Evangelicals at the front lines

Posted: Mar 27, 2001 12:00 AM
As Easter approaches, evangelicals are once again bedeviled by academic and media stereotypes. You'd think from press coverage that conservative Christians are all self-absorbed seekers of personal peace and affluence. Some evangelicals are that, of course, but under the news network radar others are fighting for human rights in some of the most brutal environments on earth -- from Sudan deserts where innocent villagers are repeatedly bombed to American prison cells where inmates are repeatedly raped. Look, for example, at the work of Gary Kusunoki, pastor of Calvary Chapel at Rancho Santa Margarita, outside Los Angeles. Prejudiced journalists would envision from the location itself a laid-back church with members enjoying deep tans and shallow lives. But from his church, Kusonoki runs Safe Harbor International, a relief organization that has helped victims in areas of Sudan so dangerous that United Nations relief workers left long ago. Kusonoki has flown countless missions into southern Sudan, which has been ravaged repeatedly during the 18-year-old civil war between the Islamic regime in the north and the rebel alliance of the south. Kusonoki and his wife, Carol, have adopted two Sudanese girls whose mothers were killed in the war. One of the girls had a bullet wound when relief workers discovered her. Mindy Belz of World magazine (which I edit) reports that Kusonoki returned Saturday from his most recent mission to southern Sudan. He and his team camped five miles from what was the town of Nhialdu, until it was attacked and burned by a government-aligned militia on March 6. With only charred houses and slaughtered cattle remaining, some 25,000 homeless Sudanese would be starving but for the 49 metric tons of grain and supplies that Safe Harbor brought in for them and other desperate people. With government forces only a few miles away, the evangelicals who did the distributing risked death themselves as they saved others. They've been doing this for years, while the Clinton administration's Africa policy consisted largely of safaris, photo ops and business as usual. Clinton officials licensed General Electric to manufacture spare locomotive parts for Sudan. They partied with soft-drink makers who received permission to import gum arabic, an important beverage ingredient. Clintonism enabled Sudan's dictatorial government to increase its attacks on areas controlled by the Sudan People's Liberation Army, made up largely of Christians but also including Muslims disgusted by the government's brutality. Meanwhile, a confidential International Monetary Fund report shows that Sudanese agriculture is "undercapitalized" and cannot produce even at previous levels. The UN World Food Program predicts that 200,000 Sudanese will die of starvation and malnutrition this year. On March 16, Christian leaders met at the White House with key Bush advisor Karl Rove, pointing out humanitarian concerns and also the U.S. national security interest in applying some strict sanctions. After all, Sudan's regime invited radical Islamic terrorist Osama bin Laden to set up training camps there, and also opened facilities for Saddam Hussein to produce Scud missiles and weapons of mass destruction. With new financial and military backing from China, the Sudanese government could move from crushing rebels to threatening bordering democracies, as well as oil tankers and other Red Sea freight. So maybe the United States will take action -- and if so, it will be because of the evangelical push. If Sudan seems like an unusual subject of interest for those often disparaged as "Bible-thumpers," a second major topic this year seems even less likely: prison rape. Ann Morse of the evangelical group Prison Fellowship has shown that several hundred thousand men and boys, and 12,000 women and girls, are sexually assaulted every year in America's jails and prisons, with many raped multiple times. Few of these assaults are officially reported or prosecuted because prisoners fear retaliation by other inmates. The rape victims also tend to have a deep sense of shame. Many vow to get even in the way they can: by visiting violence upon others once they leave prison. Prison Fellowship head Charles Colson is calling for hearings into abuses and for legal changes to reduce prison rape, and he'll probably get them. Later this year, maybe, we'll see some press stories about what will be called the surprising evangelical tendency to move beyond the church walls. Those stories will be a surprise, though, only to those unfamiliar with American history. Evangelicals spearheaded the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War and the development of black colleges after the war. They've been at the forefront of most altruistic social movements, and many are once again.