A Discussion with Rev. Arkanjelo Wani Lemi, Pastor of the African Inland Church of Yei, Sudan
June 2, 2009
Background: As part of the Peacebuilding Practitioners Interview Series, Jason Klocek interviewed Rev. Arkanjelo Wani Lemi, who currently serves as a pastor of the African Inland Church of Yei, Sudan. In this interview, Arkanjelo speaks about the challenges of reconciliation in Africa and his work with various relief and development organizations. He also discusses the multi-ethnic nature of the African Inland Church Sudan.
Rev. Arkanjelo, can you first speak about your background and how these experiences have brought you to your current work?
I was born before the war that has just ended began, but at the beginning of another war, the first Sudanese Civil War, which lasted 17 years until the Addis Ababa agreement. I was born in a place called Kopoeta in Eastern Equatoria. However, my parents were from the greater Yei area. In the 1950s my father went to Kopoeta in search of a job at one of the gold mines there. He returned briefly to Yei a few years later to marry and then returned to Kapoeta with my mother. I also have on brother.
I completed my primary school education in Kapoeta, where we were taught in Arabic. I then completed the first half of my secondary school education in Juba and the second half in a town called Torit. I also attended Torit Technical School, which I completed in 1979. At that time I began working with the organization called Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) and served for eight years with them as a building foreman. This took me to many of the surrounding areas.
In 1986 the SPLA took over the town and we were forced to relocate to Juba. This involved the entire organization, some 1,000 people including ex-pats and their children. Once in Juba, it was unclear what to do with so many people and less work so several people were selected to go to Nairobi for management training. I was one of those lucky ones and spent two years in Nairobi studying.
When I completed my studies in 1988 I decided to stay in Nairobi as a refugee. Things were really on fire in Sudan and I thought it was not the time yet to go back. So I registered with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and lived in a refugee camp for seven months. At the end of that time I was interviewed and registered. Then I was asked to leave the camp and start a life in Kenya. I very much wanted to continue my education and in 1989 I was lucky to obtain another scholarship to attend university, where I completed two majors, one in biblical studies and the other in community development.
In 1994 I graduated and immediately began work with a faith-based organization called Across. I was actually interviewed one month before I had graduated, so I was very lucky to be given this opportunity. My job when I first joined Across was as a relief officer and I helped mainly with the distribution of food. We first worked primarily in Eastern Equatoria, but it is the nature of that kind of work to not stay in once place for long. So after six months, the mandate for this relief aid shifted to Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and I changed positions. Now I was a field office in the upper Nile region, which meant I supported the work of the staff there. This work brought me in close contact with the refugee and displaced persons communities. I saw how powerful the church could be in these communities. It was amazing the way that food and goods were distributed through the churches and as I had previously been licensed as a pastor in Eastern Equatoria, I felt called to give more service to the church.
By 1997 I felt so dry, like all my energy was used up and I decided that I need to complete further studies in preparation for my next step. I was again lucky to receive a scholarship, this time to complete my M.A. in Practical Theology in South Korea. This took two years.
In January 2000 I returned to Nairobi with many aspirations and big thoughts in my mind. I was elected as General Secretary of our church, the African Inland Church Sudan, and served in this position for four years. Then I returned again to Across as a capacity-building coordinator. My role was to organize development opportunities for churches—ways in which they could reflect and strategize about their vision, mission and future. We developed a training package called “Future Search” that took church communities—leaders and other stakeholders—through a three and a half day training, which included reflection on the past, present and future of their community. It was a way of helping them discern God’s will for their church. We would then follow up three to six months later to see how well they had followed the action plans that they developed during the trainings.
I was also trying to link up with the U.K. faith-based organization Tearfund, which was working in Tanzania, to expand on this program and develop something called the Participatory Awareness Program. This program emphasized the local communities should come up with their own plan for the future. It helped them to systematically analyze their human and material resources and their future goals, and then to bring them together to form an action plan.
This was the most fulfilling work I had ever done. Working out in the communities, you could see people building the schools they needed as a result of our church-based outreach. You could really see the results of your efforts.
Unfortunately the funding for our program with Across ran out in 2002 and I was let go. For three months I sat at home and tried to discern what God was calling me to do. Then I remembered the ideas that God put into my mind way back when I was at the university in Nairobi. I had received so many opportunities and the scholarship money from people I had never met, nor would ever meet. How do I thank God and those people for those gifts? I even thought about how some people died because of my opportunities. The money that was given to me could have been used to feed hungry people in Sudan. Why had they chosen to give this money to me and not help those people? The only answer that made sense was that they wanted me to come back in the end and use my knowledge to train others and make Sudan a better place. From that, I tried to begin several initiatives.
