When I was a kid, every now and then I’d hear someone describe a bunch of older men sitting around shooting the breeze this way: “Oh, Bob and the fellas are over there swapping war stories…”
I was not a part of those conversations, but they sure looked like fun. “Bob” and the other guys would take turns talking; there was often laughter, usually adult beverages, and always at the end of them someone would come over and tousle my hair and tell me to go play and have fun.
I don’t know if as a kid I ever witnessed anyone actually telling war stories, but I know that I have as an adult. For most of my life when I’ve used that phrase, I’ve intended it to mean “those folks are talking about the things that have happened to them.” In that way, “war stories” could mean facing the crowds on “Black Friday” or surviving the first day of school or reliving some moment of pastoral stress. For most of my life, “war stories” has been a synonym for “stuff that went on.”
This week, our team of six Pittsburghers is gathered with a group of 17 leaders from the South Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church (SSPEC) to create a situation wherein these folks might find a safe place to tell actual war stories. Virtually all of these men and women have been displaced from their homes in the past decade as a result of war and independence for this nation, and all of them have suffered some level of trauma in the past year as fighting has raged across their countryside. Some are staying in rented homes, others with friends, and still others in the UN compounds.
We have come to the Resource Centre for Civil Leadership (RECONCILE) for a brief retreat with two goals in mind:
- Bring all 23 of us to a quiet place away from our daily lives so that we might be free to build relationships with each other and the Lord that will lay the foundations for enhanced partnership in the future.
- Introduce our friends from SSPEC to the resources and facilities that are present at RECONCILE in the hopes that in the days to come, our partners will be able to avail themselves of the intensive training and workshops that are offered here around the themes of trauma, healing, peace-building, and reconciliation.
It was not easy getting here by any stretch. In addition to the life-events that have led our friends to the place where such a place is needed, there was the logistical challenge of getting 23 individuals across a distance of about 100 kilometers (60 miles) of the roughest road that most of the Pittsburgh team has ever seen. After a four-hour delay in which we finally received the necessary permissions to travel outside the capital city, we set off on this trek, which involved five hours of bone-jarring, dust-eating, “Oh-God-I-hope-we-get-there-soon” kinds of prayer.
Once we arrived, we were treated to a lovely tea and delicious meal. We’re staying in dormitories and spending our days engaged in group activities such as team building, trauma workshops, worship and Bible study. More than that, there are many hours of wandering in conversations. Ken White and I share a room that is adjacent to the front porch of the dorm. Right outside our windows is a circle of plastic chairs that will be filled by our South Sudanese colleagues during every free moment. Sometimes, Ken and I will sit in the room and we’ll overhear their conversation. Since they’re in Arabic or Nuer or some other local language, it’s not like we’re eavesdropping. But we know what they’re doing: they’re swapping war stories. And I think this is the best place to do that.
Listen: our group of Pittsburghers is not trained to offer trauma healing. We understand that we are not sent here to “make things better” for our friends who are leading their church and their nation through challenging times. We’ve come to sit with them, to encourage them, and, in the words of the official application for travel that was submitted by our colleagues at SSPEC, to “show solidarity and support to the people of South Sudan.” We do not take this opportunity lightly, and are honored to be invited into this reality. We ask you to take a few moments now and ask God to bless the healing of this nation and these friends.
Some of the photos below show our small groups at work. One of the questions for discussion was “please talk about a hope that you have for 2015”. In my group, it was the shortest discussion. “Peace in our land” was the answer.
Oh God, hear our prayers. Amen.