Seventy members and friends of Unity Presbyterian Church in Denver, North Carolina, gathered on October 8 to hear the International Peacemaker Achol Majok Kur Kier (Achol for short) share stories about working for peace and justice in South Sudan.
Achol was one of sixteen International Peacemakers that the Presbyterian Church (USA) brought to the United States in 2017 to engage with Presbyterian peacemaking churches around the country, such as Unity Presbyterian Church, located some thirty miles north of Charlotte in Denver.
Achol reviewed the history of South Sudan, which was a part of Sudan until achieving independence in 2011 after the longest civil war in Africa’s history. South Sudanese fought for independence because the North treated them as second-class citizens and sought to exploit their rich mineral deposits. There were religious differences as well. Northerners were predominately Muslim, while southerners were largely Christian. Christians did not want Muslim culture and practices to penetrate and dictate their own way of life.
Three years following independence, a civil war broke out in South Sudan. The president and the vice president of the country declared war on each other, a war essentially over power and control that is still raging. This manmade situation has turned the country into chaos and caused destruction, famine, heavy refugee resettlement, widespread human rights abuses, and resulting trauma. There is no end in sight.
In her talk, Achol asked, “Why am I a Peacemaker?”
This is what I heard her say:
I am a Peacemaker because I am a Christian, a mother, a teacher, and a woman.
I am a Peacemaker because I am a Christian.
I follow Jesus who said, “Peace be with you,” who told us about “Heaven on Earth” and taught us to love each other and not to kill.
As a follower of Jesus, I cannot kill, and I cannot support anyone who does. God is Love. Jesus is Love.
Powerful men have armies and fight against each other, killing anyone who is in their way, anyone who does not support them. Young boys are recruited and given guns. Sometimes the rifle is as tall as the boy. They are not trained. Their leaders are evil – only interested in increasing their control and power. They wind up being killers on the loose. The leaders do not care about the people. They only want power. Their thoughts, words, and actions are just the opposite of what Jesus teaches us.
Years of killing, raping, and stealing have scared the people. They have left their homes and moved into refugee camps in the surrounding nations as well as UN-sponsored camps in South Sudan.
Most of these people are farmers, but they are too frightened to work the soil. Therefore, there is not enough food to go around. No food because farmers are not farming. The food in the refugee camps is basic and rationed. Babies born in the camps do not get the food and proper health care needed.
Many families are without a father or a son. They were forced into one army or another. No one knows whether their husbands, their brothers, their sons … are alive or dead.
Most of the people of South Sudan are Christian. They have a strong faith. They pray and worship God in the open. We have no church buildings in the camps. The people are the church, not the buildings. We appreciate the support we receive from PC(USA) and from the Presbyterian missionaries who live in South Sudan. My faith in Jesus, first of all, is why I serve as a Peacemaker
I am Peacemaker because I am a mother.
I am a mother to the child living in the refugee camp — away from home, afraid, uncertain about who he or she is and what will be the future. I must give each of these children Love. I am a mother to the child in the street, to those in the gutter. They have no home, no longer any family. They roam the streets looking for food and anything else they can steal in order to survive. They are street kids. Who cares about them? I do. I am a mother. We do. All mothers care. All mothers love children
I am a Peacemaker because I am a teacher.
I work in ‘displaced persons camps’ with members of the Presbyterian Church in South Sudan. These camps are safer places to live for most people and congregations. We create simple classrooms, find people who are teachers or who can serve as teachers. We provide simple materials. We try to give the children – and their parents – hope and strength to carry on.
Without education, there is no hope for the future. How can our society survive if people are uneducated? School systems have been torn apart. Yet, we work to organize teaching groups for all ages – but especially the children. You cannot know how bad the situation is. Killing and fear have caused villages to empty. Our churches have scattered memberships because so many people have relocated to the camps. We are doing our best to keep hope alive through education
I am a Peacemaker because I am a woman.
In the Bible, it is women who usually took the first, brave steps toward peace, who were brave enough to visit the tomb of Jesus. Throughout the Bible, who always reached out with Love? Who accepted God’s will with blessing and fulfillment? Who always had faith in a better world to come? The Mary’s. Women work at making peace – always! Men sometimes make war.
Achol described the process she and her co-workers use to achieve peace and reconciliation. This is what I heard:
First, we work with them and get them to acknowledge their pain and anger that exists within. It is real. We do not pretend it doesn’t exist or stifle it. We get them to express it. To cry out. We do this with both sides of those who, for whatever reason, are enemies. After they have fully expressed their pain and anger, we bring the two sides together. We help them express to each other the pain and anger they feel and why. Once they have achieved that – and it may take a lot of time before this is accomplished with civility – we ask if they are followers of Jesus. If they say yes, we ask them to express genuine forgiveness. ‘Can you forgive the one(s) who have wronged you, just as God has forgiven all of us for our sins through Jesus Christ on the cross? If you cannot, then you must not be a true follower of Jesus.’ It often takes a person a long time to struggle with this conflict. But we keep after them, and finally many see the light and change their attitude and behavior. That, then, is peace and reconciliation. That is peacemaking. That is healing the trauma brought upon people through the atrocities of war.
