South Sudan: AFRICOM Connects With South Sudanese Military Chaplains

Stuttgart, Germany — In the first Senior Leader Religious Engagement with the world's newest nation, representatives from U.S. Africa Command chaplaincy traveled to Juba to meet their South Sudanese counterparts, March 27-30, 2012.

Colonel Jerry Lewis, the U.S. Africa Command senior chaplain; his assistant, Sergeant First Class Frederick D. Murphy; and Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa senior chaplain Captain Gerald Hutchinson met with chaplains with the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), including senior chaplain Lieutenant Colonel Elijah Kuek, during several days of discussions and outreach. U.S. Africa Command often provides support to African nations that are developing official organizations and structures, as part of the U.S. mission toward a safe, stable, secure Africa.

The SPLA chaplains are unusual among militaries. No formal chaplain corps exists, yet clergy in South Sudan have been moved on their own to fill the special role of military chaplains. Many of the current SPLA chaplains in South Sudan served initially as soldiers, explained Lewis. After they left the military, they became ordained in their respective churches and then returned to serve in a new role within the military.

"It shows the power of the spiritual life they have: To take the initiative, go back into the military and minister to the needs there," said Lewis.

When South Sudan split from Sudan last year, religious differences were one of many issues. South Sudanese largely follow traditional religions or Christianity, while Sudan is made up of primarily Sunni Muslims. Most SPLA chaplains are Protestant Christian; SPLA has no Muslim chaplains.

Whether and how SPLA will create a chaplain corps is one of many questions as South Sudan nears it first anniversary. SPLA is the military arm of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the group that pushed for South Sudan's independence and is now the major political party.

This kaleidoscope of transformations means many procedures and structures must be crafted from the very beginning. Buildings must be built; the SPLA chaplains themselves have erected mud huts to serve as chapels. Lewis and his fellow AFRICOM chaplaincy representatives are available as support for the SPLA chaplain leadership, as their group evolves.

Chaplains have served within the U.S. military since 1775. Lewis and his colleagues can draw on a deep well of knowledge to pass along to their South Sudanese counterparts.

"We share how we're constructed: Here's our doctrine; here's our policy," explained Lewis. "How can we help you adapt it to your culture?"

Lewis is careful to point out that every culture is different. He realizes that the South Sudanese must find the best way forward for them.

"We would never say we're better or we're best. Instead, we work at slowing down and listening -- and that's a keyword -- listening to what they really desire."

The dialogue between the two nations' military chaplains will likely continue with more visits later this year. In the meantime, Lewis and his AFRICOM colleagues based in Germany lean on a network for logistical help in maintaining connections on the continent. Major Sean McClure, chief of Office of Security Cooperation (OSC) of U.S. Embassy of South Sudan, was critical to the recent trip, Lewis said.

"He's doing an exceptional job," Lewis said of McClure. "On behalf of all of the OSCs, they become pivotal to the success of all our events at AFRICOM."

The South Sudan trip was the first for the chaplain leadership at AFRICOM, but, Lewis hopes, certainly not the last. The country is the youngest in the world, and AFRICOM representatives will be continually providing assistance.

"It's amazing to start trying to help someone at ground level," Lewis said. "And the joy of that is not only to help them but to encourage them to make those steps and walk through it."

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