First, I ran a mobile Bible school. We would go to a local community and train 15 local people from the different churches in the area for three months. We would also bring all the resources of the mobile library to that community. It was much cheaper to go to them then to bring them to one central location. We did this three times during the year and then we had planned to select the three strongest students from each of the three camps and sponsor all nine to complete advanced degrees outside of Sudan so as to come back and lead their communities. This initiative started within the African Inland Church Sudan and ran for one year, but then our funding source ended.
Once again I had to re-conceptualize my calling. At this point I decided to establish the Sudan Christian University College, seeing this as a way of paying back the education that I had received. I was going to do this as a pastor within the African Inland Church, but it was an independent ministry from AIC. But then I received a call from Church Ecumenical Action in Sudan (CEAS), which offered me a position similar to that which I held with Across. Their office, however, is in Nairobi, so accepting the position meant I would be leaving Sudan again. In the end, I decided to accept this position, largely because my work since Across was all on my own initiative and unpaid. And, of course, I needed to support my family. Still, I felt that this was a temporary position, as I wanted to be in Sudan.
So I worked with CEAS from 2002 until 2005, after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed. In June of that year, I resigned and returned to Yei. Upon my return I first served as the assistant pastor at the African Inland Church in Yei and then became the pastor.
Please tell me more about the African Inland Church Sudan and the work you are doing here in Yei.
The African Inland Church was first established in Sudan by Congolese missionaries. Some Baptists from the United States and Anglicans from the U.K. then followed and joined the parishes. So from the beginning we had interdenominational blood and stood out as a very multi-cultural, multi-ethnic church. We continue as such today. Unlike many Anglican diocese in Sudan that are divided according to tribes, I am proud to say that in our church here in Yei you can find people from every tribe in the region. And, this diversity can also be found in our leadership and on our church council. We thank God that we are not all from one tribe because we can learn so much from one another.
We also try very hard to make our services accessible to everyone who attends. We usually read from the Bible, sing our hymns and preach in Arabic and English, but if there is someone who doesn’t understand one of those two languages we make sure someone sits nearby that can help translate and ensure that the person gets the most he or she can out of our service.
Do you have any programming that focus specifically on reconciliation and peace building?
At the moment we don’t have anything substantial that you can put your hands on, but these are very important things to us. We especially want to emphasize them with our youth, who are not only our leaders of tomorrow but in a very real sense are the leaders of today. Since they come from many different tribes and outside our church tribalism is important, we recognize the need to have team-building activities that bring the youth in our community together.
We also preach about the new life in Sudan. The message has changed. During the war we talked mostly about hope—hope that the war would end and there would be peace. Now peace has come in the sense that the fighting has stopped, but we still need peace from God. Peace is not simply when the fighting ends but there must be peace in people’s hearts and in their interactions with one another. We believe that this kind of peace comes through God. We need God to overcome the challenges we now face—the intra- and inter-personal conflict.
What are the major sources of these smaller conflicts today?
There are many. Greed and selfishness are major problems. So many people lost so much and now they want to grab things for themselves. Thus we often oppress one another. We step on and over people so that we can get to things before they can. In short, we don’t see one another as equals. We fail to understand that we are an exodus people—a people brought out of slavery and returned to our homes.
We also forget that everything we have is from God. The resources that God has provided us—like oil, for example—are now new sources of conflict. These resources are now making us run away from God.
Tribal conflicts also continue today throughout the south. And no one, neither the government nor the churches, is speaking out powerfully against these things. I believe that it is the role of church to do this. If the church doesn’t speak out against such injustices, no one will. You see, people need to be held accountable for their wrongdoings and the church is really the only place where this can be done. For in the church, we are all equals. As I said before about our church, the AIC, people from all kinds of tribes come here. For many, it is the only place that they can come and sit with people from different tribes. Since we are all equal here, it is in this place that we can have dialogue, admit our wrongdoings, and come to understand one another.
Let me finish with a short story. Not to long ago we had a day of fasting and prayer for peace to which religious leaders from the different churches in the area attended. So not only were there people from different tribes, but also people from different churches. And here we sat and talked together.
Rev. Arkanjelo, thank you very much for your time today.