Marc Nikkel was born in a Mennonite family in Reedley, California. He took a first degree at California State University’s School for the Visual Arts, studying some anthropology along the way. He spent two short periods of nine months in Nigeria and Zaire (where his sister and her husband were missionaries) and studied Mission and Theology at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA. During his time at Fuller he was attracted to Anglicanism and was confirmed in the Episcopal Church.
He began service as a Mission Partner of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A. in 1981, teaching theology, anthropology and worship at Bishop Gwynne Theological College, Mundri, Sudan. His first letters home to his friends on his mailing list are filled with the wonder of new things and the joy of being a part of preparing people for service in the Episcopal Church of the Sudan (ECS). One of his favorite duties between academic terms was to visit “cattle camp,” the traditional travelling villages of the “Jieng” people. Here he learned not only their language but also a deep appreciation of their culture and traditions. Very quickly, however, his letters began to hint of the rumours of renewed war. After decades of civil war, Sudan had been living in a period of relative calm (early 1970s until the mid-1980s) following the Addis Ababa Agreement between the Sudan government and the Anya-nya rebels. New rulers and new policies discriminatory of the people of the Southern Sudan and especially of non-Muslims began to fuel the old fires. Life became more tenuous. His letters began to hint of the trials of being a Christian community in the midst of growing conflict.
While on leave from Mundri during the academic year 1984-85 Nikkel studied for ordination at General Seminary in New York as was subsequently ordained deacon by Bishop Arthur Heath Light of southwestern Virginia. He returned to the Sudan where he continued teaching and where he was ordained as a priest.
In July 1987 the Sudanese Liberation Army overran Bishop Gwynne College and kidnapped Marc, along with three other westerners, Steve Anderson, Katie Taylor and Heather Sinclair. The students of the college, with most of the staff and faculty, were evacuated to Juba, the major city of the southern Sudan. For almost two months no one received any news of the whereabouts of the hostages. Then, just as suddenly as they had been taken, the four were released into northern Kenya, the rebels having presumably made their point by drawing a bit of the world’s attention to the plight of southern Sudan.
Upon his release Nikkel learned that his mother, Rosie, was dying of cancer in California. He was able to arrive in time to spend ten weeks with her before her death. After this time in California Nikkel returned to Africa, but was unable to re-enter the Sudan. For most of the academic year of 1987-88 Nikkel taught at St. Paul’s United Theological College, Limuru, Kenya.
Following that academic year Nikkel flew to Scotland to begin doctoral work under Professor Andrew Walls at the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World. In the course of his thesis  research he collected, translated and analyzed hundreds of Jieng Christian songs. These songs are hymns of praise and lament composed in the midst of the devastation of Sudan’s civil war, a war which has now taken the lives of as many as two million Sudanese. Nikkel’s research combines his early interest in the arts with his love and admiration for the Jieng. During this period of research Nikkel’s letters told of his wanderings through Italy and Great Britain, studying in archives of mission societies, both Roman Catholic and Protestant and, as always, meeting with Sudanese.
His return to the Sudan following doctoral work was indirect. He maintained an apartment in Nairobi and traveled to refugee camps in Kenya, Uganda, and the Sudan as the “theological advisor” of the Sudanese dioceses of Bor, Rumbek and Wau. He continued to be an appointed missionary of the Episcopal Church of the U.S. but his work was now also sponsored by the Church Mission Society of the U.K., which had had a much longer relationship with the Episcopal Church of the Sudan. His main task was the education of Sudanese Christian leaders, but more and more he was called upon to bear witness to the terrible atrocities taking place there. In the end, Nikkel’s witness, both by his powerful oratory and through his elegant writing, was to point to the cross, for it was only the cross that could make any sense of the suffering of the millions of persecuted, starving, and helpless people of Sudan. Often Nikkel would hold up the crosses fashioned by Sudanese artisans, crosses fashioned out of bullet casings, out of pieces of downed military aircraft, out of the shrapnel of grenades.
Diagnosed with cancer in 1998, Nikkel was not expected to live for more than a few weeks, yet miraculously (many Sudanese Christians claimed that it was their prayers that kept him alive!) he lived for two more years. He settled himself into a retreat centre in Scotland where he was cared for by friends from his Bishop Gwynne days and where he thought he would probably die. However, during these two years he was able not only to write and reflect, but he amazed his friends by continuing to travel back to Africa where, among other endeavours, he participated as the secretary in the ongoing grassroots “People to People” peace process between the Nuer and Jieng peoples.
