“Bishop Peni story"
Timothy Meinch & Jeff Chu
Second Prize - $5,000
Timothy Meinch covers city and county government and transportation issues in Des Moines, Iowa for The Des Moines Register. He also regularly writes outdoor adventure and recreation stories. Timothy joined the Register in 2011 after graduating from the University of North Carolina Asheville.
Jeff Chu is a Brooklyn, New York-based journalist; a 2015 International Reporting Project fellow in religion; and author of the book "Does Jesus Really Love Me?" His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times Magazine, Time, Fast Company, the Wall Street Journal, and Travel + Leisure. In September, he will begin studies at Princeton Theological Seminary.
KAMPALA, Uganda– Natalia Peni remembers sprinting into the skin-scraping bush, stilling her breath and hoping for dawn.
Soldiers from the Lord's Resistance Army looted her family's home and many others in Yambio, South Sudan, that night in 2006.
She was 10. Her father, Samuel Enosa Peni, an Episcopal cleric, was away. She narrowly escaped with her siblings and mother. But neighbors were killed. Children they knew were abducted.
Today, Natalia, 19, two younger sisters, and one brother live as refugees in Uganda, more than 600 miles from their parents and three younger siblings in Nzara, South Sudan.
The family's hope? To move to Iowa, where a West Des Moines family has prayerfully waited for them for six years.
The Peni children are among 59.5 million people worldwide forcibly displaced from their homelands as of 2014 — a post-World War II high, according to the United Nations.
South Sudan, the world's youngest country, won independence from Sudan in 2011. Since then, it has been riven by continued attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army and other rebel militants, and from civil war that erupted in 2013.
The reality of war has made instability the norm for the Peni children and others like them.
"We are used to any type of change and any type of environment," Natalia said last month while cooking dinner in her temporary home in Kampala, Uganda's capital. "I'm not afraid of going to the USA."
Eight thousand miles away in West Des Moines, Mary and Milton Cole-Duvall, both Episcopal priests, are prepared to open their home to Natalia and her siblings.
Since 2009, they have tried to navigate a bureaucratic, multinational maze to adopt the children. Yet so many unknowns remain — whether formal adoption is possible, when the children might arrive and how many will come — that only faith and hope are left to guide them.
"We've done everything we can on this end," Mary said. "I think we're just going to get a call one day that says, 'The kids are coming.' "
With children's safety at stake, 'how can we say no?'
The Cole-Duvalls met Samuel Peni in 2008 at an Episcopal Diocese of Iowa convention in Des Moines. Peni, a sharp Sudanese man with insatiable energy, was studying at the University of Dubuque and Wartburg College theological seminaries.
The weekend they met, Peni uttered a request that slapped Milton hard: "Will you take my children so they will not die?" Milton recalls him saying.
Milton, 71, and Mary, 56, who lead St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in West Des Moines, agreed that day.
They said they had little to ponder given years of sermons about Jesus' admonition in the Gospel of Matthew to care for "the least of these."
"If there's any integrity in anything we ever say or preach or do, how can we say no?" Milton said.
When the South Sudan Diocese of Nzara was established in 2010, with Peni as bishop, the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa partnered with it.
Today, a family at St. Timothy's pays for the Peni children's schooling in Uganda. The Cole-Duvalls cover the $190 monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Kampala. That's where Natalia lives with her brother Daniel, 11, and, when they are not at boarding school, sisters Victoria, 18, and Ika, 15.
Bishop Peni and his wife, Sentina, make the four-day bus journey from Nzara, South Sudan, to Uganda several times a year. Sometimes violence renders the trip impossible.
"Kampala is good in the sense that it is peace. There is no fear," Peni said while visiting his children last month. But, he added, "anywhere for small children is a risk. You need an adult to be with them and guide them."
Peni, 45, turned to the Cole-Duvalls because he believes he cannot play that role. He says safety and education are the top two priorities for his kids.
Four times in the past 15 years, he has nearly been assassinated, he said. In 2005, he was saved by someone who stepped into a line of rebel gunfire in Yambio. "If this man had remained where he was, I would be dead," Peni said.
