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South Sudan meets the Bluegrass in Peacemaker’s journey


African social worker one of 10 International Peacemakers visiting around the United States

By Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Presbyterian International Peacemaker Lucy Awate Dabi and her son Raphael on the campus of Mt. Horeb Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Rich Copley)

PRESBYTERY OF TRANSYLVANIA, Kentucky — Lucy Awate Dabi stands resplendent in an emerald green dress in a church social hall in the heart of Kentucky’s horse country talking about her home of South Sudan.

While enjoying pimento cheese sandwiches, salad, potato chips and other staples of a Southern after-church luncheon, members of Lexington’s Mt. Horeb Presbyterian Church listen to Dabi talk about the daily challenges she faces, including an ongoing civil war that keeps people trapped in their villages, a growing population of children who are orphans, and infectious diseases that tear through communities. As the conversation turns to questions, people ask her about schools in the country, the huge refugee camps nearby and the role of churches.

“Right now, many people who are displaced take refuge in churches,” Dabi says. “Church is the only place where people can talk about what they are feeling.”

In churches more than 7,000 miles from home, Dabi has found a place to talk about her own experiences working with RECONCILE International, an organization striving for peace in South Sudan through trauma healing, accountable governance and social transformation. Dabi has been a psychosocial counselor with the organization since 2007.

That work brought Dabi and her 22-month-old son Raphael to the United States as one of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program’s International Peacemakers.

From mid-September through early October, 10 people involved in Peacemaking work around the world fanned out across the United States to share their experiences with church, community and educational groups. Dabi’s visit to the Presbytery of Transylvania, which comprises Central and Eastern Kentucky, came in the middle of a journey that took her to the Presbytery of Detroit in Michigan Presbytery of Northumberland in Pennsylvania, and wound up in the Presbytery of Geneva in New York.

“We need a global perspective on what’s going on,” said the Rev. Philip Lotspeich, General Presbyter of the Presbytery of Transylvania. “Peacemakers are committed to addressing problems that are far deeper than ours.”

And they can talk about the role the PC(USA) plays in that work.

Presbyterian International Peacemaker Lucy Awate Dabi talked to members of Mt. Horeb Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky as the Rev. Rachel Anderson looked on at an after-church luncheon on Sept. 29. (Photo by Rich Copley)

After the Rev. Rachel Anderson, pastor at Mt. Horeb and Mission Specialist for the Peacemaking Program, gets Dabi situated with a wireless microphone, Dabi gives the sermon at Mt. Horeb, a historic church where, during the passing of the peace, everybody greets one other.

In the sermon she talks about salt and light, saying the Presbyterian Church has been salt and light in South Sudan, “allowing me to be salt and light.” At most stops, she mentions working with the Rev. Nancy Smith-Mather, a PC(USA) and RCA Mission Co-Worker who is the South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project Manager.

The visit to the Presbytery of Transylvania took Dabi and Raphael from the heart of Lexington, Kentucky’s second-largest city, to the Appalachian Mountain town of Pikeville.

Making friends 

“He’s a crackerjack,” former Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton exclaimed, watching Raphael make his way up and down the steps of a lecture hall at the University of Pikeville, where Patton is the Chancellor.

While Dabi relays the story of her country and work in her soft voice, Raphael is hopping in people’s laps, watching his face transform in students’ photo apps, dancing to “Sesame Street” songs on their wireless headphones and tugging at people to take him outside to play.

University of Pikeville freshman Sarah McCoy keeps Raphael entertained while his mother, Presbyterian International Peacemaker Lucy Awate Dabi, speaks to a convocation at the university on Oct. 1. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“At first I thought, ‘How will I manage with him?’” Dabi says. “But I was surprised to see him getting along with everyone.”

As worship begins at Mt. Horeb, Raphael goes up to the piano, adding a few unexpected bass notes to pianist Beth Scherfee’s prelude. Quickly, church member Mikal Shafer is bouncing the boy on her knee, keeping him quiet until it’s time to go the nursery. There are, it seems, church members with the skills to occupy 22-month-olds everywhere.

