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With unique knowledge and solidarity with the people, churches play an essential role in helping cultural development in South Sudan, said an author familiar with the region.
“I think it’s crucial for people to understand that South Sudan is fundamentally dependent on the churches,” said Gabriel Meyer, a Catholic journalist and author who has written and lectured extensively on the region.
Development in South Sudan, he told CNA March 3, is “not simply throwing money at roads,” but instead a project of “societal and cultural change.”
“You need formation, you need cultural formation, you need women's formation, you need cultural change,” Meyer said. “The only agent I see that is capable of doing that in any kind of consistent, patient and effective way are the churches.”
South Sudan was formed in 2011 when the region gained independence from the Republic of Sudan following a 20-year-long civil war. Recently, the nascent country has erupted in violence again as forces loyal to South Sudanese president Salva Kiir and those allied behind former Vice President Riek Machar have come into conflict.
“These divisions, which are questions of power and political differences,” Meyer said, “go back a very long time” to the longstanding conflict in the region.
“Everyone is traumatized,” he continued, “and you have to deal with that” in rebuilding society.
Meyer explained that South Sudan in particular has “specifically borne the brunt for over a generation or more” during the civil war and resulting violence. For instance, discriminatory policies from Khartoum, the capital of the Republic of Sudan, prevented schooling for certain groups of persons, and as a result, many people in South Sudan were not educated.
During this time, “it was the churches, really, who were there with the people, and in many cases churches were the only source of aid, food and support” for the people, Meyer said.
The churches have supported “people on the ground, no matter what” and are invested not in “immediate short term success but solidarity.”
Because of this devotion to the South Sudanese, he explained, “there are no organizations, including the government” that have as much “respect and influence over the populations that the churches do.”
“There is no stronger nation building institution than the churches,” Meyer stressed, both because of their closeness to the nation’s people and the resulting respect from the people.
He pointed to a variety of education and health care projects supported by churches around the country as examples of the building up of society.
Meyer specifically noted the case of a school in the Nuba Mountains funded by the Sudan Relief Fund. After decades of a lack of education, Ugandan teachers came to teach students in the parish. When the children were “exposed to consistent education for the first time,” Meyer said, they “were like sponges,” and were “absolutely dedicated to education.”
“Doing the right thing in a committed way can produce some remarkable results,” he said.
“Moral and ethical formation, religious formation, are also a part of the cultural formation that needs to go on in these situations,” he added, explaining that while other aid organizations tend to have a short-sighted view focused on solving immediate problems, the church groups have a deeper focus on developing people.
Meyer cautioned outside organizations to consider cultural customs and approaches when trying to help people in South Sudan, otherwise they “will complicate the situation, not help.”
“Are you imposing a template that you’ve already worked out,” he asked potential development workers, “or are you actually sitting down with local leaders and you’re solving the problem with them?”
Support for the churches, and through them, support for the people of South Sudan is essential for the country’s development, Meyer stressed.
“If you want to help the people of South Sudan, this is one of the most important things, if not the most important thing.”