On Faith

Uniting in Prayer and Action on Darfur

David Rubenstein, head of the Save Darfur Coalition, says memories of inaction during Rwanda's genocide are spurring action over Sudan's.
David Rubenstein, head of the Save Darfur Coalition, says memories of inaction during Rwanda's genocide are spurring action over Sudan's. (By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)
By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 7, 2005

In the beginning, they acted on their own.

Harriet Shugerman, moved by images of the genocidal killings in Darfur, pushed her Bethesda synagogue to sponsor an interfaith prayer service.

Evangelical pastor Brian McLaren, appalled that the violence was entering a second year, suggested to his Montgomery County church that it organize five outdoor services at Washington landmarks. And Baptist minister Amy Butler prodded her D.C. congregation to hang up a green-and-white banner that said "a call to your conscience" and "SaveDarfur.org."

Today, their individual initiatives are part of a growing movement that has united a wide array of religious groups. Experts say the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region, where state-supported militias have ravaged about 2,000 villages and caused the deaths of an estimated 400,000 people since early 2003, has become the rare issue on which diverse faith-based communities have found common cause.

"The horror of genocide in Darfur has galvanized an unprecedented coalition of theological actors . . . [and] moved people of faith across this amazing spectrum to cry out with a single voice," said Shaun Casey, associate professor of Christian ethics at American University's Wesley Theological Seminary. "That's what is unique about Darfur."

Casey compared the movement to past faith-driven campaigns that pushed for debt relief to poor countries and famine relief to Somalia, which eventually led to U.S. military intervention there. "It's word-of-mouth and television pictures and newspaper photos," said Casey, and people "are deeply moved by the massive humanitarian suffering."

One reason faith-based groups find it easy to unite on this crisis is that it was not precipitated by U.S. policies or intervention and thus is not trapped in the vise of partisan politics, clergy said.

"There's not a lot of ambiguity in this issue on what the right thing is to do," said the Rev. Rachel Cornwell, pastor at Bethesda United Methodist. It's easy to see, she added, "that by being silent we're being complicit." Her church joined forces with its neighbor across the street, Congregation Beth El, in the summer of 2004 to hold up signs saying "Pray for Darfur" during rush hour on Old Georgetown Road.

By contrast, the Iraq war "was a harder issue for our church to take a position on" because of the congregation's theological and political diversity, Cornwell said.

The movement is harnessing the resources that make religious organizations powerful actors in social and political causes: moral outrage, motivated volunteers and powerful tools of communication, including one called prayer.

It also reflects the "well-established pattern of the faith community believing they have a prophetic witness, an obligation to be a goad to the conscience of the country," said Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religious Action Center, the Washington advocacy office of Judaism's Reform movement.

April Vega, co-pastor of The Church in Bethesda, a tiny nondenominational Christian congregation, recalled being deeply disturbed in October after she and co-pastor Robert Kang read a "heartbreaking" newspaper article about Darfur. "We wrestled with this," she said, explaining that they wanted to do something but had no idea what.

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