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Uniting in Prayer and Action on Darfur
Genocide Galvanizes Wide Array of Congregations to Push U.S. Response

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 7, 2005; C01

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.

"We can't go over there. . . . We were feeling powerless and yet we're the church, we should be able to do something," Vega said. "To be honest, we didn't act on it for a couple of months, we just had it in the back of our minds."

Then, in the spring, Vega heard about the five weekends of public prayer for Darfur being organized by two Christian evangelical groups. Five to eight members of her 40-strong congregation attended each event.

Vega's church also hosted an interfaith service July 17, which furthered her congregation's connections.

"The interfaith quality of this movement is really one of the best things," Vega said. "It's really cool."

Darfur resonates with faith communities for several reasons, activists said.

For many Jews, it echoes their experience with the Holocaust and commitment to "Never Again."

"Obviously, with our own history of genocide . . . it hits a nerve," said Shugerman, a member of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, which sponsored an interfaith service at a downtown D.C. synagogue in December. Shugerman also helped launch a regional Jewish task force of more than 25 organizations that is organizing "DC Loves Darfur," a fundraising appeal for Darfur refugees in all area synagogues during the High Holy Days.

Others have gotten involved because of guilt about the inaction of the world community, including their own denominations, during the 1994 genocide of 800,000 Rwandans. Several people credited "Hotel Rwanda," a movie released in December, with spurring them to act.

At the same time, Christian evangelicals who had long lobbied for an end to the persecution of Christians in southern Sudan easily segued into the Darfur crisis, whose victims were mostly Muslim. In August 2004, 35 evangelical leaders wrote President Bush urging the U.S. government "to take a more decisive role to prevent further slaughter and death."

The Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for public policy for the National Association of Evangelicals, said he initiated the letter because "this issue was not getting the attention from the administration that it should."

Cizik strategizes about Darfur with David Rubenstein, head of the Washington-based Save Darfur Coalition, a year-old alliance of more than 130 umbrella groups, many of them faith-based, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The coalition has sponsored several events to raise awareness of Darfur and prompt people to write legislators and donate humanitarian relief. It also distributes a "faith action packet," which includes a history of the Darfur crisis, suggestions on how to include Darfur in sermons, and "sample interfaith, Christian, Muslim and Jewish prayers."

Rubenstein, who is Jewish, said faith-based groups are an essential part of the campaign. "Our government, our leadership, our institutions, our society walked away from our responsibility to stop the unceasing killing in Rwanda because religious institutions did not step up when it was not in the news," he said.

Saperstein's center was among the first organizations to focus on Darfur, sending out its first alert urging rabbis to discuss it in sermons in May 2004. In July 2004, a coalition of religious and human rights organizations organized a symbolic "die-in" demonstration in Lafayette Square. And in August 2004, the Roman Catholic Washington Archdiocese asked all parishes to pray for people in Sudan.

McLaren, founder of Cedar Ridge Community Church, proposed the series of outdoor worship services to his 600-member congregation in February to demonstrate that "as people of faith, we believe in a God of justice." He contacted Sojourners, another progressive Christian evangelical ministry headed by the Rev. Jim Wallis. They invited Saperstein's center to participate, and when Rubenstein's Save Darfur Coalition expressed interest in joining, "there was an instant partnership," McLaren said.

The last of the outdoor services was on a sweltering Sunday in mid-July. About 450 Washington area residents, many wearing green rubber bracelets saying, "Not on Our Watch," knelt on the hot pavement outside the White House and prayed for U.S. officials to act to halt the killings.

Though each service drew fewer than 500 people, they were "people of various faith traditions and perspectives and political viewpoints . . . [who] came together on very hot Sundays to worship in very public places," said Sojourners press secretary Jack Pannell.

Another facet of the faith-based campaign was seeded in January when Colleen Connors, who had wanted to do something about Darfur for months, drove by Congregation Beth El and saw its banner declaring "Save Darfur."

"I almost crashed my car. I said to myself: 'That's it. Every community of faith should have a banner up like that,' " said Connors, who worships at Temple Sinai in Northwest Washington.

Connors joined forces with fellow congregant Laura Kumin and Jamie Butler of Adas Israel Congregation to make her concept a reality. So far, 10 congregations have hoisted Darfur banners, and more are on order from their Web site, http://www.savedarfurbanner.net/ .

Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, said she was moved to order a banner after hearing Kumin talk about how "people of faith cannot remain silent on this issue."

At today's worship service, Butler added, her congregation will view a short documentary on Darfur distributed by the Save Darfur Coalition.

It will be, she said, another small step taken from the conviction that "here we are in the capital of the free world, we are people of faith, and we should be able to effect change."

David Rubenstein, head of the Save Darfur Coalition, will be online tomorrow at 11 a.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline to discuss the Darfur awareness campaign.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company