Two places and times:
A small, loving San Diego church, 2018.
A small, loving South Sudan tribal village, 1987.
A father of two who supports his family, church, and community.
A young boy who tends cattle.
When Nicodemus was eight or nine, about a year after his family converted to Christianity, civil war reached his village. As bombs and “fire from the sky” fell, he and the other boys minding the cattle had to flee. They joined other people on the months-long walk to a camp in Ethiopia, whatever or wherever Ethiopia was. Nicodemus had only known about his village. But he followed. It would be several years before he knew what happened to his family.
People ate leaves and any fruit they could find. When they crossed the desert, they walked with one person’s head on another’s shoulder for the shade. Then they traded places. Nicodemus had no shoes.
Often the people hid from bombs during the day and walked through other night dangers. Startled animals raced through the group in fear, sometimes injuring or killing the refugees. There were also predators. The walkers followed someone wearing a white shirt and held on to the person in front of them.
Nicodemus’ knowledge of God’s love gave him strength and comfort.
The camp was a spot by a river where refugees gathered. With no food or shelter, disease and death spread. Eventually, the U.N. brought supplies and education. Nicodemus, who didn’t know English or the concept of reading and writing, learned his A,B,C’s.
In 1991, a new regime in Ethiopia forced the refugees back to Sudan. People were shot or eaten by crocodiles when they were forced to cross the river.*
After another arduous journey, Nicodemus made it to a refugee camp in Kenya, where he waited for 9 more years until he was able to fill one of 5,000 spots the U.S. promised for resettlement. Nicodemus had been persecuted for his Christianity. When he found a welcome from the Christian community of St. Luke’s, he finally felt home again.
Nicodemus worked hard to support himself and obtain a G.E.D. In 2007, he earned a degree in Information Systems from Pt. Loma Nazarene, where he had worked as a groundskeeper. Since his graduation he’s worked in data processing, help desk analysis, and is currently an information systems analyst for San Diego City.
Nicodemus never saw his parents again. But when he returned to Africa for about a year, remaining family members played traditional roles as he courted and married. Nicodemus and Rachel have two children.
Before knowing Nicodemus or any of his story, I was struck by the tenderness he shows his children. Nicodemus has truly traveled through “the valley of the shadow of death,” and is a loving family man, who helps where he sees need and joins others in sustaining the St. Luke’s missions, with God’s help.
*Nicodemus appears in They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky, by Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, and Benjamin Ajak, the true story of three other Lost Boys.
The story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus in John’s gospel (11:4) is similar to the raising of Jairus’ daughter in Luke 8:52 and the son of the widow of Nain in Luke 7:11. These 3 dramatic accounts are then mirrored by the apostles Peter and Paul in Acts when Peter restores Tabitha to life and Paul brings back Eutychus who had fallen to his death from an upstairs room.
It is noteworthy to recall that these seemingly miraculous actions involved not just Jesus, but 2 of his trusted disciples as well. Furthermore, we need to ponder something that is quite obvious and simple but almost never discussed or even thought about: these 5 stories from the New Testament recount not resurrection, but rather, resuscitation. Resuscitation, of course, is restoring someone back to their previous life. It is a return to the familiar ageing process, only to end in physical death a second time. Resuscitation is getting back what was lost - a going back to where one came from originally. In this sense, it is mere repetition and not a movement into truly new or eternal life.
When these stories of raisings are understood this way, we begin to see Jesus as a divine healer/physician whose actions were able to be reproduced by several of his disciples. From this perspective, however, the manner in which the apostles John, Luke and Paul write about the miracles of resuscitation and how these signs glorify God, invites further reflection. After all, the flip side of resuscitation is having to undergo death a second time!
In 1849 the Danish Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard published his famous work, The Sickness unto Death, subtitled “A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening”. This book drew its inspiration from Jesus’ reaction and exclamation in John’s gospel upon learning of Lazarus’ serious illness. Unlike anyone before him, Kierkegaard unpacks and problematizes Jesus’ famous statement as he invites the reader to think in a radically new way about faith, despair, and the individual self/Self. He questions the astonishment of Mary and Martha at the physical resuscitation of Lazarus. He then hints at what constitutes the relation between God and the (our) self/selves and what exactly constitutes faith for a Christian. Although not explicitly stated, it is abundantly clear that for Kierkegaard, resurrection has little to do with the restoration of one’s previous existence nor with anything commonly taken for granted or heard within established Christendom. Instead, the story of Christ’s resurrection has to do with boldly and confidently planning for and effecting new life with God’s eternity as backdrop and reference.
Although this may sound like rather ethereal and philosophical stuff, it actually has a totally concrete and specific application at St Lukes North Park, an Episcopal church in San Diego that was on the verge of dying and passing into oblivion in the late 1990s. Back in 2001 (in another era and different political climate) over 4,000 Lost Boys of Sudan were allowed entry into the United States, fleeing horrific civil wars that had ravished their country for the past 50 years. CBS’ popular 60 Minutes TV magazine has carefully documented and recently updated this historic moment. Many of the new South Sudanese arrived in San Diego and found a new home in North Park at St Lukes. Then, starting in 2016, new waves of refugees from central African nations such as Congo (DRK and RC), Uganda, and Tanzania began arriving in San Diego.
The Episcopal Diocese took notice of these shifts and began wondering what to do with St Lukes. The bishop at the time, Rev. James Mathes, began to put together a plan which went far beyond anything the diocese had previously dreamed of or done in its past. One might imagine that Bishop Mathes was wondering if he was dealing with a “sickness unto death” situation despite the vibrant faith and traditions brought over by the original Sudanese refugees. He may have been tempted to craft a plan involving a resuscitation, trying to restore the previous health of the parish using traditional means. Instead, with help of many people and organizations of good faith, a plan was hatched to create something totally new – a very different and untried model of diverse communities working with and alongside St Lukes, some of whom had nothing to do with the Episcopal Church, or for that matter, any church.
The new St Lukes beginning to emerge in 2018 involves partnering with other nonprofits and churches such as: Nazarene-affiliated Genesis church (which holds their Sunday services at St Luke’s and represents very different demographics from those of the refugee community), the inter-faith Uptown Community Services (which serves the homeless and moved their offices to St Luke’s), various 12- step programs, the International Rescue Committee (whose relationship includes remodel and upgrade of the existing kitchen to commercial grade in order to provide training for refugees interested in the culinary arts and work in the foodservice industry), a 5-year financial commitment from 6 of San Diego’s wealthier Episcopal parishes for support, grants from both religious as well as from secular foundations interested in promoting local community development, and finally, the most significant partnership/marriage of all – the Reverends Colin and Laurel Mathewson, Episcopal priests who have thrown their lot in with the future of St Luke’s.
Don’t take my word for it. Seeing is believing for many of us. If you are interested in learning more about this new model for church development in our midst, be brave, come see for yourself! Your first visit may surprise you with rhythmic African drumming, unexpected ululations of joy and praise straight out of the heart of Africa, and children dancing in the aisles.
The next 3 years at St Lukes North Park will be an exciting time as the local community, both inside and outside, this neighborhood parish wakes up to a new reality. Symbolically, 2017 saw the demolition and removal of a dilapidated, unstable old chapel which hadn’t been used for nearly 25 years on the adjacent lot. In its place one can now see a vibrant community garden being tended by high school students who then sell the produce at the local farmer’s market. Demolition and destruction of this old structure was followed by something totally different, new and life affirming. For many of us who have been associated with St Lukes these past few years, this transition points to the essential difference between resuscitation and resurrection in ways that are both tangible and experiential.