Dabi comes with a laptop and presentation, telling group after group about the divisions that keep people in conflict and the daily realities of war in South Sudan, including negotiating with militias just five miles outside of town to let families go to their farms for food. One chilling image in her presentation shows children playing with makeshift toy guns.

“All they know is war,” Dabi says to a Wednesday morning Kerygma class at Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church in downtown Lexington. “When you see the future, you think, where is this country going? When young children are being taught about violence, it is hard to see what is the future.”

And that is what she is trying to keep her own children from. Raphael is the youngest of Dabi’s four sons, and she also cares for six orphans. All except Raphael are at boarding school in Uganda, which allowed Dabi to make the nearly month-long trip to the United States. Dabi believes keeping the boys in school and completing their education is the best way to keep them from being drawn into South Sudan’s violence.

Her story, too 

It is one of the reminders that while Dabi sometimes seems to be an observer of the situation in South Sudan, she is living and has lived it, including being separated from her parents for two years, starting when she was 5, and living in a refugee camp with another family.

“It’s an honor to see people from far away who live such different lives and see how we can make a connection,” said Mt. Horeb member Dan Smith who, with his wife Georgette Smith, spent a day with Dabi and Raphael, taking them to attractions including the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

The Rev. Rob Musick, Chaplain and Religion Instructor at the University of Pikeville, says, “It is so great the Peacemaking Program does this, because we couldn’t afford to bring in a speaker like Lucy ourselves. That the church has paid the expenses to bring them here makes this possible, and it is a wonderful experience for our students.”

University of Pikeville Chaplain the Rev. Rob Musick gives Raphael a UPike bear and T-shirt before his mother, Presbyterian International Peacemaker Lucy Awate Dabi, speaks for a convocation on Oct. 1. (Photo by Rich Copley)

In Pikeville, Dabi spoke to several classes at the university, including a New Testament class where Musick challenged students to share something they learned about South Sudan on social media, to help raise awareness of the issues there. She also visited prisoners in Eastern Kentucky and the next day went to Maysville, just southeast of Cincinnati, Ohio, before departing for New York.

Learning from each other 

At Maxwell Street, during a Wednesday-evening dinner, Associate Pastor the Rev. Rachel Vankirk Matthews invites some younger students to talk to Dabi before she gives her talk to an adult group. The middle school students bring a different perspective, asking about boarding school life, sports, and what sorts of musical instruments are popular in South Sudan.

University of Kentucky student Tessa Tyo lets Raphael, son of Presbyterian International Peacemaker Lucy Awate Dabi, listen to “Sesame Street” music on her wireless headphones. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Later, in a discussion moderated by the church’s Senior Pastor, the Rev. Matt Falco, Dabi says that her mother has urged her to leave South Sudan. But, she says, she feels called to the work through the church, which maintains a neutral position in the conflict.

Asked what has struck her about the United States, she immediately goes to the relationship between men and women.

“I was surprised how well men and women work together,” she says. In South Sudan, “Women are mostly marginalized, and men are the ones dominating everything.”

Presbyterian International Peacemaker Lucy Awate Dabi speaks to a convocation at the University of Pikeville on Oct. 1. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“If we want to change our society as women, we need to put our effort into action by doing good things, so they will see what we are doing. Then they come to us,” she said. “We can encourage and involve these women in things that can bring peace and development so that the men can see what is accomplished without arguing, without fighting, but through actions.”

She saw that cooperative relationship in Marie Polley-Thitu and her husband Nikolas Thitu, who spent a day with Dabi and Raphael with their daughter Mirabehn, who is around Raphael’s age.

At Mt. Horeb on Sunday morning, Mirabehn and Raphael continue to play like they have been in the same Sunday school class since birth, holding hands, running, and laughing together.

Polley-Thitu says, “I hope generations of Christians coming up will keep that spirit.”

Note: Writer and photographer Rich Copley is a member of Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky.

The International Peacemaking Program is made possible by your gifts to the Peace & Global Witness Offering.

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