Franklin Graham and his wagon of evangelical Christianity came to Juba town this weekend. It was hard not to know, as his face – looking prophetically forward – covered huge billboards and posters around town, and young eager men were handing out fliers everywhere. So obviously I went, because there’s very little entertainment in Juba and you have to take what you can. It was insensitively and provocatively (and likely intentionally) held on Eid al-Adha, a public holiday.
Any event, no matter how organised in advance, always becomes mildly farcical in Juba. (A prime example: the archive tent is right next to the now-revamped Central Equatoria State Secretariat offices, which were opened with attempted fanfare last week; I spent a happy morning working while listening to a certain dignitary cut the ribbon too early, tie it back together, shout “please kill the bull now, please just kill the bull” and attempt to control overly enthusiastic traditional dancing troupes, who seemed to be attempting a duel.) The vice president Riek Machar came to Friday’s Franklin Graham extravaganza, but was awkwardly (and prophetically?) introduced as Vice President Salva Kiir, to the amusement of many in the crowd. There was an enjoyable but baffling Christian country music band shipped in from the US. And there was a wonderfully patronising, self-glorifying video about Billy Graham, Samaritan’s Purse, and their contribution to South Sudan, which involved an epic summary of the civil war: ‘there was fighting that broke out.’
I wasn’t disappointed in my first experience of American preachers. There was a US proselytising streak a mile wide: “I believe that God has called us here”, declared Franklin Graham, while the video noted the Samaritan’s Purse and Graham efforts to rebuild churches across the South. While it was supposed to be uplifting – the “hope for a new nation” of the slogan – I think it suffered from the same problem as many events held here, in that it attempted to be generally positive. People were not – at least in the cheap seats at the back of the field – particularly fired up by the usual “South Sudan Oyee” and the persistent optimism and national pride. I think people are a lot more appreciative of enthusiasm tempered with acknowledgement of the issues of independence: harder to do, but a lot more reflective of Juba mood.
However, the fundamental message was hard to miss, and it was one propagated by the Sudan Council of Churches representatives who spoke. A local and influential Bishop declared: “before there was a political party in this country there was a church.” Arguable, but he went further: “the genesis of South Sudanese nationalism was in the church”, and the church was fundamental to independence. The great spirit of John Garang was invoked, and it was proclaimed that he was right in saying that there were three wings of the SPLM/A: the political, the military and the spiritual. That Friday, the SCC and Franklin Graham were claiming their stake in the national project, emphasising that there is – to them – no separation of the church and the main political movement, and therefore the state, in South Sudan; that the new state – and independence – was in part due to ‘the church’; and that therefore there can be no separation of South Sudanese ‘freedom’ and the Christian faith.
The evening ended with Franklin Graham calling new converts to him for a mass conversion. I’m afraid I didn’t stay.