Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Radical Empathy

Recently I had a conversation with a family member about empathy. What does it mean to be empathic to others? Is empathy a natural gift or a skill we develop? When I lived in Rwanda, one of the greatest services the visiting short-term church teams performed was sitting quietly and humbly listening, giving space for widows and others to share their stories. In the midst of our current racial reckoning in America, as a means of becoming more empathic to the challenges faced by communities of color, a colleague recently recommended listening to the voices of persons of color, to not just read their autobiography or memoir, but to listen to them speak for themselves their own life story (via audio book).

Back in June, while we were living in an apartment lent to us by a church acquaintance, one of the regular highlights for me was listening to Trevor Noah describe growing up in Apartheid South Africa in his memoir, Born a Crime. Noah describes what it means to be “colored” or mixed-race, but not fitting into any of racial categories because of his particular social location. Noah candidly describes a life of poverty, living on the margins, the challenges women like his mother face in their culture, a life of robbery and thuggery which many blacks are forced into because of poverty, and the challenges faced in the Homelands because of State-Sanctioned White Supremacy. Noah looks back on his formative years with a compassionate lens, describing for the listener the countless injustices he and his mother and his community faced. Noah astutely compares the Apartheid and racist South Africa of his youth with that of the United States of America, where he now lives. Listening to Noah, at times I found myself laughing, but other times I found myself crying.  I experienced a mixture of tears and joy with Noah's poignant and dramatic conclusion. 

Earlier this year while we were still in South Sudan before being requested by our mission leadership to return to the United States, Kristi listened to former First Lady Michelle Obama speak her life story in her memoir, Becoming. Without partisan loyalty, Kristi simply wanted to hear Obama’s story. I remember seeing Kristi in the kitchen or in the bedroom with her headphones on, laughing, or perhaps, on the verge of tears. Obama gave firsthand account of the pressures of being married to the most powerful man in the world and what it meant to be a black woman thrust into the spotlight. Mrs. Obama described also growing up on the South Side of Chicago, her family witnessing the travesty of real estate agents lying about home values and manipulating their clients, exacerbating “white flight” and the devolution of her neighborhood. 

In August, Kristi and I listened separately to When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, the life story of Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter organization. Khan-Colors describes growing up “between poverty and police” in Van Nuys, California. Khan-Cullors describes how her mother worked three jobs to barely support their family, how her father figures were “missing in action” due to their jobs being taken away and because of the “War on Crime” and mass incarceration, how her brothers were harassed by the police from their early teens, and how her bi-polar brother Monte was deemed a terrorist for a minor traffic accident and beaten senseless and tortured by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. Sitting on the shores of a lake in Central Illinois with my headphones on, I wept as I listened to the sad account of her father Gabriel’s substance abuse and early death. While Khan-Cullors has been labelled a “terrorist” and worse, in listening to her share her story, it became abundantly clear to me that Khan-Cullors' life passion is simply seeking life, dignity, and freedom from injustice for all persons and communities. I wonder aloud with her, “Is that too much to ask?” 

Patrisse Khan-Cullors 
Last week Kristi and I finished listening to 12 Years a Slave, the firsthand account of Solomon Northup, a colored man born free in New York but kidnapped and sold into slavery in the deep South. His story is wonderfully narrated by Richard Allen. Less wonderful is Northup’s jarring depiction of chattel slavery as he experienced it on Bayou Bluff in Louisiana between 1841 and 1853. Most distressing was the scene of fellow slave Patsy, brutalized with no mercy by their master Epps. This scene, the culmination of other monstrous scenes, bespeaks the hideous nature of chattel slavery in the United States of America. Northup’s personal account and words directly challenge the uninitiated and naïve when it comes to the dark and pervasive realities of American chattel slavery. As history now tells us, the American public in the North  were overwrought by the depiction proffered by Northup and Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, two accounts which dramatically moved the country in the direction of the Abolitionists’ Cause. 

