At the invitation of Bishop Elijah Matueny Awet, a team from MAF and the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan led a peace and reconciliation workshop with delegates from five local parishes in Rumbek
‘There is a word in our language for forgiveness,’ Bishop Elijah explains, ‘but it is dying out.’ All eyes are turned to the broad-shouldered bishop across the dinner table. In a feedback session earlier, one of the ladies had shared something she’d learned. ‘Instead of taking revenge, I should rather be a coward!’
The significance of these simple words might easily get lost in translation, so Kristi repeats them back as a question. ‘In your culture, forgiving makes you a coward?’
According to the Bishop, it’s a lesson that most learn at their mother’s knee. If a child hits a sibling, they are told, ‘Don’t cry, go and hit your brother back!’ If you don’t, you’ll be labelled a coward. Poverty makes hard choices inevitable in a country where most have experienced war and one in 10 children won’t live until their fifth birthday.
Cattle economy and revenge attacks
The lottery continues as children grow up. If you have three sons, you send one to the cattle camp and the other two to school. Groups of young boys spend long months away from home looking after the family’s herd. Cows are your family’s status, bank account, and marriage prospects and protecting your family's interests means learning to fight.
Reports of raids list the head of cattle stolen and the number of injured and dead. ‘Cattle raiding is very common,’ the Bishop confirms. ‘Just yesterday, they burned a house,’ he says. 'They didn’t get the men, there were only women home so they burnt all the grain harvest instead.’
‘What was the motive?’ someone asks. ‘Revenge… All that remains now is revenge,’ the Bishop replies soberly. ‘What the person did last year, we have to revenge this year. Now, two, three, four years later. There can be a boy, whose father was killed while he was small, maybe just five years old. When he becomes big, he will say “now, I have to take revenge on the man who killed my father.” So after five or six or seven years, when people are forgetting what happened, the revenge takes place.’
Mustard seed of hope
Earlier that day, a lone boy had come forward and knelt before two other youths. In a powerful act he asked for forgiveness, on behalf of his village. A week earlier, the boy’s chief had been killed by youths from the other village in a targeted attack. The killing was revenge for an attack in December 2019 that had claimed 72 lives.
The boys present weren’t the ones responsible for the attacks, but for the Bishop, this small act offers a glimmer of hope. ‘The confession that they’ve done on behalf of the tribe, this shows that they have actually understood something!’ the Bishop had said earlier. ‘It has touched something that will grow. It will become easy when it is repeated and when people practise it in their churches. They will grow when people will come alive and get used to doing it to solve problems.’
Diagnosing trauma and care in a crisis
The cavernous church seats hundreds. Joyful worship brings the last few stragglers hurrying from outside for a session on trauma. The teaching highlights the difference between physical and emotional injury, and visible and invisible wounds. If left untreated both type of injuries can result in excruciating pain. Only once they're cleaned and tended to, can the wounds begin to heal.
Traumas happen in a crisis. A crisis is an event. Events are temporary; eventually they pass. Except some people get stuck, replaying events in their heads, spiralling into behaviours that hurt others including violence, anger, addiction and deteriorating mental health. Peoples’ lived experiences put flesh on the bones of definitions projected onto the PowerPoint slides and people describe road traffic accidents, natural disasters and horrific war violence.
One lady shared how she fled the outbreak of violence in Juba in 2016. As government and opposition forces clashed - she alternately hid and fled. For another lady, it is the death of her late husband in 1986 during the Second Sudanese War, that still haunts her three decades later. She tells how he was shot and died in her arms. A third lady tells of an ambush on the road where she fell unconscious from the blast of an exploding mine as a man was blown up in front of her. Some stories are detailed, others unspeakable headlines.
The Bishop highlights the teaching on the Trinity and the relationship between God and man. ‘This is the hard part of the teaching for most of the people to understand,’ he says.
The workshop starts with this foundational theology because, without a good God, whose purpose in creation is good, people have nothing to anchor their hope. Hopelessness steals individual agency. Wrong thinking erodes the Gospel’s power. Shaky foundations lead to communities with cracks - inside and outside the church.
The workshop was developed in Rwanda by people with first-hand experience of the dark days of genocide. Therein lies its strength. Without denying the existence of hell on earth or minimizing pain, the teaching empowers people to seek answers for themselves through principles that are so steadfastly hopeful, that they lead many to the redemptive heart of God.
Beauty for ashes
Candles burn down to the bare sand floor where beautifully patterned footprints criss-cross the aisles. In the heat of the afternoon, participants bend over scraps of paper before placing them, one by one, they place them in a basket in front of the cross. The basket is carried outside with flip chart pages, titled 'Things We Have Lost.’
In the bright sunshine the drummers lead the procession into a circle around the cross. Prayers are said as a fire is lit and the papers turn to ash.
Afterwards, a handful of pink flowers are scattered on the burnt out embers to symbolise the promises of Isaiah 61:3: All who mourn in Zion will be given a crown of beauty for ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
The exercise is a turning point for one lady who, the following day, said she slept better during the night having brought her troubles to the cross. ‘I sleep without thinking. I have no more bad dreams,’ she said.
Two possible paths
The final day is where teaching about releasing pain meets the reality of what forgiveness entails. Dramas illustrate how the journey towards healing and forgiveness has many winding detours though bitterness, selfishness, anger and grief.
One scene plays out in the shadow of the doorway. A tall figure in white robes carrying a cross in one hand waits patiently. Corina plays the part of the stubborn sinner refusing to let go of her pain as the minutes tick by.
‘You should forgive!’ someone calls out. ‘Show mercy!’ another interjects. ‘Give up your rights for the sake of community to stay peaceful,’ another chimes in, ‘resolve a problem and give and receive forgiveness before the community!’ More and more, the answers seem to be about strengthening community and working for the common good.
One of the facilitators kneels before the assembly and asks for forgiveness for crimes, including slavery, perpetrated in the name of empire and trade. She is introducing the idea of corporate confession, the necessity of acknowledging the bitter legacies that still shape society today.
Her action encourages others who come forward in ones and twos to acknowledge wrongs of the groups they are part of. Attitudes towards different ethnic groups are confessed and repented.
The Bishop tells how this exercise inspires him personally. ‘The teaching of confession and prayer – that will be a starting point to us,’ he says.
The King’s table
The final celebration takes place around the King’s table where plates of sweet treats make an abundant centrepiece. Each person places a simple paper crown on their neighbour’s head representing the unity of a nation who stand together before the throne of God. There are smiles as people check their reflections on their phones.
After the communal meal, groups share a song or dance from their area and are celebrated and blessed by their peers. Everyone receives a certificates, and finally the workshop is finished - even if the real work has yet to begin.
More than good intentions
How will the Bishop takes things from here? ‘You repeat it!’ he says emphatically pointing to the pastors who've been studiously taking notes. They will be the ones to carry the message to churches they lead.
Bishop Elijah himself will spend the next two months visiting the rural parishes within his diocese bumping along on the back of a boda boda motorbike to encourage his flock.
The point of the workshops is to start a conversation that will eventually change how people think. ‘It will become easy when it is repeated and when people go and practise it in their churches,’ the Bishop reflects. ‘They will grow and then people will come alive and get used to doing it to solve problems.’
The rebalancing of a fragile equilibrium will happen in this glorious melting pot of communities as people let the Kingdom break in.