God of widows and orphans, the God of the weak, the suffering and dying, heal Mark Nikkel.
–Prayer of Sudanese people, Kakuma refugee camp
Thousands of Sudanese knew him as akon, the “bull elephant,” as he made his way across the devastated country for almost twenty years. Marc Nikkel was tall and quick, with merry, piercing eyes. A person of many talents, he was a painter, peacemaker, and teacher, a one-person seminary who taught hundreds of Sudanese to become pastors, evangelists, and eventually bishops. At an Anglican missionary college in Mundri, he painted murals that celebrated Sudan’s rich heritage of spirituality; in his teaching he drew on a rich tradition of indigenous poetry, music, and the visual arts. He also translated works from local languages into English.
The Sudan has been wracked by warfare since 1968, and in February 1999 Nikkel helped unite more than two thousand feuding tribal leaders for a peace conference. Eventually, four hundred of the Dinka and Nuer signed a peace accord. Nikkel recorded the deliberations on his laptop computer, from which he fashioned a spiritual journal, an account of his interaction with the oppressed and oppressors. In 1987 he was abducted by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army and held captive for two months. What would have been a bitter ordeal for most persons was transformed into a time of quiet joy and compassion. Nikkel was used to a life of hard work, isolation, and physical challenge. “He was compelled by a quiet passion that proved itself, both in his time as hostage and during his long illness, to be fired by a deep love of God and an unshakable confidence in the Resurrection,” a colleague said of him. “Marc was an apostle to the oppressed and persecuted church,” another friend wrote of Nikkel. “He understood his mission to Sudan through the eyes of Jesus. The theme of God’s liberation of the poor and oppressed was always heard in his messages.” Shortly before his death he wrote a letter to the church in the Sudan: “These days I find myself becoming physically weaker. As for myself, I simply long for the Great Transition that will allow me to enter my new life in the fellowship of Christ and all who have gone before me.”
Stricken by stomach cancer, Nikkel died at age fifty in California on September 3, 2000. Meanwhile, at the Kakuma refugee center, a camp for thousands of marginalized and dispossessed persons within a war zone in southern Sudan, women gathered each day in his cramped mud brick house, laying hands on his simple bed, while praying for his return. “God of widows and orphans, the God of the weak, the suffering, and dying, heal Marc Nikkel,” they prayed. Shortly before his death, Nikkel visited the convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, where he showed the audience the cross he wore, made by a Dinka artist who transformed metal from a weapon of war into a symbol of self-giving new life in the Risen Christ.
This song written by Sudanese children in exile in Ethiopia and translated by Marc Nikkel reflects the tragedy of war in that country:
We ask you, O Creator, who created us,
Who has created us?
Isn’t it you who created us?
We call upon you, God of all peoples:
Who created us?
You said that the land of Sudan
will be devoured by birds, flapping their wings.
Look upon us, O Creator, who made us.
God of all peoples, we are yearning for our land.
Hear the prayer of our souls in the wilderness.
Hear the prayer of our bones in the wilderness.
Hear our prayer as we call out to you.
Hear the cry of our hearts in the wilderness.
- Jerry Hames, “Marc Nikkel: ‘Apostle’ to Sudan’s Oppressed,” Episcopal Life, October 20, 2000, 3.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa, copyright © 2002 by Frederick Quinn, Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, New York. All rights reserved.