'He Certainly Had A Presence'

The usually dull meeting room, in which Bishop Paride was sharing his story with me, became unusually bright as he filled it with a compelling energy. It’s an energy that I wouldn’t usually expect from an eighty-ish year old man. I say eighty-ish because in South Sudan, where Paride is from, people often don’t know their true age.

Paride had one of those warm faces where his eyes smile when his mouth does, softened even further by his white beard. I couldn’t help but like him and after an afternoon spent hearing his story, I came to be in awe of him. I learned that Paride is a rare man in South Sudan. His ripe old age means that he can recall a phenomenon in South Sudan that few others can: peace.

South Sudan, our world’s youngest nation, has truly suffered. With decades of brutal civil war to its name, many of its people have never known what peace really is. There was a brief period where violence ceased under an agreement initiated in 2005, in which Paride played a key role. It was the same agreement that began a process which led to South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in 2011. Nevertheless, in December of 2013 violent conflict erupted again.

To date, the war has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people and displaced millions.

I sat in that room with Paride, transfixed by the stories he told of his home. There was one thing in particular that left me open-mouthed: his daily ritual which he has performed for nearly twenty years without fail.

It starts early in the morning, every morning. If you catch him at the right moment you’ll find Paride jumping like a frog a hundred times, doing twenty push-ups, swimming with his arms in the air a hundred times, twisting his waist a hundred times and standing on each leg a hundred times. If he’s in a car travelling early (as he often is as an internationally acclaimed peacemaker) he waits for the car to stop and runs around it 1000 times before continuing with his usual set. 

Honestly, that was enough of a daily ritual from a man in his eighties to have me suitably impressed. I was worn out just watching him show me his exercises (which he demonstrated there and then). But physical exercise is not the whole ritual.

Paride explained to me that as he does these moves he whispers quietly to himself,

‘love, joy, peace, patience, compassion, sympathy, kindness, truth, gentleness, self-control, humility, poverty, forgiveness, mercy, friendship, trust, unity, purity, faith, hope.’

And then,

‘I love you, I miss you, thank you, I forgive, we forget together, I am wrong, I am sorry.’

He repeats this collection of words to himself over and over as he goes through his well-practised exercises. The crucial part is that as these words are spoken Paride examines himself asking, ‘am I keeping these? Are they really in me?’ He went on, ‘I have to see in which of these twenty I am weak and during the coming day I reflect on them.’

Every day he starts his day this way. Every day.

It’s important to him because it’s this practice, along with his faith in God, that has allowed him to be personally transformed. He explained that, ‘When you are traumatised you cannot help other people. You have to make yourself the healing of the healers. That’s why I do these exercises every morning. With it, I feel healthy. It gets you out of stress, gets your heart to relax. You can live even with inevitable problems, become calm in situations that you cannot solve. You can correct where you can, and where you can’t – you are able to live with it. We who work with traumatised people inhale their trauma, and we have to get rid of this’.

For Paride, the redemption of his country and of the trauma his people have experienced, will come when people experience a change within themselves. That’s why he considers his ritual and his faith vital – through them he has been transformed, and it’s tangible. He’s gone beyond just the personal transformation. From high level meetings on the international stage, national peace talks, and church movements, to the creation of a small community that represents what peace can look like. 

That’s what Kuron peace village is. It’s his biggest passion and one of his greatest legacies. It’s ‘a place where God lives’.

More technically, I learned that it is a model for how a community made-up of different clans, tribes and nationalities (that have typically related to one another through violence) can live alongside one another without fear. Where people share resources, land and skills for the good of the whole. Kuron was a radical vision for Paride, a leap of faith, and one that over time has equated to a change for the better in that land. It’s an ‘island of peace in a sea of conflict’.  

Settlers are asked to leave their past at the door, not ignoring the importance of dealing with it, but also not letting it destroy their future. And then the peace comes. The challenges to keep the village going are considerable. Recently it began working with Christian Aid but it remains in desperate need of funds to continue.

Paride’s daily ritual and faith in God resulted in a personal transformation in him that allows him to live with trauma and work to restore it. That’s why he is an advocate for transformation within each person. He sees it as an inevitable prelude to witnessing change in entire communities and eventually, his country.

It’s a journey, a slow grower, but one Paride is wholeheartedly behind in order that South Sudan is able to write a new story for itself. One without conflict as its headline. A sentiment felt by not only those in South Sudan, but the South Sudanese that live across the world who have fled their homes in search of peace over the last twenty years.

Bishop Paride Taban is a peacemaker. He's the Bishop Emeritus of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Torit in South Sudan. That's a mouthful. At 80 years old he has more than a few feats to his name including establishing Kuron Peace Village and winning a UN prize recognising his efforts in promoting peace in his beloved South Sudan. We reckon his daily ritual has something to do with it.

Last year, some of the South Sudanese diaspora in the UK organised an important gathering to talk about the current conflict and the road to peace. They met in a London church and we were privileged to be invited along. It was there that they shared their stories of home with each other and debated how to achieve justice, reconciliation, peace and unity for all South Sudanese. you can read their stories here

This article first appeared in Alpha Life Magazine where you can read the full story.

Photos taken by Tom Price.