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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Friends of Manute Bol Remember a Gentle Giant

My friend and colleague Tom Prichard, mentioned in the article, founded Sudan Sunrise and worked alongside Manute Bol

From the Living Church December 5, 2010 Issue

When Manute Bol died at age 47 in June 2010, the former NBA star from South Sudan was doing the thing he loved best: helping his beloved people of South Sudan.

“A Tribute to Manute Bol,” held at The Catholic University of America on Nov. 9, found friends and colleagues remembering the 7-foot-7 giant-hearted Dinka who inspired college students to make a difference for the world and raising money to complete his dream of building 41 schools in Sudan.

The tribute was sponsored by Sudan Sunrise, a nonprofit, nondenominational Christian ministry that began as a network of Americans partnering with South Sudanese Christians who were committed to helping Darfurian Muslims.

In 1991, Manute saw Sudan on television for the first time. The NBA video Manute Bol: Basketball Warrior quoted basketball’s star blocker: “The Sudan government was killing my people. I say no, this cannot be right. I have to do something.”

He returned to Sudan and to overflowing refugee camps, where he saw a war-devastated land. The Dinka warrior said in an interview with Sports Illustrated years later, “God guided me to America and gave me a good job. But he also gave me a heart so I would look back.”

Speakers at the tribute, including former teammate Charles Barkley in a recorded message, all mentioned the Sudanese ball player’s generosity. Manute’s earnings playing for Washington, Golden State, Philadelphia, and Miami — and even after his basketball career was over — provided relief and support for the victims of the National Islamic Front regime’s genocidal jihad. The basketball player saved probably thousands of lives.

In 1991 he heard about hundreds of “Lost Boys” returning to Sudan from Ethiopia, where they had fled three years before. They were cut off and being starved by Sudanese government troops. Manute hired helicopters to fly food and medicine to them and to bring in journalists who tell the Lost Boys’ story to the outside world. Through his Ring True Foundation, Bol also helped the former Lost Boys when they were resettled in the United States.

Manute was honored for his compassion not just toward his own fellow South Sudanese, but also toward Darfurians. Although Darfurian troops killed 250 of his family members, he believed that they had been manipulated and lied to by Khartoum. His ability to forgive was a powerful testimony. Manute joined other South Sudanese Christians in reaching out to Darfurians.

He also joined advocacy efforts to end the genocide in Darfur, as well as efforts for reconciliation among all of Sudan’s marginalized people, through his partnership with Sudan Sunrise. Manute and the others believed that only true forgiveness, which does not excuse or deny wrongdoing, but still chooses to forgive, brings freedom to both parties.

Sudan Sunrise quotes Manute as saying that “the key to peace is education.” His project with Sudan Sunrise to raise funds and build desperately needed schools in South Sudan will contribute to reconciliation between Christians, Muslims, and followers of traditional religion by bringing children together for an education.

Manute’s Darfurian friend, Dr. Abdelgabar Adam, responded to his vision of reconciliation. Now 200 Darfurian university students have volunteered to help build the schools. The Rev. Tom Prichard, founder and executive director of Sudan Sunrise, said it’s a two-man job to create compressed-earth bricks for the schools. For each brick, one Christian and one Muslim have worked together.

Manute used his fame to raise awareness about what was happening in Sudan. He told Congress, the State Department, and audiences across the country that 10,000 people were dying every day in South Sudan and other areas of conflict. He gave the State Department photos that he had taken in the refugee camps.

Speaker John Zogby exhorted the Catholic University students attending the tribute to be like Manute in their care for the poor and defenseless of the world.

Despite Manute’s tremendous physical pain — severe, crippling arthritis and other illnesses, exacerbated by a near-fatal car accident in 2004 — he had a great sense of humor. One speaker who had the corner on funny “Manute stories” was Chuck Douglas, assistant general manager for the Washington Bullets (now Wizards). Douglas told how he was assigned by the general manager, Bob Ferry, to “help” Manute with adjusting to life in America when his culture shock was at a maximum.

Douglas said Manute had one day told him that he wanted “an electric train.” He drove Manute to the toy store, an excursion that was magical in itself for the Dinka. But when he showed Manute the electric trains, his friend protested that was not what he wanted. He wanted an electric train that was pushed around to clean the house. Douglas, just out of college himself, finally figured out that Manute wanted a vacuum cleaner.

The tributes to Manute, shared by those who loved him for his humor, his generous spirit, and his perseverance, introduced the Sudanese Christian Dinka basketball player to a crowd of college students who may have only known him as a name in the NBA.

The evening was an invitation to share in the work that Manute started by completing his 41 schools in Sudan. It was also an invitation to share in the faith, courage, and kindness that made Manute who he was. Manute would have liked that.

Faith J.H. McDonnell, in Washington

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