Remember the Church Page? RNS story on churches aiding South Sudanese refugees will take you back

The Republic of South Sudan is one of the world’s misery portals. Since its independence in 2011, (it's the globe’s youngest fully minted nation) South Sudan has known little else but war, poverty, hunger and political infighting among its power elites.

The result is ongoing misery for the north-central African nation’s ordinary people. This BBC backgrounder tells the tale -- though, curiously, it fails to mention that South Sudan sought to secede from its northern neighbor, Sudan, in large part over religion. Sudan is staunchly Muslim while the people of what is now South Sudan largely practice traditional African tribal faiths, though Christianity is also a major force.

A newly brokered power-sharing agreement could change things for the better. However, those in the international media paying close attention to South Sudan note that we’ve been here before. Al Jazeera English reported that this is the 12th ceasefire and second power-sharing arrangement between the current civil war’s rival parties. So don’t start clapping just yet.

All I’ve said so far is meant as a prelude to dissecting this recent -- and troubling -- Religion News Service story about an upsurge in South Sudanese refugees in Uganda seeking “healing” in Christian churches.

Here’s the top of it. This is long, but essential:

BIDI BIDI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda (RNS) -- Every morning when Achol Kuol wakes up, she borrows a Bible from her neighbor and reads a verse to comfort herself before she meets others in an open-air church rigged from timber. They sing, dance and speak in tongues during the service. Some who feel filled with the Holy Spirit scream and jump -- not with joy, but remorse.
Confessions flow as they recall the ones they killed in the civil war back home in South Sudan. They cry out, lamenting ordeals they endure at night. Others weep in prayer as they ask God for forgiveness.
“I can’t sleep unless I keep on praying,” said Kuol, 38, a mother of five. “I always have nightmares. In my dreams I go back to my old village and I see how my friends were shot dead. They keep on calling me, ‘Achol! Achol! Achol!’ And I would wake up screaming.”
For thousands of South Sudanese here in the world’s largest refugee camp, the search for healing from recent horrors involves a quest for God. Saddled with post-traumatic stress disorder in many cases, refugees are often encouraged by camp counselors to attend church as a pathway to healing.
“Many refugees usually go to church because it’s the only likely place in the camp where they can get help to recover from the trauma,” said Gabriel Mayen, a trauma counselor at Bidi Bidi. “The church gives them new hope, which is important to refugees and any person who has experienced trauma.”

Before I unload on the piece’s journalistic qualities, I want to state clearly that I am in no way judging the choices of deeply traumatized people seeking relief from the physical, psychological and spiritual demons they live with. To do so would only be arrogant.

Nor does it matter to me who provides the needed comfort and hope. Whether it's a religious group, secular aid agency or government unit -- as long as they act with integrity -- helping those in dire need is the priority. Always.

This RNS piece makes clear that both Catholic and Protestant, including Pentecostal, churches are on the job in Bidi Bidi. But as I’ve signaled above, I have serious questions about this story’s journalistic value.

Those of you of a certain age, which includes myself, may remember what newspapers once called the Church Page, a weekly feature, generally published on Saturdays, that served as repositories for ads touting local church services.

Sometimes the pages published locally delivered sermons -- though that tradition started to crumble when legendary journalist George R. Plagenz, who wrote for the now-defunct Cleveland Press, started reviewing the sermons and the services he attended in the 1970s similarly to the way a theater, restaurant or film critic picked apart their subject matter.

(If any readers remember first-hand Plagenz or the uproar he triggered I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below.)

This RNS story reads similar to the stories that once served as additional Church Page filler. It’s a quick-hit, feel-good story trumpeting ostensibly good works and their claimed results.

I’m a former RNS staff writer and editor so I’m familiar with the difficulties that the service, given it's always tight freelance budgets, has getting quality stories from places such as Africa, where relatively few independent journalists skilled in the norms of American news media actually work.

Still, I wonder why this piece failed to include some of the following: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ office has accused Ugandan officials who oversee Bidi Bidi of gross corruption, claiming the officials are highly inflating the camp’s population (said by the government to be somewhere around 275,000) to gain more Western aid, a good percentage of which they pocket.

This USA Today story from March details the accusations. Note it was published months prior to the early August RNS offering.

The obvious question is, are any of the church groups mentioned in the RNS piece in any way a party to the alleged crimes, which are apparently no secret to camp residents? What did the church leaders know? How did they deal with the alleged corruption? Where, in fact, are these churches getting their funding?

That’s the biggest question mark; a few others include: How come no numbers are provided? How many refugees are actually availing themselves of what the churches’ offer? Were these people Christians prior to coming to the camp, or are some new converts from non-Christian tribal faiths? Bidi Bidi also houses refugees from nations other than South Sudan. Why no mention of them?

Lastly -- this is certainly far more difficult to ascertain -- how many of the camp churchgoers are sincerely believing Christians? If, as the cliche goes, there are no atheists in foxholes, does it follow that there are no atheists in refugee camps, where participating in church services might gain you extra food or material goods?

Or simply a shot of emotional rejuvenation apart from real religious belief, which in and of itself is no small thing when survival is at stake.

Given all it's flaws, both serious and less so, is a story such as this “Church Page” RNS piece worth publishing at all? Perhaps, if only because at a minimum it alerts readers to the pain of distant others they may know nothing about.

That, and it's a reminder of the recognition that religion journalism can be so much more than what was widely accepted in the days of the Church Page.

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