More than 60 people arrived in Lexington on Friday with a hefty goal for Labor Day weekend: start a dialogue about peace in South Sudan.

The South Sudanese Diaspora Network for Reconciliation and Peace began its conference Friday at the Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Lexington. Dozens of South Sudanese living in the U.S. and Canada are attending the conference to start a constructive dialogue and discuss steps to lasting peace in their home country.

South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011 after years of mistrust and conflict between the north and south. Two years later, civil war broke out within South Sudan. The country is made up of more than 60 tribes, which causes consistent conflict. But in addition, much of the country is affected by trauma from constant wars and displacement.

South Sudan has long been considered one of the world’s most fragile states as it struggles to create a structured government. Animosity, hate speech, trauma and underdevelopment plague the country to this day, said Jacqueline Wilson, who worked for 11 years as an international peace trainer and facilitator for the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.

Wilson has traveled to South Sudan many times as part of her work and is facilitating the conference in Lexington. The weekend features speakers like Dane Smith, a retired U.S. ambassador, and Justin Badi Arama, the archbishop of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan.

Wilson will also facilitate discussions with presenters on identity, trauma, hate speech, mother tongue and narrative.

“There’s this very positive, hopeful goal to make a contribution to make South Sudan a more functioning, effective country,” Wilson said. “And to try to create and achieve a vision of what their country could be.”

The South Sudanese Diaspora Network for Reconciliation and Peace was created last year at a conference led by the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of the Sudans. Leaders who had been exiled from South Sudan gathered to discuss what would be necessary to achieve lasting peace in the country and decided to create an organized group.

This weekend’s conference falls on the day the church celebrates the feast day of the Rev. Marc Nikkel, who worked as a missionary in South Sudan before he died in 2000.

In January, the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia met for its convention. The minister of Grace Episcopal Church asked the founder of the American Friends group to speak at the church’s Marc Nikkel celebration. But he said he couldn’t because he was helping the Diaspora Network find a venue for its conference, Grace Episcopal Church Program Director Sharon Massie said.

Grace Episcopal Church offered to host the conference and invited Lexington Presbyterian Church and other area churches to help. Members of these churches are hosting the guests in their homes and transporting them to and from the conference.

“Our church was eager to take something like this on,” Massie said. “We’re trying to practice radical hospitality and help these people who are trying to reconcile.”

Massie said people are coming from all over the country to attend this conference and the church is thrilled to offer a safe place for these groups to talk.

“To me, it’s a lesson that not only the South Sudanese need, but the whole world needs,” she said. “We need to take care of each other. We need to treat each other with love and kindness and respect.”

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Alison Graham covers Roanoke County and Salem news. She’s originally from Indianapolis and a graduate of Indiana University.

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