When Gai Kur Akuei arrived at Brisbane Airport for the Uniting Church’s South Sudanese National Conference he was greeted by members of Nuer Faith Community. It was the first time he had spoken to a Nuer person since war erupted in South Sudan in December 2013.
A power struggle between the president of South Sudan and his deputy dragged the young nation into a bloody conflict. Both sides seized upon tribal divides to further the war for their own gain. In just under two years, tens of thousands of people lost their lives and more than 2 million people fled their homes.
Gai, who is secretary of Adelaide’s Dinka Faith community, lost a cousin in the recent violence. It was another painful loss in what has been a harrowing journey.
As a young boy, Gai was forcibly separated from his family to be trained for the army. He still mourns the loss of his father who was killed in 1991 in another conflict. Gai spent 12 years living in a refugee camp in Kenya, where ongoing tribal violence meant he feared for his life every night. He was married in the camp and Gai and his wife came to Australia with their three children in 2004 as refugees. Their airfares were paid by a Uniting Church congregation. They now have seven children and live peacefully in Adelaide’s northern suburbs.
Unspoken words between the largely Christian South Sudanese population in Australia reflect the hurt and distrust people have carried amid the warfare in their home country.
From the airport, Gai was taken to the family home of Pastor Moses Leth, the minister for the Nuer Faith Community in Brisbane which hosted the conference in conjunction with the Presbytery of South Moreton at St David’s Uniting Church in Coopers Plains.
As a Dinka man, having not spoken with any Nuer person for two years, Gai now found himself sitting, eating and praying alongside them.
The experience transformed him.
The next day Gai stood up and spoke to the South Sudanese members gathered from across Australia.
“God has sent us here today to become messengers – to make peace in South Sudan, starting with our communities here and then back home.
“I am the right person and you are the right person to make that reconciliation and that peace.”
Gai is currently studying to become a minister in the Uniting Church. He attended the conference at the last minute, prompted by his lecturer Rev Dr Amelia Koh-Butler to write about the experience for his studies.
With flights confirmed just days before, Gai said it was God’s plan for him to be there.
“There are 64 tribes in South Sudan and they are very conflicted. They need to be connected. I feel I need to do that work.”
The will for peace and reconciliation permeated the three-day conference. With the fitting theme ‘Building Bridges of Hope’, the conference brought together around 40 South Sudanese members of the Uniting Church from Perth, Darwin, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and regional parts of Queensland from 25-27 September.
A highlight of the program was the presence of Rev James Makuei Choul, the executive director of the Presbyterian Relief and Development Agency of South Sudan (PRDA). Mr Choul has been on the frontline of the emergency response peace building in South Sudan. His visit to Australia was facilitated by UnitingWorld, which partners with PRDA and the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCoSS).
Mr Choul indicated the vital role the church in South Sudan must take to build peace between communities.
“There has been a lot of trauma. For people to even hear the name of a certain tribe can be a source of conflict.
“People praying in the church were asking, ‘why do we not ask God for those causing the problem to die’. But our God is not magic. Our God is different from us.
“Jesus said ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’. That is the message we have for people as a church.”
PCoSS lost 10 pastors in war. Churches, schools and other infrastructure were flattened. The Church faces the task of rebuilding both physically and emotionally.
Mr Choul said the healing would begin with the church leaders themselves. Fifty pastors have already taken part in workshops where they could share their experiences of the war. PCoSS plans to equip its church leaders to become peace-builders in their own communities.
A ceasefire agreement signed in August remains fragile but Mr Choul said the desire for peace is strong among the people of South Sudan. He asked the UCA for its continued support and prayers.
Also significant was the presence of UCA President Stuart McMillan for the duration of the conference. His opening sermon provided great encouragement to the South Sudanese members.
“My friends, as a Christian I know that all people are created in the image of God,” he said.
“A God of love and forgiveness, a God of mercy and compassion, a God who in Christ has destroyed the walls of hostility between people and who calls us and equips us to be peacemakers.”
Later, Pastor Leth shared how grateful the South Sudanese members were for the welcome they had experienced in the Uniting Church, particularly from its leaders.
“We ask ourselves, if these people can love us so much, surely we can extend this love to each other.”
UnitingWorld’s National Director Rob Floyd spoke about its support for the people of South Sudan since 2010. In particular, UnitingWorld funds a midwifery school which has trained 59 women to become midwives, a significant step in helping to reduce high maternal and infant mortality rates in South Sudan.
Mr Floyd said UnitingWorld stood ready to support the Presbyterian Church, particularly as it rebuilds and trains new leaders to take leadership in the peacebuilding process.
It was this commitment to justice that inspired Gai Kur Akuei to serve in the Uniting Church.
His great hope is to one day return to South Sudan and serve as a chaplain in the army.
“The soldiers do not know the word of God, they do not know they are good people. I want to share with them that regardless of the tribalism, they are children of God. They are brothers.”