Holding Out for Justice

The wintry winds gusting between the buildings of downtown Oklahoma City got pretty dangerous last week. Sometimes they picked up tables, or caused bloody lips by hurdling dry erase boards through the air. Let’s just say this wasn’t the ideal place to try and end the longest running war in Africa.

Yet, the sleeping-bag-and-pillow pile kept growing. The stream of supplies and food never stopped. Someone from a new state joined us almost every day.

So what were we doing?

Many of you are probably aware of the situation in Northern Uganda and Central East Africa. For the past 23 years, a madman named Joseph Kony has been leading a reign of terror across the region, systematically wiping out villages and kidnapping children to fight as soldiers in his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).The stories are horrific. Children forced to kill their parents, forced to rape their siblings or be killed. Children robbed of all human dignity. Children whose stories kept us going.

In recent years, a massive movement has grown across the world calling for an end to this war, and our cries for justice have reached the halls of power in Washington, D.C.

Last spring, a bipartisan bill came before Congress called the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. This bill, the most significant attempt by the U.S. Congress to generate international leadership on this issue in the past 23 years, would mandate the Obama administration to develop and lead a viable regional strategy to stop LRA violence and  assist in the recovery of the war affected region. The bill authorizes $40 million for emergency relief aid and transitional justice and reconciliation programs.

In December of last year, the bill was passed unanimously by the Senate Foreign Relations committee and was put before the Senate under a fast-track process called unanimous consent. The bill has historic support in both the Senate and the House. It is the most co-sponsored bill on a Sub-saharan African issue in modern congressional history. Yet it had us living on the streets of Oklahoma City, because though 99 senators supported the bill’s passage under unanimous consent, one man was standing in the way.

That man was Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn (R).

Dr. Coburn was single-handedly blocking this legislation because it authorized new spending that was not accounted for in the budget process. Our group agreed with his principles, but compromises we put on the table that would uphold his principles were rejected.

The time came to take action. A campaign was organized by Resolve Uganda, in partnership with Invisible Children. We pledged to “holdout” outside of Dr. Coburn’s Oklahoma City office until he released his hold on the bill.

On Friday, Feb. 26, the Oklahoma Holdout began. What happened in the next 12 days was beautiful.

We were conservatives and liberals, believers and non-believers. We were sky-diving instructors, middle school teachers, theology students, IHOP  waiters and international NGO founders. We had  jobs, or quit them to be here. We were college students, high schoolers, business professionals and everything in between. We came from literally all over America.We came and took a stand for justice, and did not back down.

We were deliberate to never make it an anti-Coburn campaign, but a “Dr. Coburn, work with us” campaign. We went in knowing Dr. Coburn is a committed man of faith, and we believed he wanted this bill to pass. So we sacrificed our comfort to show him the urgency of this issue.

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It’s easy to hear our story and imagine a bunch of disheveled hippies standing outside a corporate office building and protesting “The Man.” I mean, we were asking one of the most conservative and strictly principled men in Washington to listen to kids sleeping outside of his local office. Logically, we were destined to be written off instantly as too crazy to be taken seriously. Instead, we were embraced as so passionate and committed that we had to be taken seriously.

We won over the city by loving it, and in the process saw the city fall in love with us. We were usually labeled protesters by the media, but were nowhere near your average protester. We held signs that said “Coburn Say Yes” and “Rescue Joseph Kony’s Child Soldiers,” but that is all we were doing that resembled a protest. We smiled and waved, wishing people a great morning or evening, and telling them jokes. By making them have every reason to love us, we brought them around to support our cause as well. We only told them why we were there and handed out explanations when they approached us and asked.

When we called a press conference on the side of the street, three TV stations and a newspaper turned up. A group of faith leaders who couldn’t be with us started a liquids-only “Mercy Fast” until a compromise was reached. We were winning over hearts and minds on the streets of Oklahoma City, and seeing it trickle up into the places of power.

At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, March 9, I was tired and nervous. I had slept outside for 11 straight days, and our efforts had paid off. In a few hours we had a phone call directly with Senator Coburn to work out a compromise. As we sat thinking about how to convince a U.S. senator to change his stance, I got a surprise phone call from D.C. A compromise had already been reached and the senator was going to release his hold. The bill was going to pass.

We did something absolutely crazy, in love, and had a profound influence on U.S. foreign policy toward peace in Central Africa.

We are still trying to understand the weight of what happened here on an international scale. But personally, I saw a group of strangers fall in love with each other and this city. I saw God moving in hearts and minds and bringing about justice for His children. I saw a beautiful thing, and I can’t wait to see it happen again.

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