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United Methodist student helps free slaves in Sudan

10/12/2000

By United Methodist News Service

Gerald "Jay" Williams, a young United Methodist from New York, recently returned from a trip to Sudan where he helped free 4,000 slaves. Now he is calling on the United States to help put an end to slavery in the North African country.

Williams, 19, is a sophomore at Harvard, where he is a religion and pre-med major. Active in the church, he led his Western New York Annual (regional) Conference delegation to the denomination's General Conference in May.

His trip to Sudan with the Swiss-based rescue group Christian Solidarity International (CSI) was historic, according to Jesse Sage, associate director of the American Anti-Slavery Group, where Williams interned last year.

"This 19-year-old has done more to free slaves than any American political leader," Sage said. "He risked his life to bring freedom to 4,000 African women and children."

Williams was instrumental in getting a resolution passed by the General Conference that officially places the denomination in support of efforts to end modern-day slavery. The resolution's full text will appear in the church's upcoming Book of Resolutions from the United Methodist Publishing House. The church's 1996 Book of Discipline already describes slavery as an "infamous evil" and declares that "all forms of enslavement are totally prohibited and shall in no way be tolerated by the Church."

CSI has been redeeming slaves in Sudan since 1995. African women and children who have been abducted in slave raids by Arab militia forces are bought back by rescuers in a system that has freed more than 38,000. Armed with a recorder, Williams said his role during his Sept. 5-11 trip was to interview slaves and to document their stories of torture and mistreatment.

"I was shocked and disgusted that in the year 2000, when we are so advanced in the United States and economic conditions are improving in many places around the world, that we are leaving hundreds of thousands of people behind in very primitive forms of existence," he said.

While the United States has documented the slavery in Sudan, Williams said he is disappointed that the country has not done more to stop it. "I'm not talking about military force, but we should at least speak out in the U.N. and to Sudan particularly that this has to end. It is within our power to do so, and we could make a big impact."

A native of Buffalo, Williams first learned about contemporary slavery during a gospel concert in Cambridge, Mass. Shocked by the news that black slavery was not history, he became active in the American Anti-Slavery Group and mobilized fellow students to come to the aid of 27 million people that the organization says are enslaved worldwide.

Williams said he was not fully prepared for the situation he found in Sudan. "As we approached areas in the bush where slaves had gathered, we could hear murmuring. Then, there they were - hundreds of slaves in tattered clothing, dusty, no shoes, very thin. I almost broke down."

The hardest part of his trip, he said, was hearing the individual stories. "They poured out their lives to me. Most of the people I interviewed were Christians. They said they had been praying to God for help. They found strength in that. I couldn't cry because they didn't cry. The only time I saw them cry was tears of joy when they were reunited with family members."

CSI says 4,435 slaves were freed in five locations in September. Since 1995, more than 38,000 slaves have been liberated. The organization, based in Zurich, says slaves are mainly Christian and traditionalist women and children, who were captured during raids by the government of Sudan's armed forces, in particular the Popular Defense Forces. Men are often killed during the slave raids. The raids take place in the context of the government of Sudan's declared jihad (Islamic holy war) against black African minorities, according to CSI. Freed slaves report that they have been subjected by their masters to systematic physical and psychological torture, including gang rape, beatings, death threats, genital mutilation and forced conversion to Islam.

Freed slaves reach their homeland in Southern Sudan by walking in small groups, at night and for up to 15 days, from government-controlled areas of the north, according to CSI. During the day, they are hidden at "safe farms" and cattle camps.

The CSI-sponsored "underground railroad" is conducted by Arab Muslim retrievers, who act at the request of black African community leaders. The retrievers represent Arab communities that have defied the government of Sudan's call to jihad by forging local peace pacts with their black African neighbors. During their September visit, CSI representatives paid the Arab retrievers $33 for every liberated slave, the local purchase price of two goats.

Williams noted that some humanitarian groups are critical of the practice of purchasing freedom for slaves, arguing that it might actually create a market for slaves. "I don't agree," he said. "The system of slavery is not based on economics as it was in the United States. If slavery ended in Sudan, the economy would not collapse. When we redeem one slave, there is not the need for another to replace that one. Slavery in Sudan is based on jihad by a radical Islamic group. It's genocide."

The resolution passed by the 2000 United Methodist General Conference notes that the institution of slavery controls the lives of more than 27 million people and that Methodism's founder, John Wesley, frequently spoke out against slavery. In a sermon on "the use of money," Wesley condemned slavery as incompatible with Christ's teaching.

For more information about the anti-slavery movement, visit the Web site at www.anti-slavery.org or contact Williams directly at jay@anti-slavery.org.

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