From 1983 to 2005, the Sudanese fought a harsh civil war. To many, this was simply a continuation of the previous struggle that opposed Southern Sudan to the government of Khartoum. During the 22 year war, the already frail South Sudanese infrastructure collapsed. The only institution that resisted was the Church, and this shouldered the heavy yoke of guiding a nation in despair.
First of all, we need to define Church. In the case of South Sudan, it is not a denominational group. Catholics and Anglicans, as well as members of other Churches, always found the way to work ecumenically to support the struggle of the people. This Church became a beacon of hope for all Sudanese, Christians, Muslim and Traditionalists alike.
The huge impact the Church had during the civil war had never been documented. This book, itself a major work, is filling a void.
The main author, John Ashworth, is well known to those who have an interest in the Sudan. Ashworth served as a Catholic missionary in various places in Sudan since 1982. He later left the priesthood yet remained committed to working for the South Sudanese. He founded the Church Ecumenical Action in Sudan and remained in the South until 2001, when he moved to South Africa to do advocacy work for the South Sudanese. There he helped by founding the Denis Hurley Peace Institute of which he became acting director.
To compile this book, Ashworth worked closely with Haruun Lual Ruun, a pastor of the Sudan Interior Church. Ruun has been an active member of the ecumenical New Sudan Council of Churches, and its Executive Secretary for 12 years. Episcopalian pastor Emmanuel LoWilla – also an active member of the ecumenical movement of South Sudan – participated in the forging of this volume. Lastly, Maura A. Ryan, an Associate Dean for the Humanities and Faculty Affairs in the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame University, USA, an expert in the Catholic Social Teaching, also gave her input.
The book gives a detailed account of the history of South Sudan during the war, highlighting the role of the Church in supporting the people, keeping open avenues of dialogue between the belligerent, and advocating for the South Sudanese at a time when their voice seemed to be suffocated by economic and political interests. It is not a book of history, and it does not claim to be. However, it is a detailed account of the Church involvement, and of its real scope, during the war. Most importantly, the authors and interviewees are eyewitnesses. They do not report academic knowledge, they recount what they lived in first person.
This book is an important addition to the vast literature on the South Sudan civil war. It is important because he shows an aspect – the Church role – often overlooked by academics. It is important because it demonstrates the ecumenical nature of the Church in South Sudan. It is important also because it clearly highlights how aid and development, peace-building and advocacy, ministry and witness fused together to be the real pastoral action of a Church at the service of the last and least. The Church lived and operated on the ground, siding with the people throughout the conflict. Because of this, it could speak with authority, and continue to do so in the years after independence.
This book is not an easy read. It remains a significant work to write the history of a country, the history of its people. The many photographs published as commentary add importance to this work. (G.C.)
John Ashworth, and others, The voice of the voiceless, Paulines, Nairobi, 2014, pp. 288.