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A letter from Nancy Smith-Mather in South Sudan

September 2012

Are You Safe?

When I mention to those I encounter in the U.S., “I live in South Sudan,” I often hear in response a question: “Are you safe there?”  While I deeply appreciate the care for my well-being attached to the question, I am honestly not yet sure how to answer.  My hesitancy in responding does not stem from a lack of clarity about the “dangers” of living in South Sudan, but from an acknowledgement of the relativity of “safety” and from a personal struggle with the power and privilege attached to the opportunity to be “safe.”

Are you safe? “Safety,” for many of my concerned friends, family members, and for myself, is to a large extent a matter of choice. The choice, however, is not one shared by all people, not even by everyone in my home country.

RECONCILE Peace Institute students acting out a role play of violence in Jonglei State, South Sudan

To make a comparison, I feel safer in South Sudan than many Americans in low-income neighborhoods feel in the U.S.  I am often safer in South Sudan than those at home who live in communities in which police are slow to respond, in which moving out of the area is not a viable economic option, in which children are not free to play hide-and-seek outside as I did growing up.

When I was teaching at a school for immigrant and refugee students in Atlanta, I visited the home of an eighth grade student who had been absent from class.  David, a student with great potential, formidable challenges confronting him, and a contagious kindness in his nature, lived in an area with high gang violence. He was absent from school because he was beaten up by a gang in his neighborhood.  David explained to me that while he had not yet joined a gang, he was the only boy in his apartment complex not to do so. 

According to the police officer who educated our staff about common gangs in the area, the gangs in David’s neighborhood were the type in which boys were initiated into them through physical violence and girls through sexual violence.  Once initiated, however, the group committed to protecting each member.  David was at a crossroads and had to make a choice about his personal safety.  Joining a gang provided a certain level of security within his community; however, it brought a different kind of danger into his life.  He did not feel safe in his neighborhood and was very limited in his ability to create safety for himself. 

Rev. Shelvis Smith-Mather with the RPI graduates who are ready to build peace in their communities

Years later, while in seminary, I spent a summer leading Bible study with a group of elderly African-American women living in downtown Atlanta near the Braves’ stadium.  The program for the women involved picking up the members of the group from their homes, bringing them to the community center for activities, studying the Bible, and sharing lunch together.  For many of the women the gathering was a much-needed opportunity for social interaction since living home alone in high-crime neighborhoods created a feeling of isolation.  One morning I remember spending a significant amount of time in Ms. Dunny’s home.  She needed help finding her keys.  The number of locks lining the frame of her door, accompanied by the story she shared of a recent break-in, clearly indicated her living conditions were “unsafe.”  She, like many of the other women in the group, would like to live in a neighborhood with lower crime, but such a move remains out of reach.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Amartya Sen defines poverty as a lack of “freedom” to make decisions that control one’s life.  Perhaps my difficulty in answering the question: “Do I feel safe living in South Sudan?” is connected to an awareness of my “freedom,” as a European-American with economic means, to create a safer environment for myself.  A privilege many Americans and people around the world lack.  

Within my town in Yei, South Sudan, I am significantly safer than the average Southern Sudanese community member.  Unlike the majority of people in my town, I live on a compound surrounded by a fence and guarded by a watchman.  I have access to vehicles for transport and connections that allow me to leave the country quickly in a time of emergency. 

Are you safe?  Complicating the question further, my Christian faith is based on a leader who did not seem particularly concerned about his personal safety.  Time and again Jesus put Himself in danger.  He taught messages in public places that those in power did not want to hear.  He recognized when his actions incited anger for breaking religious laws, yet he healed on the Sabbath anyway.  I do not think He sought out danger, but it seems He accepted the risks that came with fulfilling the tasks of His ministry, a ministry that included sharing a message of peace, nonviolence and reconciliation.

I actually do feel safe in Yei, South Sudan. I live in a town considered stable and calm, in a country that is generally not.  As I hear stories of violence and tragedy in surrounding areas, I feel guilty about my relative safety and acute knowledge of the suffering nearby.  I don’t know if it is useful to feel guilty, but I do feel it is useful to work to allow others to access the privileges I enjoy, such as the opportunity to live in a peaceful atmosphere. 

My hope is that, with God’s guidance, the peace-building ministry in which my husband and I work will create a greater sense of safety for all Southern Sudanese. With God’s help, a nonviolent environment is possible for South Sudan, for high-crime neighborhoods in America, and for conflict-ridden places around the world.  With God’s inspiration, let us strive together to encourage peace in every nation, in every neighborhood, and in every home.


The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 94

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