WATERLOO | Five decades of civil war. A brief moment of unity at the new nation’s Independence Day. Then, another civil war.
This is the history and the reality the people of South Sudan, which gained its independence from Sudan in 2011, have been living. Packing a world of suffering into the word, The Rev. Samuel Enosa Peni describes the people of South Sudan as having gone through “trauma.”
Peni, the bishop of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan’s Nzara Diocese, has the unenviable task -- as do many faith leaders in the war-torn country -- of trying to offer a place of peace and healing.
It’s made all the more difficult because the faith leaders are living that same reality as the people they’re trying to help. Peni’s family, for example, have almost all moved to neighboring Uganda while the bishop continues work as the chairman for a justice, peace and reconciliation commission.
“We have been affected in one way or another. We are traumatized by the way, and because we are traumatized, we cannot help people who are equally traumatized if you are not healed, so we want to get healed as leaders so that we can be able to help others,” Peni said during a recent stop in Waterloo.
Peni, who studied in at seminaries in Dubuque, returned to Iowa this week to share the stories of what’s happening in South Sudan and meet with congregations that have supported the people there to thank them for their past gifts.
Peni said one of the ways faith leaders have sought to heal is by holding a retreat with leaders in nearby country Rwanda that endured a genocide in 1994 but has since emerged from that trauma as a developing nation with a democracy in place. He said it took 10 months to organize the retreat but it has given some insights to the nearly 100 attendees on how to move forward in South Sudan.
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He said there were conversations about forgiveness, overcoming a desire for revenge and how to bring different groups together. South Sudan, Peni said, is currently struggling with a desire for retribution and also regional, tribal and denominational differences that make it hard to bring everyone to the table.
Still, his commission is trying and has found some success in getting the groups talking, but he acknowledges the process will take time.
“The challenge which we also ask is Christianity, we have all these Christians, and on Sundays, they come to our churches, they are full always … (so) why is it that our Christian values is not seen within?” Peni said.
Though he said church leaders sometimes describe African Christianity as being a mile wide and an inch deep, Peni also stresses that the displacement, the violence and trauma have not stopped people from going to church and taking solace in the scripture.
Peni said the Nzara county that he oversees, there are about 8,000 residents and about half are Episcopalian.
“You despair. You lose hope, but what brings courage to us is we have to depend and trust God’s timing. We have to trust God’s will for us. We have to trust in his power to bring peace,” Peni said.