A letter from Shelvis Smith-Mather in South Sudan
Jesus’ praying to God for his disciples: “The glory that you have given me, I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22-23).
Two churches stand a stone’s throw away from one another, on the same road, their doors facing the same large field, in the same small town in Ohio. While visiting the church on the left, for their mission fair, the story of the two churches surfaced in our presence, a story shared with hurt and disappointment. Not long ago, still fresh in the memories of the older church members, these two churches were one church. Disagreement divided the congregation, and the unresolved conflict gave birth to the second church. The people chose which driveway they would enter each Sunday, yet they can easily glance aside to see familiar faces in the other parking lot. The visual of the two tall steeples on the mostly barren rural road symbolized to me a situation all too common in churches, families, and communities in the United States, and around the world: we struggle to resolve conflict.
Conflict itself is not bad. On the contrary, differing opinions on a matter can be healthy. Unfortunately, many Americans, myself included, grow up without mastering the important skill of resolving disagreements openly and honestly. Fortunately, some people mediate conflict with wisdom, confidence and patience. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to learn from my colleagues at RECONCILE who possess this unique ability and use it to transform communities in South Sudan.
Recently I listened to a group of alumni from the RECONCILE Peace Institute (RPI) talk about the ways the training at RPI changed their lives. The words of an elementary schoolteacher named Leek Goi Peter remain fresh in my mind: “Before I came here to RECONCILE, I was just knowing only the solving of problems was (giving) orders; whether you like or you don’t like. Because when we were in the bush (during the time of the civil war), sometimes you have rights or you don’t have rights, but if they say it is ‘Kalas’ (‘finished’ in Arabic), then that one is over. But what I have realized is, that was not a real way of solving the problem, and that is why many problems repeat themselves. But when I came to RPI, I have learned a lot, and I have seen, starting from myself, I have really reformed. At the level of my family, I used to force things to my wife, whether she like or not. I was even telling her, ‘You must do that,’ while she was not willing. And when I came here I realized that things can happen through talk, so you agree. Up to now, since I left RECONCILE, up to this day I am sitting here, I have not quarreled with my wife. When I see problems I call her and say that there is a problem, and we talk until we come to agreement, we come to one point. So this is one thing I have learned from RECONCILE.”
Leek went on to express a sentiment about engaging conflict that I can relate to: “Before I came here,” he said, “when there was a problem; I don’t want to be involved.” The fear of conflict is familiar to me, yet he went on to say with confidence: “But when I came here I realized that I know how to solve the problem...even if people are saying there is a problem here, I cannot fear, because I can go. I can go because I know how to solve that problem. First of all you find the root cause, then you go to (each) party, you talk to them, you go one by one, until it has come a time when they agree that they are going to meet. So, I have seen that is very important…When I solve that problem, the two parties see that it is a win-win solution, so nobody is saying that ‘I am a loser,’ and nobody is saying that ‘I am a winner.’…I brought (together) one man and his wife who were living scattered, they were quarreling, and then I tried, and they are together now.…I became well known now in my community, because when there is any problem, I come, and then I solve that problem.”
In addition to Leek’s testimony of helping create peaceful homes, two other RPI alumni shared with me about mediating church conflicts in their communities. “I am a Presbyterian evangelist in Akobo County,” said Peter Biel Mot, a 2009 RPI graduate. “A year ago a church had a problem, and they divided into two. Some leaders from our community called me to help with the problem. I did not say that either side was wrong, but I helped people come back and reconcile themselves. Now they are one people, working in one congregation, and they were two a year ago. Now I know the way to approach and solve a problem in the community.” Another RPI alumni, Moa Ojullo Aballa, described a similar experience: “One day there was a disagreement in the Lutheran church, and the church divided. They looked for someone to reconcile them, and they brought (together) me, one of the members of Parliament, and pastors. They reconciled, and now they are one church. I was able to do this because of the knowledge from RPI.”
Leek, Peter, and Moa come from different ethnic groups in Jonglei State in South Sudan, a place presently suffering from great inter-ethnic conflict. The skills they learned at RECONCILE are critical for them in their family lives, their churches, and the larger society. Their work is not easy, yet it is essential for the healing of a nation wounded by years of civil war and division. As we serve alongside Leek, Peter and Moa we gain a clearer understanding of how to address the challenges of conflict in this country and our own. Please join us in praying for unity in families, the church, and neighboring communities in South Sudan and in the United States.
“Lord of all Creation, help us not to fear our differences. Give us a desire to listen to and seek to understand one another; next door and across the ocean. When emotions, memories and varied experiences pull us apart, may the love of Christ and power of Your Holy Spirit draw us together, that You may be seen in our midst. Amen."
Shelvis and Nancy
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 94
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