Coming together for South to South mission and ministry

Creating reconciliation and healing from Rwanda to South Sudan

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

The campus of the Protestant Institute of Arts and Social Sciences in Butare, Rwanda, prominently displays a memorial to those killed during the 1994 genocide. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

LOUISVILLE — “Your story is our story.”

That’s what a group of visitors from global partners Nile Theological College (NTC) and RECONCILE (Resource Centre for Civil Leadership) in South Sudan, told members of the staff at Protestant Institute of Arts and Social Sciences (PIASS) when they visited Rwanda recently. Rwanda has just marked the 25th anniversary of the 1994 genocide that killed more than 800,000 Tutsi at the hands of the majority Hutu population.

Since South Sudan’s birth as a nation in 2011, over 50,000 people have been killed, more than 1.9 million have been internally displaced and 1.8 million have fled the country. Although a peace treaty has been signed, it’s a fragile peace.

Two mission co-workers, colleagues and partners recently traveled to the PIASS campus in Butare, Rwanda from South Sudan. Rev. Bob Rice is an instructor at NTC, teaching a broad range of theological courses. He was joined by Rev. Santino Odong, principal of NTC; Rev. Oman Amun, an assistant lecturer; and Peter Ayul, NTC’s librarian.

Mission co-worker the Rev. Shelvis Smith-Mather, principal of the RECONCILE Peace Institute (RPI) in Yei, South Sudan, was joined by colleague Geri Moses. RECONCILE is a Christian organization that seeks to bring peace and healing to communities broken and hurting from decades of war. RPI’s three-month institute gathers faith and community leaders from around South Sudan to strengthen their skills in resolving conflicts and recovering from trauma.

Dr. Elisée Musemakweli is joined by Kay Day, a mission co-worker serving in Rwanda. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

The idea was born two years ago, when Presbyterian World Mission hosted a meeting for all its mission co-workers in Africa. Dr. Elisée Musemakweli spoke to the group, which included Rice and Smith-Mather.

“After Dr. Elisée’s talk, Shelvis had the brilliant idea of gathering mission personnel serving in South Sudan with Dr. Elisée and other Rwandan colleagues to dig deeper into the Rwanda experience to learn lessons which can be helpful in our context of war and violence in South Sudan,” said Rice.

In 1994, the church leadership made an urgent call to Dr. Musemakweli, who was working on his doctoral studies in Belgium, to return to Rwanda and lead the efforts to restructure the school’s programming after the Dean and his family were massacred, four students were killed on the campus and the library was looted. PIASS was forced to confront difficult theological question after the genocide.

The new program he initiated focused on teaching theology to people traumatized by war and the ensuing genocide and how to address the question of evil in relationship to God’s sovereignty, justice and goodness.

“This landmark and transformative course, ‘The Rwanda Seminar,’ was part of a fast-track program, with the aim of graduating pastors as quickly as possible so they could be available to come alongside a suffering population,” said Rice.

Most recently they have created a Department of Peace and Conflict Studies to continue addressing the pain and divisions in Rwanda.

“Hearing how the Rwandans had suffered and their ongoing struggle to recover gave us hope that we too can rise up from the ashes of devastation and destruction in South Sudan and its continued conflicts, divisions, struggles and tragedies,” Rice said.

In addition to the faculty at PIASS, the South Sudan contingent met with 14 women, seven genocide survivors and seven wives of genocide perpetrators, who have joined to help one another work together in micro-businesses and develop a story of reconciliation and love.

The group that visited Rwanda is growing and hopes to become a strong coalition of reconciliation well beyond South Sudan. They were joined by mission co-worker Kay Day, who teaches at PIASS.

“We come from different churches and organizations, and our vision has been to promote this work within our churches, but also to cooperate and promote an ecumenical effort. We are an informal group of people with a common passion. We want to be faithful to work within the priorities and interests of our own churches, but we also want this message to reach a wider audience and promote cooperation. PC(USA)’s church partner, the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, has been active in supporting the work of reconciliation,” said Rice.

“Together we are creating a vision for the future, and what our role could be in promoting healing and peace.”

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