A colleague in mission cites the wisdom of an Asian proverb, “To hear is to forget, to see is to remember, but to feel is to understand.” May we ‘feel’ the pain of others, listening to their stories, and thus ‘understand’. In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, Isabel Wilkerson, acclaimed author of The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste, describes the need for “radical empathy.” Along with Wilkerson, I believe that this ‘radical empathy’ only comes when we hear the stories of others, have a more complete picture of our history, and are motivated to action, action which will create a more just and loving world. Amen.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Disasters upon disasters

 Last week there was severe flooding in several regions of South Sudan, particularly along the Nile River in Jonglei state and in the region of Pochalla in the east. In Pochalla, hundreds of homes were destroyed, crops were ruined, and thousands of people were displaced. Everything is underwater in the village, a central population center for hundreds of miles.

You can imagine how disruptive and scary this would be. In the U.S. we are learning more and more about disruption with the impacts of the Coronavirus coupled with natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, even a derecho that swept through the Midwest this week. So please join in praying for protection for people in South Sudan. Our colleague Rev. Philip Obang lamented this week as he shared the news that now they are facing floods, Coronavirus, desert locusts and regional, ethnic fighting. He particularly urged prayer for those who will not have food because of this flooding and the water-borne diseases (like cholera, typhoid, and malaria) that are sure to follow. 

Let us join together in interceding for our brothers and sisters in Christ in South Sudan, for provision of food, shelter, and health. God sees and knows the people in these desperate situations and can turn around what looks impossible to us. 

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam, 
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Psalm 46:1-3

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Bob's Dissertation Journey

Research Proposal Accepted

On Tuesday, July 14th, the Research Committee of the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology at Stellenbosch University in South Africa met to review my research proposal for a doctoral program. Dr. Retief Muller, my research advisor, was part of that meeting. Dr. Muller wrote me following the meeting later that day to inform me that things "went rather well." He said that members of the committee were "overall complimentary" of my proposal. They accepted my proposal with encouragement to make a few changes and improvements, including changing the title. I feel blessed to have reached this stage in my dissertation journey! Below is the title and the "abstract" (short introduction) which I would like to share with you.


Reconciling Worlds: A Critical Examination of the Social Interface of the Lifeworld of the Nilotic Peoples of Upper Nile, South Sudan, with the Lifeworld of White Euro-American Christianity


The Chollo people[1] of South Sudan describe God as like the wind or the air. God is ever present. God’s ongoing providential care finds expression in all of life. As an African mother would carry her child on her back, nurturing and cherishing that child, the Kiga people of Uganda describe God as Biheko, meaning “He carries everyone on his back” (Mbiti 1989).

While missionaries from Europe and North America made extraordinary sacrifices and accomplishments in Africa over the last two centuries, one African Christian scholar posits that “Missionaries came to Africa with the wrong diagnostics.”[2] Despite Black Africans being “notoriously religious,”[3] White Euro-American missionaries failed to meaningfully connect the rich cultural and religious history of African peoples with the Christian faith. Problematic was the idea that White European and North American “civilization” was inextricably linked with the Gospel; to become a Christian implied conformity to White Euro-American cultural values. As missionaries sought to “replicate” themselves in African converts, missionaries did not grasp the deep religious insights of African peoples (Bediako 1999: 234; Mbiti 1989: 56). Thus, this White Euro-American ethnocentrism led to a misguided theology of mission, a theology of mission which failed to perceive how God has manifested God’s Self in unique and specific ways to African peoples. As most White Euro-American missionaries failed to understand the universality of God’s presence among the peoples of the world, ethnocentrism is a significant factor in the story of Christianity in Africa (Bediako 1999: 236).

Seeking a path forward, Kwame Bediako and scores of concerned voices herald their conviction that for Christianity to be deeply rooted and intrinsic to African peoples, we must name this tragic legacy of mission and then meaningfully engage with the thought processes, religious histories, lived experience, and contemporary challenges of African peoples. We must foster deep and meaningful dialogue between African Religion and experience with the Christian faith. This research will assume a posture of listening and learning as we sit at the feet of South Sudanese sisters and brothers. Adopting a creation-centered theology,[4] this project seeks to understand how the Nilotic peoples of Upper Nile, South Sudan, connect their traditional religion and lived experience with the Gospel message and the Christian tradition. This research will utilize the Sociological-Anthropological Approach championed by Justin S. Ukpong, combining a sociological understanding of culture with anthropological factors, honoring the unity of African thought, that all of life is bound up together. Moreover, this research project will follow the trail set by Justin Ukpong, Emmanuel Katongole, and others concerned with the personal, the communal, and the social ramifications of life in God in Jesus Christ, particularly in terms of personal and communal identity formation and reconciliation with “the other.”

