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Birth of a Nation

With American evangelicals on the ground in South Sudan.

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By ARMIN ROSEN
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Samaritan’s Purse is a relief NGO, but the group is in South Sudan also to help heal Christian communities wounded during decades of war. “Pastors were taken out and killed simply because they were pastors,” says Levins. “They came and took people out of Christian communities and tried to indoctrinate them, and still they held onto Christianity to the point of death. It’s something that gives them hope. It sustains them.” 

Graham’s NGO is cosmopolitan in a sense that the polarized American discourse on the evangelical movement would have a difficult time processing. The organization employs conservative American Protestants, but also liberal Catholics, Ethiopian Orthodox, and people of no particular faith. In the Yida refugee camp, many of the local staff, and the majority of the beneficiaries, are Muslims fleeing Sudan. The group’s outlook is global rather than parochial, and it uses Christianity as a basis for engaging with the wider world​—​traits that run against much American stereotyping of evangelicals.

The organization does traditional relief work in Northern Bahr el-Gazal, a chronically undeveloped state with a population of 720,000 along the northwestern border with Sudan and one of the fiercest battlegrounds during the civil war. Shelly Slemp, the base operations manager in Northern Bahr el-Gazal, grew up in Virginia’s rural southwestern corner, and earned a spot on Princeton’s women’s basketball team. Five years after graduation, she oversees a staff of 180 in a desolate, isolated place that very few Americans have heard of. For her, the work is still spiritually centered, even if there’s nothing overtly religious about drilling boreholes or organizing farming coops. “One of the first distinguishing features is that we’re a Christian NGO that focuses on physical and spiritual assistance,” she says. 

Samaritan’s Purse also engages in activities of a more straightforwardly Christian character. It runs a program that uses the Bible to teach reading, an imperative in a country with a 27 percent literacy rate. “There are three generations that didn’t go to school because of the war, and there isn’t much more schooling here even after the war,” says James Dhol, the local head of the literacy program in the border village of Gok-Machar. “Now, people are able to read the Bible.” Many students are older adults, which Dhol attributes to a post independence change in attitude. “When you are free, you can do what you like, and your freedom will also encourage you.”

The organization’s most visible mark on Northern Bahr el-Gazal is its church rebuilding program. Over 500 churches were destroyed during the war, as part of Khartoum’s deliberate strategy to fracture and demoralize the civilian population. Samaritan’s Purse has helped rebuild 498 of them. Their sloping, tin roofs tower over the flat landscape, marking villages of scattered, single-story thatched huts. Even an hour from the state’s only highway, a church rebuilt with the group’s assistance is a common sight.

In Northern Bahr el-Gazal, a church brings together poor and geographically scattered communities of cattle herders and subsistence farmers. “When there is no church, people are divided according to clan, and there’s lots of fighting,” says James Garang (no relation to John Garang), a church leader in the market town of Akuem. “Church is the only place where people can agree, and act like brothers and sisters.” According to James Wol, a former SPLA guerrilla who runs the church-sponsored school in Akuem, the crowd for Sunday services often outnumbers the population of the town itself.

Sudanese forces destroyed Akuem’s church five times in 15 years; each time, the people of Akuem knew how important it was to rebuild it. “When the enemy came to burn our church, we’d wait for them to go back to town,” says Wol. The Sudanese military would withdraw, and the people of Akuem would begin building their church again. “It never stopped,” Wol says. “Jesus said that whoever follows me will be persecuted. But when you are persecuted, you must still be happy.”

Bahr el-Gazal has seen its share of persecution, with little happiness to temper it. Over 250,000 people died from famine there in the 1990s alone. Since the war ended, more than 350,000 refugees have returned to South Sudan, resettling an area with no large-scale farming or infrastructure, ephemeral water resources, and almost no government services. Fears about the possible collapse of the peace process, along with the Sudanese government’s negligence, kept development stagnant​—​and tensions high​—​during the postwar period. The anxiety hasn’t completely gone yet. 

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