"Greet your new dean!"
With those words, history was made in the Episcopal Church of the Sudan on August 17 as the new dean of St. Matthew's Cathedral in the Diocese of Renk, the Very Rev. Martha Deng Nhial, became the first woman to be installed as head of an Episcopal Cathedral in Africa's largest nation.
Bishop Ezekiel Kondo of the Diocese of Khartoum presented Nhial to the more than 500 people crowded into the cathedral amid great celebration and applause. The women in the congregation ululated and danced in the aisles, while the choir sang, drums were played and leis were placed around the new dean's neck.
"Dean Martha is the first woman priest to be dean of a cathedral in all of Sudan," Kondo told the congregation. "She is one of the first women priests to be dean of a cathedral in all of Africa. This is a day of making history!"
Kondo came to Renk to install Nhial two weeks before the diocese enthrones its new bishop, the Rt. Rev. Joseph Garang Atem Zorial.
Nhial was made dean "because of her faithfulness and her evangelism and her strong mind for mission," Zorial said. "She has a good vision for the care of her people, [which] we observed during the time of the civil war -- how she took care of the orphans and widows. We saw it again at the Renk Bible School, where she studied before becoming a priest. She has all of the characteristics of a good leader."
Nhial was one of the first women to be ordained in Sudan. The Episcopal Church of the Sudan decided, in 2000, to begin ordaining women to the diaconate and priesthood. The then-bishop of the Diocese of Renk, the Rt. Rev. Daniel Deng Bul Yak, now Sudan's archbishop, chose Nhial for ordination because of her leadership skills, her faith and her desire to evangelize the people of Northern Upper Nile State, where Renk is located.
She was ordained a deacon in 2003, and a priest on Palm Sunday in 2005. Since her priesting, she has served as priest associate, priest-in-charge and then acting dean of the Cathedral. In each case, she was the first to hold those positions.
When Deng asked Nhial to be ordained, she said, "I told [him] that the Lord is calling me to go to teach people, as Jesus says in the Gospel. This is the work I do for God."
In Sudan, she said, "before, we did not ordain women. Now, the Episcopal Church has given women the freedom to be ordained as priests and has given them confidence. Women bring very different leadership to the church, in the way that we teach and bring people together. We work for unity and love and sharing."
Becoming dean, she said, means that "in this time, women have a chance in the community and in the church to lead.
"In the Dinka or other tribes," she said, "women were not sharing in the leadership of spiritual activities and in the community. Before, people didn't like any woman to be in front of people and to say something or to preach. But in this time, this is our freedom: women teach, preach, talk in front of the people, of the community. This is sharing."
In the sermon, preached by the Rev. Lauren R. Stanley, an U.S. Episcopal priest serving as a missionary in the Diocese of Renk at the Renk Theological College, Nhial was told: "You are to ... make this holy place a sanctuary for all of God's people. You are not called, in this place, to be Dinka or Shilluk, Nuer or Nuba, Bari or Zande, Murle or Moro, Maban or Anyuak, Kakwa or Balanda or any other tribe in this great land. Instead, you are called to bid God's peace to all of God's beloved children, and as dean of this cathedral, to teach us that first and foremost, we all belong to the tribe of God."
Stanley continued: "You are to proclaim God's love in every word and every action. And you are to be an example to us of how to live in God's holy tribe."
"We are thrilled to have her as our dean," Zorial said, "and, as the new bishop, I am confident that we will do great work for our people not just in this town of Renk but in all of ... Sudan."
"All of us -- the Archbishop and myself, Dean Martha, all the clergy and all the people of Renk Town -- we have a great vision of making peace and bringing reconciliation to the people of Sudan," Zorial said. "Dean Martha especially has a great heart for peace and reconciliation."
The Rev. Grace Isaiah Kaberi, in charge of the Renk Diocese Guesthouse and Cafeteria Esteer, as well as priest-in-charge of the Arabic congregation at the cathedral, could not stop smiling as she talked about the new dean. Ordained both a deacon and a priest with Dean Martha, Kaberi said, "I am very happy that Martha has become the new dean in Sudan and is one of the first [women] deans in all of Africa. Martha ... will lift up all of the women. She is very strong and makes all of us strong as well to go out into the world."
Women, Kaberi said, "receive their freedom from God, so we work hard for Jesus Christ. We all give thanks to God and we thank the leaders of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan for giving us this freedom and for making Martha our dean."
One of Nhial's strengths, said Priscilla Ajok Akuac, cashier at the Cafeteria Esteer at the Guesthouse, is that she "leads us, teaches us songs and how to talk to Jesus and about Jesus, and strengthens us to go outside" to tell others about Jesus."
"This is something very special," said the Rev. Abraham Chute Maduc, priest-in-charge of the cathedral. "It is the first time an Episcopal Church woman has become the dean of a cathedral, and she will lead us in activities in the Church."
Asked if she was afraid to take on this new and historic position, Nhial paused, then said, "I was a little bit afraid, but now, there is no fear. There is no fear because the grace of God helps us."
Married for 20 years, Nhial is the mother of six children and one grandchild. Her husband, Lt. Col. Abraham, serves in the South Sudan police force and is stationed in Juba.