In July of 2000 he came back to his home in the United States. Although he was very weak, he was able to spend a few days at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. He told there how encouraged he was that everywhere he went people were aware of the Sudan and wanted to talk about it. This was new for him. He may not have known just how much he was responsible for this increased concern and awareness.
Nikkel died in his sister’s home in Reedley, California, on Sunday, Sept 3, 2000. He is now an ancestor in the faith, resting in peace with the two million martyrs of the Sudan who have gone before him.
The author of this article is presently editing these letters for publication.
Usually known in the West as the “Dinka” this Nilotic people call themselves “Jieng,” which means “the people.”
For details see Alier, *Southern Sudan: Too Many Agreements Dishonoured *(Khartoum, 2003 ), chapter 8.
His Masters thesis for General Seminary, “The Outcast, the Stranger and the Enemy in Dinka Tradition contrasted with attitudes of Contemporary Dinka Christians,” was completed in 1988.
For Nikkel’s own account of the events of the two months with the SPLA see, “‘Hostages of the Situation in Sudan’, 1987: Christian Missionaries in Wartime,” Anglican and Episcopal History 71/2 (2002): 187-222.
6 “The Origins and Development of Christianity among the Dinka of Sudan, with special reference to the songs of Dinka Christians,” (Ph.D. diss., Edinburgh, 1993; now published as Dinka Christianity: The Origins and Development of Christianity among the Dinka of Sudan, with Special Reference to the Songs of Dinka Christians, Volume 11 of the “Faith in Sudan” series; Nairobi: Paulines Publications, 2001).
For an account of the recent atrocities in the Sudan see, Human Rights Watch /Africa, Civilian Devastation: Abuses by All Parties in the War in Southern Sudan (N.Y.: Human Rights Watch, 1994); Inter-Church Coalition on Africa, Sudan in 1997: A Human Rights Report (Toronto: ICCAF, 1.997); Paul Marshall, ed., Religious Freedom in the World: a global report on freedom and persecution (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), 282-89. For up to date information see the web site http://members.tripod.com/~SudanInfonet/.
See, for example, his testimony at the United States Institute on Peace conference, “Religion, Nationalism and Peace in Sudan” which took place September, 1997 at www.usip.org/research/rehr/sudanconf.html.
In addition to his now published doctoral dissertation, his writings include an unpublished Master’s thesis entitled “The Outcast, the Stranger and the Enemy in Dinka Tradition contrasted with Attitudes of Contemporary Dinka Christians” (General Theological Seminary, 1988) and the following scholarly articles: “Aspects of Contemporary Religious Change among the Dinka” Journal of Religion in Africa 22/1 (1992): 78-94; “The Cross of Bor Dinka Christians: A Working Christology in Face of Displacement and Death” Studies in World Christianity 1/ 2 (1995): 160-85; “‘Children of our Fathers’ Divinities’ or ‘Children of Red Foreigners?’: Themes in Missionary History and the Rise of an Indigenous Church among the Jieng Bor of Southern Sudan” in Land of Promise: Church Growth in a Sudan at War (ed. Andrew Wheeler; vol. 1 of Faith in the Sudan, ed. Andrew C. Wheeler and William B. Anderson; Nairobi: Paulines, 1997), 61-78; “Songs of Hope and Lamentation from Sudan’s ‘Unaccompanied Minors’” Sewannee Theological Review 40 (1997): 486-98; “The Cross as a Symbol of Regeneration in Jieng Bor Society” in Land of Promise, 86-114; “Archibald Shaw ‘Machuor’: ‘The Only White Man with the Heart of the Jieng’” in Gateway to the Heart of Africa: Missionary Pioneers in Sudan *(ed. F. Pierli, M.T. Ratti, A.C. Wheeler; vol. 5 of *Faith in the Sudan, ed. Andrew C. Wheeler and William B. Anderson; Nairobi: Paulines, 1998), 102-25; “Daniel Sorur Farim Deng: ‘Comboni’s Adoptive Son’” in Announcing the Light: Sudanese Witnesses to the Gospel (ed. Andrew Wheeler; vol. 6 of Faith in the Sudan, ed. Andrew C. Wheeler and William B. Anderson; Nairobi: Paulines, 1998), 43-45; “Salim Charles Wilson: ‘Black Evangelist of the North’” in Announcing the Light, 46-49.
Different versions of this article appeared in Anglican and Episcopal History 71/2 (2002): 241-246 and in Reach Out: The Bulletin of the Episcopal Church Missionary Community 24/1 (2001): 1-2, 6. Reprinted with permission. Grant LeMarquand is the International Editor for Anglican and Episcopal History and Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies and Mission at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.