As representatives of the ELCA journey to South Sudan to break ground for a Lutheran Center in Juba, they join representatives who are already witnessing to hope of peace and reconciliation in a war-torn area. Of those working in South Sudan is Bishop Samuel Peni, bishop of the Nzara Diocese in the Episcopalian Church of South Sudan (ECS). As a part of his travel to the U.S, Bishop Peni joined Wartburg students and faculty on Nov. 2 during a luncheon sponsored by the Center for Global Theologies to share his perspective on the intersection of the ECS and the current situation of South Sudan. A 2009 graduate of Wartburg Theological Seminary, he noted that his study here helped enhance his ability to live out his call in the ECS. While at Wartburg, he knew full well that he would be returning to a country ravaged by violence. But what he did not know, however, is that the level and character of the violence in South Sudan would change in the time that he was studying in the U.S.
As Bishop Peni spoke of continued dissension and conflict in his home country, he continually returned to themes of power, religion and tribal differences. Though Sudan has a long history of violence resulting from various power struggles, the region has most recently been negatively affected by two civil wars. Following a brief period of peace after the first civil war, the second civil war began after President of the Republic of Sudan, Gaafar Nimeiry, declared Sudan an Islamic state in 1983. The civil war continued until 2005 when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in Nairobi. Though this document was signed, Bishop Peni attested to the continued violence even after 2005. By July 2011, South Sudan declared its independence from the Republic of Sudan.
However, since South Sudan gained its independence, conflict surrounding the availability of oil resources and tribal differences has continued. During the civil war, the Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army/Movement committed violence against many villages in an attempt to disarm rebellions. As a result, inter-ethnic fighting has intensified. Bishop Peni spoke to this reality, noting that people often look at each other first in light of their tribal association.
In an attempt to help foster an environment of peace and reconciliation among tribes, Bishop Peni helped organize leaders of different church bodies to work together against the effects of continued violence and discrimination in their country. He took this group of leaders to Rwanda where they learned about the effects of the Rwandan genocide and how Rwanda has healed from its past and embraced new beginnings. From there, these leaders engaged in conversation and training, helping them embrace a future of peace and reconciliation in South Sudan.
Now, Bishop Peni notes that he, along with other church leaders, are integral in the effort to unite tribes and influence government on the county and state levels. Bishop Peni explained that while the church’s connection with legislative bodies has changed over time, that he and other church leaders have been invited to offer prayer at government meetings. In doing this, Peni stated that this gives him – and other church leaders – an opportunity to state their voice in the midst of discussion.
As the church continues its work in South Sudan, Bishop Peni stressed the need for theological education of church leaders, asking numerous times for students, pastors and professors to come to South Sudan to teach. He spoke very highly of his education at both Wartburg Theological Seminary and of his short time at the University of Dubuque Theology Seminary and stated that the future of the ECS is intrinsically related to its continued education. Additionally, he stressed the ECS’s continued role in systems of government to advocate for peace and reconciliation. Finally, Peni noted that the ECS has a good working relationship with the Catholic Church, helping to foster more relationships in pursuit of peace. With a connection of both education and work for justice, Peni witnessed to a hope for a new day in South Sudan.
As Bishop Peni continues his work, he noted that he must often consider his and his family’s safety. He noted that often needs to sleep in different homes throughout the journey of a trip in South Sudan to protect himself. He spoke of how his bodyguards protect him so that he can continue to do his work, and he shared that his family is temporarily living in Uganda based on the volatile situation in South Sudan. But even in light of this, Peni spoke with hope concerning his work and the work of the ECS. He openly asked for prayer and for people to learn the story of the Sudanese, imploring us to embrace a vision of peace and reconciliation for all peoples as a part of God’s good creation. As people united in Christ, we join Bishop Peni’s quest for peace and give voice to the continued story of struggle in South Sudan.