In 2007, guards apprehended a man trying to follow Peni into a latrine. The man dropped two grenades and confessed he intended to kill the bishop.
"I am seeking ways in which peace can happen in South Sudan and that is very dangerous," Peni said. He forges ahead with twin passions for the Christian church and the South Sudanese people.
Peni splits his time between overseeing his diocese as bishop, an unpaid position, and chairing the Episcopal Church of South Sudan & Sudan's Justice, Peace and Reconciliation Commission.
"What role can the church play to build this country human-wise?
Infrastructure? Education?" Peni said. "I really want to stay with my people."
He wants that for his children, too. But the near-death experiences convinced him to send them away.
"When I visited Milton and his family, I was always thinking about my wife and children: 'What can I do to bring them out, so at least I can concentrate?' " Peni said.
Expensive adoption effort hits a legal brick wall
The Cole-Duvalls have two daughters, ages 15 and 17, and one adult son. The older two were both adopted.
Milton, a West Des Moines school board member and retired reverend, first traveled to South Sudan and met the Peni children in 2010 for the bishop's ordination. He returned to Africa in 2012 and hired a lawyer to arrange an adoption.
After spending several thousand dollars on the effort, he contracted malaria — turning a two-week stay into nine — and hit a brick wall: The fledgling nation had no process for legal adoption.
A judge said that even if he wanted to help, he couldn't.
"I felt a bit disheartened," Milton said.
Peni pivoted quickly and moved his whole family temporarily across the border to secure refugee status in a U.N.-supervised displaced-persons camp in northern Uganda.
That put the children's future in the hands of the Office of the Prime Minister's Department of Refugees in Kampala, which issues travel documents that would allow them to leave Uganda for the U.S., where they could pursue adoption.
Such resilience has baffled the Cole-Duvalls.
"It's Bishop Peni's hope that has really helped us stay the course. He is the most hopeful person I have ever met," Mary said.
She made her first trip to South Sudan and met some of the children in February.
Hopeful response leads to more weeks of waiting
The Department of Refugees office in Kampala captures East Africa's colorful diversity within the walls of one secure compound: men in bright-white djellabas, women in multi-hued batik-print dresses, a woman in distressed jeans and stilettos, a blind man, wailing babies.
On a July 10 visit, Peni showed up without an appointment. Tall and slender, with a silver cross dangling from a long chain around his neck, he towered above most of the crowd.
It was his second visit that week. The day before, he failed to gain access to his children's caseworker. But this day, Vivian Oyella, a protection officer and senior legal adviser in the department, agreed to see him.
She delivered the most promising news Peni and the Cole-Duvalls have heard in some time. "Your application looks very positive," she said.
Oyella explained that the Ugandan government has established tiers of priority for issuing refugee travel documents, starting with those in need of medical care overseas. Travel for business comes next. Then those seeking to move abroad for education, which Oyella said could cover the Peni children.
The bishop handed her a sheaf of supporting letters from Lisa Remy, the West Des Moines schools superintendent, Iowa Supreme Court Justice Edward Mansfield, and other influential members of St. Timothy's church.
"You have a lot more backup than many applications I have seen," Oyella said, though she declined to make promises.
The final decision rests with the department's commissioner, who reviews all applications personally. "So I do not want to give you 100 percent hope," she said.
As of this week, Peni still awaits news of whether any of his children will receive travel documents.
Enjoying time together, as 'maybes' cloud future
One afternoon in the Kampala apartment, seated on a twin bed-turned-sofa in the living room, Peni affectionately described each of his four eldest children in turn.
- Natalia: "A bit shy. In Africa, as an oldest child, you have a special responsibility. There are some times she is strong and times when she is weak."
- Victoria: "A bit sharp. She doesn't give up quickly."
- Ika: "The brightest. She is orderly." If the others misbehave in their parents' absence, "she will tell them, and then she will tell us."
- Daniel: "Still young. In African culture, once you are a boy, you have the right to take first place. But sometimes he is yet to recognize his place."
How does a parent decide when to let a child go? Peni believes he has prepared these four, as best he and his wife can, for their next chapter.