Someone asked, “Who trained you in this peace and reconciliation process?”
No one, Achol said. We did not have time or any available resources for such training. I just applied the bits of psychology I learned while studying to become a teacher at the university. I kept whatever worked.
Achol was asked to discuss the tribal customs she defied in order to progress as a happy, educated person in her personal life. Here is a paraphrasing of her words:
In South Sudan, there are over 50 tribes, each with their own set of beliefs and customs. I am a Dinka. In our tribe, when a girl is born in a family, the parents immediately think about the wealth she will bring. When a girl reaches the age of 13 or 14, she will be married off. Her parents will make an arrangement with another family who has a man seeking a bride. In exchange for the girl, the family will receive a number of cows as dowry. Cows are a tangible form of wealth. Sometimes, a bidding war will take place. The girl will go to the family who bids the highest number of cows. This has nothing to do with love. It’s just the way things have been done for centuries. The girl is a pawn.
But I would not go along with this. I knew if I gave in, my life would be like being in prison. I had seen what kind of life my mother had. I said I would not accept this arrangement and instead would continue to go to school. I would go to the university to become a teacher. I was stubborn. My family was angry. Everyone in the village turned against me. They called me names. They said I was ‘spoiled’ and worse – a ‘bad girl.’ I now had a bad reputation. No one would want to marry me.
I didn’t care.
I went to the university because I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to help other girls get an education and be able to have the freedom to choose in their lives. I wanted to pave the way so that other girls will follow me and get educations also. This is the only way our society will improve and progress. Otherwise, we will stay ‘stuck.’
While at the University of Juba, I met my future husband. He was from the Nuer tribe. He is the love of my life. He graduated from the same university as I did, but in the field of finance, a few years earlier than me. We married and are happy. We have two children, a boy and a girl. They are now studying in the UK. They want to return to South Sudan after graduation. I asked them, ‘What good will be your education if no one else in South Sudan is educated? It will be meaningless.’
Yet, they, and we all, must continue the struggle for education for all – including especially girls and women. But the struggle is so difficult because so much of the population has been uprooted and moved into the camps. We must stop the senseless war fighting. We are a country with good soil and many valuable natural resources. We must rebuild our nation with a strong education system.
Every bad thing in South Sudan is manmade. The leaders fight, but not for the benefit of the people. They fight for personal power and control. The wars give rise to displacement in society. The farmers cannot till their lands. Food is scarce. Malnutrition and famine are real. Families are torn apart. Widowed women now head families; husbands and sons have been lost to the civil war. Women must find food and survival somehow. Tribal customs prevent women from pursuing education, from having freedom to choose. They are longtime victims, but we are changing that. More and more girls are following on my path.
Achol made several observations about the United States to me afterward at my prompting. “You visited several churches and communities in western Pennsylvania and western North Carolina. What struck you?”
I enjoyed meeting so many warm, friendly, and God-centered people during my visit. The hospitality always was genuinely welcoming. The churches in the Pittsburgh area were very knowledgeable about South Sudan. They support us. I know many of those people well. They are friends. In North Carolina, I made many new friends. Most people there didn’t know much about South Sudan, but were willing to learn.
One thing that greatly impressed Achol was an experience at one stop in a village in North Carolina:
My hostess did not lock the door to the house when leaving it. She and her husband felt safe. She was not worried. That so impressed me because I live in fear every day in South Sudan. We never know when soldiers might arrive and do damage. It is not uncommon for ordinary citizens to be shot, sometimes purposely; sometimes randomly, accidentally. All doors must be locked to protect belongings as well as self. I would love to live in a place in South Sudan one day that was as peaceful as that village in North Carolina.
Achol also noted that in South Sudan, and other parts of Africa, hundreds of people gather to worship and pray. They do so outside because there either are no church buildings or buildings are too small or in disrepair.
Still, the people come. They are the church. While in the United States, I was amazed at how many large, beautiful church buildings there are, but surprisingly the buildings are not filled with people. The buildings are not the church, the people are. I think Presbyterians in the U.S. need to get more creative and figure out how to fill the churches.
Achol’s audience of seventy people at Unity Presbyterian Church gave her a rare, standing ovation following her presentation. She left an enduring positive impact on God’s gift of Peacemaking there – and undoubtedly everywhere she visited.
Written by Unity’s elder for mission, Jay Sloan.