Pastor Damascene was one of many local church leaders facing deep-rooted divisions and strife in his war-torn community.
Brutal conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo had split his people down tribal lines—and caused rifts in the Church.
Healing and reconciliation was desperately needed. But how?
In February, Damascene and 110 of his fellow Congolese pastors—from different tribal and denominational backgrounds—got together to talk peace.
They weren’t sure what to expect. Some of them had taken sides during the conflict—and now they were sitting on the same pew as their rivals.
The pastors began talking through issues that had divided them for a long time. By the end of the session, they were not only talking to each other—they were making plans. They agreed to work together across tribal and denominational lines to hold evangelistic meetings, build homes for widows and visit the sick in their communities.
That same week, Pastor Damascene’s congregation experienced healing and reconciliation. “I was able to help many people, using the conflict resolution teachings we learned,” he says. “They went home reconciled … praising the Lord.”
Almost overnight, a new spirit of unity had come to Masisi, Congo. “People are no longer clinging to their tribes, their denominations or their places of origin,” one pastor remarked.
In the Congo—where conflict has claimed more than 5 million lives in the past decade—the Church is today the biggest hope for peace and reconciliation.
A Fragile Peace
In many regions of Africa, a fragile peace hangs in the balance, but local churches, like those in the Congo, have become a peacemaking force. The Church’s peacemaking role is vital at this critical time when several conflict-torn African nations—including Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya and Sudan—are on the brink of national elections. Passion builds as Election Day nears, creating a volatile atmosphere.
It’s a time of unease and uncertainty for many in Africa. But many are looking to the Church for the solution. Why? Because throughout Africa, churches have a strong voice in their communities—a voice that many people listen to. And many believe the Church can achieve what the politicians find so elusive—a framework for reconciliation and lasting peace.
At this pivotal moment in Africa’s history, churches are grasping the full meaning of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount—“Blessed are the peacemakers.”
The Church Leads the Way
In June and July, Burundi will hold its second national elections since a brutal 12-year civil war claimed an estimated 300,000 lives, ravaging the country’s social fabric.
“This is a crucial time in the history of Burundi,” said Josephat Ngaira, Country Director for World Relief, a humanitarian agency working with local churches in many global hotspots.
As the vote approaches, the Church in Burundi is committed to averting crisis, taking the initiative to promote peaceful elections. The newly formed National Church Peace Initiative is a group of church leaders committed to harmony. “Pastors will not campaign or influence their congregations toward a particular political party or in a divisive way,” explained Ngaira, “but will instead encourage their congregations to pray, to vote responsibly and to be Christ-like examples in their communities.”
At a recent peace building conference, Ngaira challenged local church leaders. “Here in Burundi, 80 percent of the population claims to be Christian,” he pointed out. “If church leaders and the Church itself can embrace peace and unity, it can sway the entire population towards a peaceful election.”
In neighboring Rwanda, presidential elections are scheduled for August.
“The Church here has unique peace initiatives,” said Phil Smith of World Relief in Kigali. “We’re on the steering committee of As We Forgive, a film curriculum that promotes peace, and we’re also helping in the effort to train pastors in reconciliation.”
As a result of peace building efforts, Rwandan pastors have come together across denominational and tribal lines—and many genocide survivors have come to a point of forgiving those who killed their family members.
Meanwhile, Kenya’s next elections are set for 2012, but already there are fears that the nation faces a leadership crisis.
Memories of past election turmoil are still vivid. In 2008, Kenya experienced horrific post-election violence that left 1,300 people dead and uprooted more than 300,000.
Afterwards, Kenya’s church leaders formed the National Alliance of Churches, sharing the vision that their churches must heal the post-election trauma and reconcile neighbors.
To empower the Church to act, a consortium of aid organizations launched the Hope for Kenya Forum along with a curriculum, Seek Peace, based on Psalm 34:14—“Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”
Kenyan churches helped produce a peace building video, Grave Errors: Stories from the Post-Election Violence.
“Many communities have experienced war and conflict, leaving people devastated physically, psychologically, emotionally and socially,” said Lucy Njoroge, a relief worker in Nairobi and one of the authors of Seek Peace. “Healing and reconciliation require a deliberate choice—and those who choose the path of healing and forgiveness find hope. It’s our conviction that communities can find peace and healing when grassroots church and community leaders are empowered to respond effectively.”
The Global Church Answers the Call
Churches across Africa are building a movement of peace. And, worldwide, churches are answering the call of Jesus to be peacemakers—coming alongside African congregations and their communities to build the framework for long-lasting peace and reconciliation.
This is truly the global Church at work, doing what Jesus called His Church to do.
Fellowship Missionary Church in Fort Wayne, Ind., partners with World Relief in the Congo, strengthening peace building efforts throughout war-torn North Kivu Province.
“For me, peace building is the calling and responsibility of the Church,” said Joe Johns, the church’s Director of Missional Living, “to stand in those areas where it looks like anything but what the Kingdom should look like. It’s the practical outworking of the hope of resurrection, that things could be different.”
Julian Lukins is a writer with World Relief.