[1] Chollo is the true name of the tribe otherwise called “Shilluk,” a corrupted Arabic designation meaning “scars”
[2] Quotation from lunch conversation with Dr. Elisée Musemakweli, Vice Chancellor of the Protestant Institute of Arts and Social Sciences (PIASS) in Huye, Rwanda, in February 2019.
[3] A well-known quote from theologian John S. Mbiti (Mbiti 1989: 1)
[4] A creation-centered theology sees the world as sacramental, a place where God reveals God’s Self, assuming continuity between human experience and existence with the divine. This orientation stands in contradistinction to a “redemption-centered theology” which assumes culture and human experience need either complete transformation or total replacement…that the world is not a vehicle for the presence of God but that reality and creation distorts God’s reality and is in complete rebellion against it (Bevans 2002).

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

International School of Reconciliation in Rwanda workshop focuses on healing inner wounds

Entering retirement in 2019, Presbyterian elder Patricia “Pat” Petty Morse wondered where God would direct her to serve next.

Morse’s career as a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice included assessing the judicial systems of several countries, including Sierra Leone, to encourage U.S. support toward transparent and effective systems of justice. She actively served her church in many ways, such as participating for 10 years on an anti-racism team in National Capital Presbytery.

At the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Big Tent conference in Baltimore in August 2019, Morse attended a healing and reconciliation workshop describing trauma care being done by Presbyterian partners in Africa. She was moved by the testimonies of inner healing and forgiveness taking place in Rwanda, Congo and South Sudan. A training scheduled in Africa earlier this year felt like a unique opportunity to explore how God might want to use her.

In February, before the pandemic disrupted travel, Morse arrived for a three-week workshop at the International School of Reconciliation in Rwanda. She joined participants from 11 countries, including several people from South Sudan. The facilitators, representing five nationalities, walked with participants through its “Healing Hearts, Transforming Nations” workshop, which includes four main areas: understanding God’s heart of love, healing our inner wounds, repentance and forgiveness, and reconciliation.
The International School of Reconciliation practicum team. 
Courtesy of Patricia “Pat” Petty Morse

Morse reflected that healing our wounds helps to make us equal, as we realize that we are all broken and in need of healing. During the “cross workshop,” participants were encouraged to give their pain to Jesus, who took our sin and pain upon himself on the cross (Isaiah 53:4). Then they were encouraged to ask God to replace their pain with healing.
International School of Reconciliation participants 
lay a wreath at the Rwanda Genocide Memorial. 
Courtesy of Patricia “Pat” Petty Morse

The South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church sent four members to Rwanda for this training. Afterward, elder Romano Kuat shared, “My father was killed in 1983, when I was a child, so I am a victim of ethnic conflict. I prayed many times and said, ‘I forgive them, because they didn’t know what they were doing.’ But I didn’t really forgive in my heart.” He said the course helped him realize he was still harboring unforgiveness. It gave him the opportunity to acknowledge his pain, give it to Jesus and ask for healing.

“After 30 years, I am finally experiencing healing for my father’s death,” Kuat said. “And I realized that South Sudan is very similar to Rwanda. We can learn from them!”

“The session ‘Forgiving Is Not Forgetting’ was really powerful for me,” said Suzan Ajullu. “Because if someone hurts you, it is not easy to heal and forgive. It is not just a matter of saying ‘I’m healed.’ Now I’m experiencing some healing of the wounds that I had. I don’t have the dreams anymore or the fears that I was having before. I really experienced healing in Rwanda.”

