It’s April 17,. 2012 and the rain pours down creating an impassable sea of mud and washing out the runway at the small airport in the Republic of South Sudan’s Pibor County in Jonglei State. Reverend James Baak is stranded with few supplies and no way back to the capital city of Juba. It’s an unfitting end to the Pibor Peacebuilding Conference, led by African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM), but then again, so is the report published just hours earlier by the Wall Street Journal that Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has threatened to invade the capital of South Sudan and topple its government. In the days ahead as Baak, a country director and a trainer with ALARM, remains trapped in the region, South Sudan will be bombed and fighting will escalate along the contentious border region between Sudan and South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan in July 2011 becoming the world’s newest country. A few days later, on April 23, James Copnall with The Guardian UK reports on the bombing of a market in Benetiu. “Several shops were destroyed and one man was mutilated almost beyond recognition. The burned body of the boy lay flat on his back near the centre of the blast site, a hand clutching at the sky,” he writes.
It might all seem hopeless to prevent the violence, the fighting, the madness that has ravaged Sudan and what is now South Sudan for decades. The genocide in Darfur killed as many as 400,000 and displaced millions and seemingly endless tribal conflicts between hundreds of tribes have exacted a harsh toll on humanity as well. Children are kidnapped, women are raped, babies are brutally murdered and people are burned alive. And now war – another war. Where is one to even begin?
But ALARM begins by asking this: Are you Sudanese? Are you a Southerner? Or are you a Christian? In 1994, ALARM’s founder, president and CEO, Celestin Musekura dared to ask, “Are you Tutsi? Are you Hutu? Or are you a Christian?” in the midst and in aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. When Musekura, a Rwandan by birth, saw the state of the Church after the genocide, he knew he couldn’t walk away from the spiritually wounded who were drowning in a sea of their own unforgiveness. “In Rwanda (during the genocide), it wasn’t Muslims killing Christians. It was often people who sat in the same church pews for years who were killing each other. In some cases, pastors were even involved in the killing turning over their own congregation members. And it’s really because they couldn’t move from tribal Christianity to Biblical Christianity. They identified with their tribe first rather than as a follower of Christ,” says Musekura, an ordained Baptist minister whose doctoral research focuses on contemporary models of forgiveness.
Musekura could see this failure to uphold Biblical principles of peace and reconciliation was deeply rooted in a shallow faith. “In some countries where we work, up to 94% of pastors in rural areas have never been to Bible college and have never been discipled,” says Musekura. “Some don’t even have access to a full Bible. Over the years, missionaries were bound on making converts and church planting, but we have to look at how to make those converts into disciples of Christ.”
ALARM is an African-led and African-based organization that focuses on equipping servant leaders. The organization has trained about 9,000 leaders across east and central Africa in biblical theology, conflict resolution, forgiveness, mediation, leadership skills and reconciliation. Many of the countries it serves have endured decades of war, tribal conflict, genocide and political turmoil, but its leaders and supporters have not be deterred, and they certainly will not shrink back from continuing to push for peace and reconciliation in Sudan and South Sudan.
Thomas Taban, an ALARM-trained pastor in south Sudan, says he knows all too well how a strong Biblical grounding can transform a leader. “ALARM changed my life, because they invested in me and trained, developed and empowered me,” says Taban. “I know now that God uses the common people to change the world. And through my church, we’re developing programs for women and children, and we’re teaching people the Scriptures. I am preaching the Bible, standing by the Word of the Lord and bringing the message that love and peace must be restored.”
ALARM has realized precedent-setting successes in countries such as Burundi, where in 2005, the government partnered with ALARM to train community leaders and church leaders as well as Burundi’s police and army officers. Through the training, ALARM helped unite the police force even though the government had brought together nine different rebel groups to make one national army and one police force. Musekura says that one of the commanders told him having members of rebel groups working together, carrying weapons was “a ticking time bomb” before ALARM began it’s work. Now members of the police force are working alongside each other in peace and unity thanks to ALARM’s training, and neighbouring Rwanda has asked ALARM to provide similar training there after seeing the success.
The idea that ALARM is African-led is instrumental in its model and will continue to be in Sudan and South Sudan as tensions and conflicts continue to escalate. “Most of the time, people come to help us, but then when war breaks out or it gets too dangerous, they leave. But this is precisely the time we need honest, accountable, servant leaders to step forward and lead,” says Musekura. Leaders such a Baak, who himself is a former “lost boy” who fled Sudan as a child during the war, are doing exactly that despite the enormous challenges not only as the result of conflict but also as the result of displaced “southerners” who have been forced to leave Sudan. Some reports estimate there are still about 500,000 South Sudanese still in Sudan despite an April 8 deadline for South Sudanese to leave Sudan after their citizenship was stripped. “Displaced people are traumatized with nowhere to go, and conflict is breaking out everywhere,” says Baak as he sits trapped in Pibor County uncertain of what the next hours and days may bring. “The church leadership here is often weak and needs Biblical foundations, and that is what we are doing community by community and village by village.” He says the largely Christian southern Sudan has “at long last been freed from under Islamic control” and it is an incredible opportunity. “We are free to share our faith and to grow as a church,” says Baak. “The Western world can be involved – our American brothers and sisters – by helping us empower the local church to lead in love and peace just as Christ tells us to lead by serving others. There can be peace and stability and a strong, self-sustaining church in Southern Sudan. Our God makes all things possible.”