Greetings from Paul Jeffrey
8 April 2013
Dear friends in my supporting churches:
On the contested border between Sudan and the world’s newest country, South Sudan, lies the oil-rich region of Abyei. I just traveled there to document the dramatic conditions in which more than 100,000 people are still living after being chased out of their homes in 2011 by northern militias. I walked through empty villages of burned huts, and amid the ashes found blackened teapots, melted shoes, charred bedframes. People had fled hurriedly with nothing but the clothes on their backs, running south to Agok, where they set up temporary shelters and received emergency food from the United Nations. Were it not for the heavy rain that bogged down the tanks and heavy artillery of the northerners, Agok might have turned into a killing ground as well. While the northerners eventually pulled back, and Ethiopian troops moved in to try and keep a peace that doesn’t exist, most of those who fled remain in Agok, waiting for an opportunity to return home. The African Union has proposed a new referendum on Abyei’s future for October, but the government in Khartoum has rejected it, just as they rejected an earlier referendum that would have given the people of Abyei the right to choose whether their territory would remain as part of Sudan or become part of South Sudan.
I spent a week in Agok, sleeping in a tent, eating meals with the two Catholic priests assigned to Abyei. It's a depressing place these days, both the empty burned villages and the crowded camp for the displaced in Agok. Yet a note of hope I heard from many people was a deep appreciation for the accompaniment that the church had provided throughout the entire ordeal. The church remained in Abyei til the last. One of the Catholic priests had to cover his car with mud to disguise it from the north’s Antonov bombers in the sky, and every day he helped bury those killed by the northern militias as they closed in on Abyei town. One day he helped bury 70 people. When Abyei finally fell to the north, the church was displaced as well. “God ran with us,” said one old woman as she told me about their flight to Agok.
In recent months, a small number of the displaced have begun to return to their villages. Yet the wide array of non-governmental organizations and U.N. agencies that normally accompany such a return are not going with them, largely because they don’t want to provoke the ire of the government in Khartoum, which would then deny them access to Darfur and other regions of the country. So the residents of Abyei are on their own. Except for the church, which is accompanying the people by reopening clinics that were looted and burned, training teachers for schools that they hope will soon reopen, and digging wells to replace the water sources that were destroyed by the northern fighters before they pulled back. “Wherever the people go, we’ll go with them,” another priest told me.
I came away from Abyei frightened about the future of the people crammed into their makeshift tents in Agok, waiting to go home. Yet I was also inspired to see the church standing with them, providing resources and training and pastoral care. The international community may be ignoring the crisis in Abyei, as well as related conflicts in the neighboring Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile areas, but the church is there, fleshing out the Gospel amid those who are hungry and thirsty.
From Abyei I went briefly to Kenya to observe the elections, then traveled on to Liberia, where I documented the work of the church working with young men and women who as children were traumatized by that country’s bloody civil wars. As I watched United Methodist missionary Frido Kinolenge work with former child soldiers, providing both vocational training and a healing spiritual accompaniment, I saw broken lives on the mend. As I watched United Methodist Women of Liberia help poor rural women to farm collectively, many of them having suffered sexual abuse during the wars, I saw victims slowly becoming survivors. I witnessed young women of the United Methodist Church organizing to stop the practice of “sex for grades” that has become the custom in many university classes in Monrovia. And I spent a couple of days with Lutheran activists who are using a creative variety of tools, including street theater, to educate people about the continuing crisis of HIV and AIDS. Much of their work involves helping people to understand that it’s just a disease, and that the ravages of stigma and discrimination are often worse than the actual disease.
The trip lasted four weeks in all, and I came home in time for Easter, when we celebrate God’s triumph of life over death. I also celebrate being part of a universal church that faithfully “runs with” the people, providing accompaniment to the poor as they fight to survive violence and hunger. I give thanks for a faith community that rolls back the stone on war and injustice in order to proclaim with word and water and health care and training and, when all else fails, simply with its presence, that Christ is indeed risen. Thanks for making possible my opportunity to be a witness to this Easter blessing which is happening in so many forgotten corners of the world. - Paul