Religious leaders point to pain in Darfur

With more than 200,000 killed, the African genocide must stop, speakers say at an interfaith meeting.

Published February 18, 2006

CLEARWATER - Her navy T-shirt said it all in big white letters.

Save Darfur.

That's what Lacey deVlaming, 21, a student at Eckerd College and self-described citizen of the world, intends to do.

She wore it to an interfaith event titled "Darfur: A Call to Your Conscience" on Thursday night at the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, or UUC.

The program was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Pinellas County and the UUC.

Through prayer and education, local religious leaders including the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, Rabbi David Weizman, Rabbi Danielle Upbin, Rabbi Arthur Baseman, Imam Wilmore Sadiki and others who spoke hoped to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis there.

Weizman, who has spoken out against the genocide for years, told the Old Testament story of Jacob's Ladder and said, "We go through life kind of sleeping."

"We act like we are sleeping when there are terrible things happening," he said. "We have been sleeping through many atrocities throughout history."

In Judaism, "we say never again," Weizman said, referring to the Holocaust.

"We want this violence stopped."

Sadiki said a prayer: "Lord, we implore you for help."

The Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of America, said the crisis "is within the power of the United States to stop."

"We need a multinational peacekeeping force on the ground, preferably under the auspices of the United Nations," he said.

Activists plan to deliver 1-million postcards signed by 1-million Americans to Washington during a demonstration on April 30. The cards ask President Bush to live up to a promise he made to stop the ethnic cleansing.

DeVlaming was handing them out in the darkness outside the sanctuary.

Although she has never been to the Sudanese region, she traveled to Africa when she was 18.

The poverty there blew her mind.

"The first image I saw was a milelong line at a gas station," she said. "Some people had waited for six days to get a quarter-tank of gas."

When she heard about the genocide in Darfur, she knew she had to act. She even skipped a meeting of a human rights group she belongs to and attended Thursday's event alone.

She was one of the few students there.

Most in University of South Florida religious studies professor Dell deChant's classes probably stayed home.

As he prepared for a speech to give at the event, he asked his students if they knew anything about the genocide in the Sudanese region.

Out of 120 people he teaches, only 12 percent responded that they did.

"The story of Darfur is not a story told often or well in America," said deChant, who is the assistant chairman of the department. "It is a sad and tragic story about ... a people far removed geographically, economically, politically, religiously and ethnically. They are not part of the American story. Not part of the cultural narrative of America. Not part of the collective mythos of America."

According to the Million Voices for Darfur Web site (www.millionvoicesfordarfur.org) warfare started in the African region three years ago when the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement attacked government military installations.

In retaliation, the government has supported Janjaweed militias who kill people living in areas they consider disloyal.

More than 200,000 residents of Darfur have been killed since the violence began three years ago, and some estimates put the number at 400,000. As many as 3-million rely on international aid for basic sustenance.

"I am saddened by the continuing tragedy of Darfur," deChant said. "I am saddened by the seemingly mindless, but actually quite mindful, killing, the matter-of-fact torture, the casualness of brutality, the wreck and ruin of numerous lives.

"My heart grieves for all the loss: the loss of human life, the loss of humanity, the loss of compassion, the loss of care and the loss of innocence. The loss of living in the eyes of the oppressed, the loss of humanness in the eyes of the oppressed."

One woman leaving the event vowed to teach others about the Darfur situation.

Sometimes it's hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, she said. Some people don't have bootstraps.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at 727 445-4153 or schulte@sptimes.com