Religious News Service

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

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 of which 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.

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Holy ground: Yes, the walls of First Baptist in Sutherland Springs will be coming down

Holy ground: Yes, the walls of First Baptist in Sutherland Springs will be coming down

During the Communist revolution, Bolsheviks would go out of their way -- when executing a Russian Orthodox priest -- to place him on the altar of his parish and THEN shoot and/or stab him to death.

This accomplished several goals at one time, including desecrating the altar so that it could not be used again in worship without a future visit by a bishop to perform the elaborate rites to reconsecrate a church for celebrations of the Divine Liturgy. This was hard to do, since the Bolsheviks were killing all the bishops, as well (other than a very small number who cooperated with the revolution).

I bring this up because of an interesting Religion News Service feature that has just been released with this headline: "Texas church to be demolished, like other mass killing sites before it."

We are talking, of course, about the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, where gunman Devin Patrick Kelley -- apparently in a futile attempt to kill his mother-in-law -- went ahead and shot every person in the Sunday morning service, killing 26 and wounding others. Here's a key passage near the top of this story:

In what is becoming a grim American ritual, mass shooting sites from Sandy Hook to Columbine have been demolished and then rebuilt. But some churches that experienced horrific killings have sought to reclaim existing sacred spaces.
That’s not the case with First Baptist. Frank Page, president and CEO of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Steve Gaines, the SBC’s president, confirmed the decision to demolish the church after meeting in Sutherland Springs on Tuesday (Nov. 7) with Frank Pomeroy, its grieving pastor.
“They did say, ‘We can’t go back in there,’” said Page, referring to Pomeroy’s remaining church members. “It’s going to be a reminder of the horrific violence against innocent people.”

This is one of those stories that I am very thankful RNS took on, but I still want to raise a question or two about it.

To be blunt: It's true that religious sanctuaries are, as a rule, considered "sacred spaces." I get that. However, there are religious traditions in which some spaces -- parts of those facilities -- have literally been consecrated, in elaborate rites, as holy.

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