By Jesse Zink, writing for ACNS
Samuel Enosa Peni, bishop of the Diocese of Nzara in the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, is the deputy chairman of an interfaith group of religious leaders from South Sudan, Uganda, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The group, led by the Catholic archbishop of Kinsangani in the DRC, is working to end the violence caused by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
For Peni, the threat posed by the LRA is real. When he became bishop in 2010, thirty-three of his parishes—a quarter of the total—were closed after people fled their rural villages because of violence caused by the LRA. The LRA came into existence in the late 1980s as part of a civil war in northern Uganda, but has since transformed into a rebel army with a reputation for particular brutality.
Shortly after Peni moved to Nzara from nearby Yambio to become bishop, the LRA killed two families in a village close to Nzara. Peni remembers hearing the news in his new home. With the diocesan secretary, he decided to go to where the bodies were being kept, and where many people had begun to gather. As he got out of the car, he remembers, “I could hear people whispering, ‘Oh, he is the new bishop.’ The secretary motioned the people to stop wailing and listen. Then I had to give a message of encouragement, of comfort. I had to cry with them.” Since that time, he has had success in encouraging people to return to their villages and resume their lives of subsistence agriculture. This, in turn, lessens their dependence on international assistance.
In recent years, the combined pressure of the Ugandan military and a recent deployment of American armed forces has pushed the LRA out of South Sudan and into CAR. It is the regional nature of the threat that brought religious leaders together. Peni recalls that they were driven by a single question: “Why don’t we meet and find a way in which all of us as a regional body can speak to our governments and speak to the international community to find a way in which this can be solved?” A coup in CAR in 2013 has caused widespread instability, leading to fears that the LRA may regroup there.
In the fall of 2012, Peni and other leaders were in Washington, D.C. for meetings on Capitol Hill and at the State Department and Pentagon to press for continued American involvement in the region. Peni has a similar trip planned this autumn to lobby European Union officials in Brussels. Repeated peace talks with the LRA have not produced a solution. Peni and other religious leaders support continued military action to maintain pressure on the LRA’s leaders. If the military forces leave, Peni says, “they are going to give [the LRA] room, like has happened in the past, to continue to reorganize [itself] and continue to do the atrocities.”
The international advocacy work is matched by a community-level healing program in the diocese. Peni and other trained facilitators lead trauma healing programs in communities that have been affected by the violence. Participants are encouraged to share their experience of suffering as a way to deal with the emotional legacy of the violence. “We are not a big organization to offer things like relief aid to them,” Peni says. “We can’t do that. But we can do the spiritual counseling.” The ultimate goal, he says, is to reach a point in which people in the diocese can forgive the LRA and begin to move past the experience of trauma to a more productive future.
A particular focus of the workshops is women, who have been especially affected by the violence. Peni says that it can be a challenge, at first: “Sometimes even women don’t bring out all the things that they experienced with the LRA in the bush—the way they were kidnapped, the way they were treated, the way they were abused, all those things.” But female facilitators bring together women from different communities to share stories of their suffering: “When they share this and get to meet, they say, ‘Oh, I am not the only one who has gone through this. So and so from a different part of the county has gone through the same thing. If they have gone through it and they are surviving, then we can move on.’”
Peni notes that, aside from the church, civil society organizations are weak in South Sudan. He supports the government’s effort for peace, but says the church must be involved as well: “When there is no peace, that means we can’t have Christians in the church, that means we can’t have prayers going on.” For the church to be involved in peace efforts—at both the international and local levels—is simply what it means to be the church: “The role of the church is to advocate for a peaceful environment, a peaceful community. Where there is hatred, where there is fighting, our role as the church is to go there and make peace.”
Jesse Zink is the author of Backpacking Through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity.