RIP: Richard Parkins, former EMM director who championed outreach to Sudan, dies at 83

By David Paulsen
Posted Sep 4, 2019

[Episcopal News Service] Richard Parkins, a former Episcopal Migration Ministries director who became a leading advocate for Episcopal outreach to Sudan and South Sudan as head of the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, has died. He was 83.

Parkins died Sept. 1 at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., after suffering from cancer and related problems, according to Russell Randle, a member of The Episcopal Church’s Task Force on Dialogue with South Sudanese Anglican Diaspora. Randle, in a message to the task force, said Parkins died in his sleep, possibly from atrial fibrillation.

Richard Parkins, executive director of the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, served 14 years as director of Episcopal Migration Ministries.

“Richard was all that is best about our church,” Randle said. “He was articulate, joyful, persistent and wise, a gracious colleague, a steadfast friend and an example to me and many others of what it means to grow into the full stature of Christ.”

Parkins also was remembered fondly by Episcopal Church Center staff who worked with him during his 14 years leading Episcopal Migration Ministries, or EMM.

“The number of lives that have been enriched because of the life and ministry of Richard Parkins is too great to be counted,” the Rev. Charles Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop for ministry beyond The Episcopal Church, said in a statement to Episcopal News Service. “As director of Episcopal Migration Ministries for many years, and more recently with the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, Richard made a remarkable difference and leaves behind a rich legacy. He will be greatly missed.”

Parkins’ work serving refugees dates back decades, beginning with his time at the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. He became director of that agency in 1980, and other experience included various work with nonprofit resettlement agencies, such as Lutheran Refugee and Immigration Service and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to an online bio.

EMM is one of the agencies with contracts to provide resettlement services to refugees on behalf of the U.S. State Department. In 1995, Parkins became director of EMM and remained in that role until 2009. Parkins also served from 2006 to 2008 as chair of the Refugee Council USA, the coalition of refugee assistance and refugee rights organizations.

The problem of people displaced from their homes by war and persecution is a “global humanitarian crisis of almost unimaginable dimensions,” Parkins said in an Episcopal Church video released in June 2007 highlighting World Refugee Day. “I think it’s also a day when you reflect on the courage and the achievements of refugees, because that’s the other side of the story that has to be told.”

Parkins had long worked to strengthen ties between The Episcopal Church and Anglicans in Sudan. As EMM director, he was part of a 1998 church visit to Sudan that included extensive travel in the Diocese of Bor and interaction with Sudanese refugees in a camp in northern Kenya, according to the bio on the website of American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, or AFRECS. That year he also served as an Episcopal Church representative at a roundtable convened by Sudan Council of Churches.

And in 2008, Parkins joined an Episcopal-Lutheran delegation that attended the enthronement of Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul as head of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, now known as the Episcopal Church of South Sudan.

AFRECS was founded in 2005 as a network of Episcopal dioceses and Episcopalians interested in supporting Anglicans in Sudan and now South Sudan. After leaving his position at EMM in 2009, Parkins joined AFRECS as executive director.

“We realized what a wonderful asset he would be,” the Rev. Richard Jones, a founding AFRECS board member, told ENS in an interview. Parkins brought a knowledge of the Sudanese crisis and deep connections within The Episcopal Church to AFRECS, Jones said, but Parkins also endeared himself to those around him with his personality. “Always courteous, always respectful of people’s positions and dignity and opinion. He had a good mind for asking big questions.”

Sudan split into two countries after a 2011 referendum, forming the new nation of South Sudan. In a 2012 article, Parkins warned that Christians to the north in Sudan feared persecution from those who believed in a strict form of Islam. Famine in South Sudan was an ever-present threat.

“Even when results are slow in coming or may seem to produce modest results, advocacy must be viewed as a means of extending ourselves as faithful Christians to those who need to know that they are not alone and not abandoned in their quest for justice and peace,” Parkins wrote. “Advocacy is a way of expressing solidarity and accompaniment with those who desperately need it.”

South Sudan devolved into a brutal civil conflict in 2013. Today, an estimated 4.3 million people have been displaced from their homes in South Sudan amid violence and deteriorating living conditions, according to the United Nations. Seven million people in South Sudan face acute food shortages and “conditions that are equivalent to a famine.”

Randle said in his message to the South Sudanese task force that Parkins’ condition had been improving at a rehab center. He was to be taken home Aug. 27 but instead was brought to the emergency room at Sibley Memorial Hospital and later entered hospice care. South Sudan Archbishop Justin Badi Arama was able to visit Parkins and prayed with him for nearly an hour.

“I believe it meant a great deal to him, as did the visits from his many friends,” Randle said, adding that Parkins received prayers from American and South Sudanese participants in an AFRECS conference that was underway last week in Alexandria, Virginia, where the organization is based.

“His work for over a decade for AFRECS showed what a big difference one talented and dedicated Christian can make for peace, for the relief of many thousands, and for the hope of an entire province of the church when hope has often been in very short supply,” Randle said.

Parkins lived in Washington and was a parishioner at St. Alban’s Church, where he was active with the congregation’s global mission group and its support of schools in Jordan and South Sudan, according to the Rev. Jim Quigley, associate rector.

A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. on Sept. 21 at St. Alban’s.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at