Patricia “Pat” Petty Morse (center) rejoices with other International School of Reconciliation 
participants as they conclude the workshop with a Celebration of the Holy Nation. 
Courtesy of Patricia “Pat” Petty Morse 

The Rwanda training culminated in a practicum where participants facilitated a workshop alongside coaches and translators. Morse, Kuat and Ajullu were in a group facilitating a workshop in a rural area that included both perpetrators and survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Morse shared that part of her learning process was working collaboratively with people from several different cultures, appreciating each person’s perspectives and gifts.

Practicum group members work together to prepare to facilitate the practicum workshop. 
Photo by Joseph Nyamutera

Just before their practicum started, Rwanda banned all public gatherings and began restricting travel due to COVID-19. Participants scrambled to change flights and return to their home countries. Both in South Sudan and in the U.S., the past few months have revealed the inner wounds and ethnic tensions that plague people. Morse, Kuat, Ajullu and others are grateful for the healing experienced and the power of learning from one another. They said they are praying and looking forward to opportunities to organize future workshops to share the message of healing and hope with others.

This article, written by Kristi, comes from Presbyterian World Mission and can be found here:

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Remembering Refugees

The large church building held more than one thousand people, squeezed together on narrow wooden benches. There were five large choirs, and each sang enthusiastically, with impressive cohesion and choreography. There were also several pastors, as this congregation formed when several smaller congregations merged when they found themselves transplanted into the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp. We remember that first visit well – it was electrifying and moving to have so many people packed into the church building and also to know that despite their joyful worship, each of them had experienced significant trauma and upheaval. After the service, the church leaders led the way, weaving through the maze of white tents, to the home of pastor James. We sat together with some of the elders and pastors, listening and trying to understand a piece of their life. Deacons brought in large platters with heaping bowls of wal-wal, fish soup, lentils and kisra. We were amazed and humbled – this was the first congregation in Juba to feed us a meal after Sunday worship, and we knew that this hospitality was a sacrificial gift.

Pastor James shared that he is often called to help counsel people who are experiencing trauma or abuse in the camp. With so many people crowded into small spaces without good sanitation facilities or land for them to cultivate, over the course of years health, relationships, and work ethic begin to decline. The church is an important source of hope, connection, and strength, and perhaps this is one reason that the worship and prayers feel especially powerful in the camp. Many of the current residents fled to this camp near Juba in 2016 during a horrific period of attacks on the Nuer people. The situation in the city has improved, and many people leave the camp during the day for work or school, but do not yet feel safe enough to live outside the camp. The trauma and fear that they have experienced is significant, and we know that several conditions will have to be met for most of the people to be able to return to normal lives outside the camp. The years that this drags on, however, means that children are growing up inside the camp, and some of our colleagues have lamented that this means they are not learning the skills such as farming, building houses, or caring for cattle that they would be learning in their villages – which of course adds another set of challenges for the country in navigating a new way forward.

World Refugee Day is June 20. We encourage you to remember with us the incredible challenge of refugees around the world. South Sudan is a country with the largest refugee crisis in Africa, with more than 1.5 million people displaced from their homes within South Sudan and more than 2 million living temporarily in camps in neighboring countries. Most of these refugees have been in camps or displaced for nearly five years. Last year nearly 200,000 voluntarily returned home as prospects for peace in their regions improved. However, attempts to implement a new unity government in 2020 have been mired in controversy and led to further instability. In May and June of this year, inter-tribal violence broke out in several places over cattle raiding and revenge killing. The Presbyterian Church of South Sudan is organizing a group of trained mediators to assist in resolving the conflicts. This year also brings the added threat of the Coronavirus – some initial random tests have confirmed the presence of Covid-19 in the IDP camps near Juba, so we pray that the spread is contained.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has several resources to use in worship or to learn more about the situation of refugees around the world. Specifically, here is a PDF that has two prayers for refugees and a lament for South Sudan written by one of Bob’s students. We look to God, who says repeatedly that he looks out for those who are oppressed and suffering, and that he cares for their welfare. We pray that God will continue to sustain them, that in His mercy they will feel safe to return home, and that the praises and prayers from Nuer United Presbyterian Church will continue to bless God and the community around them and remind them of the hope that they have in our God who came and suffered with us and for us.

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.  Dueteronomy 10:18-19