"The age they are now, knowing what is good, they can go and have the opportunity," he said.
He is unsure about sending the younger three away, which is why they remain in South Sudan. One suffers from spina bifida. But it would be difficult not to seize the opportunity if all the children receive U.S. travel documents.
There are many maybes. Maybe Natalia, as the well-trained eldest, could help the Cole-Duvalls care for the youngsters. Maybe having all the children adopted at once would be best. Or maybe the youngest would benefit from more African parenting, which Peni laughingly describes as less "diplomatic" than American parenting.
"Me and Sentina, we are doing our part to help our children to grow to be somebody," Peni said.
"One thing I ask is that they remember where they came from, that they remember their parents. When they go, we say, 'At least they are safe. At least they have access to education and they have choice.' "
The children typically talk with their mother by phone daily. When their parents visit, it's a special occasion.
During Peni's visit in July, he arranged for Ika to take leave from boarding school. She spent nearly all the time at home with her sister — cooking, listening to music (Josh Groban, Backstreet Boys and the Irish boy band Westlife), doing schoolwork or braiding hair.
At one point, Ika begged her dad to prolong her break, scheduled to end Saturday. "I missed my daddy for a long time. I want to go (back) on Sunday," she said from the couch across the room.
She lamented boarding-school grub — beans and corn porridge — twice daily. But she missed more than home cooking; she missed the ritual of making food for her family. As Ika and Natalia squatted before a cookstove in the alley behind their home, stewing fresh tilapia with tomatoes and onions, they described cooking as a traditional rite of passage into womanhood.
When talk turned to marriage, Natalia revealed less-traditional views. Most women in her culture marry in their late teens, but she plans to wait until at least 28, after finishing college.
It would please her father, she said, then smiled.
"Once you have money and you are educated, they will come running for you," she added. "It's better that way, because marriage is not an easy thing."
With family split by war, their faith offers hope
Every evening before dinner, the Peni family gathers to read Scripture, sing and pray.
Peni leads the devotions whenever he visits, but he expects his children to continue the practice even when he's gone. The family's Bibles and hymnals, worn with use and barely held together by tape, suggest they obey.
"Open our hearts," Ika prayed, "so that we may listen to what you give us."
They meditate on Jesus' words in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Luke: "Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you."
Peni offered his thoughts: "Children, what I can share is that loving your enemies when someone has done something wrong means you don't turn to dislike them. You show them love. You just give yourself."
The day was July 9, the fourth anniversary of South Sudan's independence.
Peni later explained that the date is filled with more sadness than celebration because of the ongoing war — a war that splits his family and compels him to give his kids away.
The South Sudanese "have turned against ourselves and fight one another," he said. "Even now, we ask ourselves: How can we have hope?"
The refrain of the family's closing hymn that night provided one answer: "Pass me not, oh gentle Savior, hear my humble cry," they sang. "While on others Thou art calling, Do not pass me by."
South Sudan conflict and refugee displacement
The conflict in South Sudan is currently one of four, level-three global emergencies — the most severe crisis designation given by the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Nearly 750,000 South Sudanese have fled their homeland as refugees or asylum-seekers since the country gained independence from Sudan in 2011. An additional 1.6 million people — one-seventh of South Sudan's population — have been internally displaced since civil war erupted in 2013. Thousands of civilians have been killed in the fighting.
Roughly 4.6 million people in the country were identified as "severely food insecure" and in need of assistance, according to a UN report filed this month.
The crisis across South Sudan stems from a collision of armed rebel groups, inter-tribal conflict and political interests seeking control of resources in the face of flooding, drought and food scarcity.
One of Africa's oldest and most violent rebel groups, The Lord's Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony, has also killed and abducted many in the country.
The militants are known for turning their captives into child soldiers or sex slaves. The LRA was pushed out of northern Uganda nearly a decade ago and relocated in the border region of South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. They continue to operate with diminishing numbers in these areas.
International Reporting Project
Des Moines Register reporter Timothy Meinch spent two weeks reporting from Uganda in July in collaboration with freelance journalist Jeff Chu, who was supported by a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.
Published in The DesMoines Register; August 22, 2015
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