Jason Byassee: Leadership as dancing the dance of all your people

Bishop Paride Taban and his Holy Trinity Peace Village are a sign of genuine hope from the wilderness.

Sometimes in the Christian journey you meet someone who makes you think the whole thing might be true: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, the world God loves and the church through which he is saving it.

I met such a person recently: Paride Taban, a retired Catholic bishop from Torit in the south of Sudan. Taban was at Duke Divinity School’s Center for Reconciliation, speaking at the center’s Teaching Communities Week event. You can learn more about his life and ministry in the newly posted interview here. Since Taban’s “retirement” as a bishop, he has founded the Holy Trinity Peace Village in Kuron, in a remote area near the border with Ethiopia. The goal was to have a village without tribalism. Not that all tribes are bad: Taban speaks of his own tribe disliking having a gun in a hut. The presence of a gun brings the rebuke, “You have brought death in the house.” He speaks of another tribe, the Ik, in which members hold their nose if a quarrel breaks out. The Ik deal in honey rather than cattle, since no tribe raids another for bees.

The primary problem with tribalism in Sudan is conflict between the Muslim and Arab and often Sharia-imposing north, and the Christian and animist south, which, unfortunately, has oil under its sand. The north is unlikely ever to let that rich resource go. Hopes for peace on geo-political terms look absurd. But Holy Trinity Peace Village is a sign that the church and the world may have reason to hope.

The peace village was inspired partly by the sawmill village in which Taban grew up. It was a new village, founded by British colonizers, with workers brought in from all tribes. So the place knew no tribalism (colonialism brought other problems, to be sure). It had a chapel, not a church or a mosque, and the children prayed with whoever led services: “Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, didn’t matter,” Taban said. This is remarkable, especially in a country in which the Muslim north has launched a civil war, resisted by the Southern People’s Liberation Army’s (SPLA) state-like army in the south, that has left 2 million largely Christian southerners dead.

The most moving story for me from the Teaching Communities Week was told by a seminary student named Joseph Taban (no relation). He attended the bishop’s enthronement even though he is Anglican. He watched as the bishop danced the tribal dance of each of the tribes in his parish. A new tribe would rise to dance in welcome and celebration and the bishop would dance with them. “I saw you,” Joseph said. “Even though I was Anglican, I didn’t care, I went. And I still have the pictures.”

What an image for leadership. Dancing the dance of your people -- all of them. Going to them even if it means putting your own life at risk. Building a village to model a life of abundance and peace, even in the middle of nowhere. And being able, through it all, to poke fun at yourself.

That’s not just an inspiration to lead. It’s an inspiration to believe, not just in God, but in the human beings with whom God is so unendingly patient.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.