis home to travel to Sudan for the first time. The small village of Lui (pronounced looey) was in the middle of the dry season, and Franken found heavy heat and dust all around.

Lui is located in Southern Sudan. Darfur, best known to most Americans, sits in the west of the country. Though not close, the people of Lui suffered under 21 years of civil war between the North and the South. During that war, the cathedral in Lui was bombed.

Interest in Sudan began for the diocese after working with a province in Nigeria. When that relationship ended, Sudan became a possibility, thanks to Debra Morris Smith of Creve Coeur, wife of the Rt. Rev. Wayne Smith, bishop of Missouri. She'd visited Sudan in 2003 and had worked with the "lost boys" of Sudan. (The diocese also had a nine-year relationship with the Diocese of Puerto Rico.) 

When Franken visited in 2006, Lui had no electricity, sewers, running water or telephones. Violence still threatened the Moru people, a smaller tribe of farmers, just one year after the North/South Peace Agreement, known as the CPA, was finalized. 

From the Lou to Lui

Traveling on the most recent mission to Lui in December and returning in January were the Rev. Emily Bloemker, a senior at Yale Divinity School, and former Youth Minister at St. Stephen's Episcopal, Ferguson; the Rev. Joe Chambers, Episcopal Campus Ministry, Columbia; Deacon Robert Franken and Nancy Kinney, Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis; parishioner Deborah Goldfeder and the Rev. Dan Handschy, Church of the Advent, Crestwood; Tammy King, St. Michael & St. George, Clayton; and Debra Morris Smith, St. Timothy's, Creve Coeur, wife of the Rt. Rev. Wayne Smith, bishop of Missouri.

Learn more about Lui and its St. Louis connections and read current and past blog posts at:





Lui, located in southern Sudan, had no electricity, sewers, running water or telephones. Violence still threatened the Moru people, a smaller tribe of farmers, just one year after the North/South Peace Agreement, known as the CPA, was finalized.

On that first trip, Franken visited seven archdiocese with the draft of a covenant for a partnership between the Diocese of Missouri and the Diocese of Lui. Franken, the arch deacon for the Lui, Sudan, partnership, negotiated the covenant, explaining what they hoped to achieve and beginning to understand what the people of Lui wanted.

The idea, Franken says, wasn't "a bunch of white people telling people in Africa how to fix their lives."

Instead, it was a relationship that took work from both sides.

Among the goals outlined on the seven-page document were: educational assistance, wells and water projects, grinding mills, transportation, including bicycles and vehicles, and improving communications systems.

In some ways, though much needed to be done, the ground work of deep faith already existed, says Kinney, an associate professor of political science and public policy administration at the University of Missouri St. Louis.

"So development is the thing that seems to be in demand," she says.

And during his six or seven trips to Lui since 2006, Franken, founder of Strataventure, saw many of those demands met, sometimes bringing with them a new set of challenges.

In the past three years, for instance, the partnership has brought satellite phones, an Internet link and technology. But for the people of Lui, who communicated by sending messages using people on bicycles, there were obstacles such as understanding e-mail and even how to type.

The partnership also drilled six deep water wells at $17,000 each and has sponsored the out-of-country education of many in Lui, among other things.

Franken returned from his most recent -- and perhaps last -- trip to Lui just before the new year.

Among the Moru, though, he found graciousness, an optimism that's sometimes hard to understand given 21 years of life during war, strong families and deep faith.

But much work still remains.

"I think we have done a lot," he says. "And yet, one of the issues is, in some ways, the more that we help them, the more that we give them ... the more they realize what they don't have and the more they realize what they need and want."


The roads and bridges into Lui are impressive, Kinney says. And something as basic as a connection to the outside world was noticed by many on the December trip.

"The road has been redone and is very smooth compared to what it once was. It is a perfect example of things to come as it represents a gateway to new things," wrote Columbia, Mo., resident the Rev. Joe Chambers on the blog luinotes.blogspot.com

"It brings in supplies, basic imports, new forms of transportation ... and connects Lui to the greater world. It's a central part of eliminating poverty, disease and ignorance. The road brings great promise and is no different than a new road in the U.S. when major roads are built and gateways are established," writes Chambers. "The progress of the road is one aspect of new life that forces people to change. Since the road is faster, accidents that may cause injury are now a reality, something the Moru have never had to deal with. With any new technology or new advancement in society, there are always new problems and new consequences, so learning how to change is important."

Going forward, St. Louis residents Tammy King and Debra Morris Smith will take over leadership of the partnership. King, who first visited Lui in 2003 during a cease-fire in the war, went back this December and found much progress and much still needed.

On the next trip, scheduled for May, English training, educating women in literacy and training trainers to continue that will be central. She hopes to be able to use cell phones instead of satellite phones and to see the installation of a community grinding mill, which would be a pilot micro-economic project for the Mother's Union.

And though there is peace, at least between the North and South, it’s fragile, Franken says. While no one’s dodging bullets, soldiers with guns often show up in photos.

And now, King worries, the focus on Darfur, in a separate war, takes away focus from the peace between the North and South.

“I don’t think you can have peace in Darfur without making sure that the North/South peace agreement stands up.”

For both situations, prayers continue.

And like Franken said, it's the being, not the doing, that seems to mean the most.

The relationships between the two dioceses, supported my mutual faith and friendship, will be vital as the situation in Sudan continues to be fragile.

King, director of career services at Washington University's School of Law, hopes that relationship will deepen, with people in St. Louis and people in Lui joined as much by their differences as by what they share.

"We're worshipping the same God," she says. "We have the same faith. We believe the same things."

And once she's home, worshipping in her own church on Sunday mornings, King's thinking of her brothers and sisters in Sudan, she says, far in distance but close where it matters.

Kristen Hare is a freelance writer in Lake St. Louis. 

Kristen Hare

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