Tom Prichard pursues peace, education in South Sudan

American Tom Prichard founded Sudan Sunrise to promote religious harmony and build schools in the new nation of South Sudan.

Sudan Sunrise
Tom Prichard, founder and director of Sudan Sunrise, poses with children in Turalei, South Sudan, the hometown of pro-basketball star Manute Bol, who dreamed of building schools here. Mr. Prichard has Bol Bol on his shoulder, a member of Mr. Bol’s family and a student at the Manute Bol Primary School.

Tom Prichard is working to build 41 schools in the new nation of South Sudan. But he is also building something else: peace between former enemies in this war-torn region of East Africa.

South Sudan, which gained independence in July, has one of the highest rates of illiteracy in the world. The need for better education is plain. And after decades of civil war, the need to build peace between former enemies is equally urgent.

Mr. Prichard uses one to support the other. "The pathway to peace has to be doing things that grow grass-roots reconciliation and understanding," says Prichard, executive director of Sudan Sunrise, the nonprofit group he founded in 2005.

In the 55 years since it gained independence from Egypt and Britain, Sudan has been in a state of nearly constant civil war. From 1983 to 2004, the hard-line Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir waged war against the largely Christian population in the south.

The regime pitted regions, tribes, and religious groups against one another. The Muslims in Darfur, a province in western Sudan, were used to do the dirty work against the Christian southerners – burning villages, killing civilians, and taking slaves. After 22 years of civil war, 2.5 million southern Sudanese had been killed and 4 million displaced.

An ordained Episcopal priest from the Washington, D.C., area, Prichard has been involved in mission work for his entire adult life. But it was when he moved to Overland Park, Kan., a Kansas City suburb, in 2003 to be the missions pastor of an Episcopal church that he came to be involved with relief work in Sudan.

Prior to his arrival, the church had helped found a network of some 40 Su­dan­ese churches of various denominations across the United States. By this time, the tables had turned in Sudan and the government was perpetrating what was widely seen as genocide on the people of Darfur.

While few southern Sudanese felt much compassion toward their former enemies, in a stunning gesture of forgiveness the leaders of the Sudanese churches in the US voted unanimously to aid the Darfurians. The decision was controversial within the US Sudanese community.

In 2004, Prichard organized a relief trip that sent an American surgeon and three southern Sudanese to a refugee camp in eastern Chad to deliver a small shipment of medicine and to hold out an olive branch to the southerners' former enemies.

Even the Darfurians were suspicious.

In time, the Darfurian leaders in the camps came to see that the southerners were sincere. In turn, the Darfurians sent a letter to the southerners asking for forgiveness for past atrocities and for aid in their struggle against the regime in the north.

"It's a beautiful letter," Prichard says. "I've been involved with mission efforts my whole life, and I've never seen anything like this, where former enemies are saying, 'Please forgive us and stand with us, that we will all have peace.'

"I decided then that I'd devote the rest of my life to this. It's too important."

Prichard organized two more relief trips the next year, one of which delivered 54 pallets of clothing and 25,000 pounds of powdered milk to Darfur refugee camps.

But his church did not see the genocide in Darfur or the reconciliation efforts in Sudan as its calling. So Prichard left the church's employ and formed Sudan Sunrise in Lenexa, Kan. It moved to the Washington, D.C., area last fall.

"Tom is right there on the front lines, helping people who honestly need it and being the conscience for the rest of us," says John Zogby, founder and former president of the polling firm Zogby International and chairman of the Sudan Sunrise board of directors. "What motivates him is simply doing the Gospel: 'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.' "

Sudan Sunrise has been involved in a variety of projects related to reconciliation, education, and community building.

The late Manute Bol, the Sudanese basketball player who played for eight years in the National Basketball Association (NBA), got involved with the organization in 2008. His dream was to build 41 nonsectarian schools in South Sudan (Mr. Bol admired George H.W. Bush, the 41st president).

Two schools should be completed within the next few months, including one in Turalei, Bol's home village. "My dream is for Manute Bol schools all around South Sudan and in the north as well," Prichard says. "Every one will be a seed of reconciliation and a symbol of peace."

Funding is an uphill battle. South Sudan is not on the radar screens of many philanthropic organizations and, for some, the concept of reconciliation is a bit abstract.

But Prichard is undeterred.

"Slowly, we're gaining traction," he says, noting that Sudan Sunrise has gotten help from the NBA and is attracting the attention of more grant-giving organizations. "The rest of the world can learn from the Sudanese as they work out their problems. It's a slow process, but for humanity's sake, it has to succeed.

"And we are here to support it."

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