In November 2011 Abikök “Abi” Riak became manager of operations and programs at the Center for Reconciliation. Riak spent the previous 13 years with World Vision International, where she was the director of external engagement for South Sudan and regional peace-building coordinator for the Asia Pacific region. We spoke to her about her background, her new role, and why reconciliation matters to her.
Tell us about your family. Where did you grow up?
I have a very unique family. My dad is from South Sudan, and my mom is from Jamaica. My dad left South Sudan when he was 15 as a refugee. He walked for seven days to central Africa, and he was in a refugee camp for quite some time. Mennonite missionaries arranged for him to go to college in the United States, where he met my mom at Bluffton College in Ohio.
They got married, had my brother, and then moved to Jamaica after they graduated. I was born in Jamaica and spent the first five years of my life there, and then we moved to Northern California so my parents could do their graduate work at Stanford. When I was 14, we moved to Kenya and I went to high school there.
Riak on Attending the Great Lakes Initiative Leadership Institute
Where is your name from? Does it have a specific meaning?
Abikök is a South Sudanese name from the Moinjeng tribe, and it means “a child born in exile.” In many ways it’s been a testament to my life, trying to find my place in a world that’s not my own.
What was it like going to South Sudan after the war ended?
Growing up, my parents were very committed to peace in South Sudan. Every conversation around the dinner table at night was about South Sudan. So to actually be there in January 2011 to vote in the referendum for independence, that was amazing and powerful. To be there in July to see the birth of this new baby nation and the flag being raised was overwhelming. To be able to be there with family and friends who were once in exile but were now home was a true gift. I don’t think anybody actually believed it would really happen. You know in your heart that you’re working for a better good, but the work itself and the challenges can be so exhausting. To see the fruit of your labor and sacrifice is truly life changing. It’s inspirational.
After decades of civil war and displacement, has peace lived up to expectations?
During the war, my mom worked with Sudanese refugee women in Nairobi. They created an organization that was focused on working together and building community. At the time, so many of the language, ethnic, and religious divisions that would have separated them before washed away. As refugees, they needed to come together.
In South Sudan now, peace has opened up amazing opportunities, but it’s also created a downside where the expectations of the average South Sudanese are so high. There’s starting to be a sense of disillusionment about independence and peace. There are increasingly high levels of corruption, and sadly there’s increasing division between ethnic groups.
That’s one of the reasons that I’m excited about working with the Center for Reconciliation. A key focus is on creating the space for Christian leaders to live into the ministry of reconciliation; to lead from a place where their identity in Christ through baptism is stronger and more powerful than their identity through tribe or ethnic background.
Why did you decide to come to the Center for Reconciliation?
Simply stated, I wanted to be a better Christian. Over the past 13 years working with a very large corporation, I forgot who I was. I forgot about those core beliefs that had always guided me. Most importantly, I forgot how central reconciliation is to the gospel. I appreciate the uniqueness of Christianity in offering a space to think through and envision something different and something better than the world that we live in now. Working with the Center for Reconciliation is an opportunity to rediscover myself. An old friend and mentor introduced me to Chris Rice. We started talking about the Center, where it was organizationally, and what it was looking to accomplish over the next few years. It was a really good match in terms of what the Center was looking for and the skill sets that I have.
What are some of the ways you’ll help the Center?
Over time I’ve become increasingly interested in how organizations work, especially Christian organizations, which I think tend to focus a lot on relationships and not so much on the sound business processes, procedures, and policies that help an organization be effective independent of an individual or individuals. Don’t get me wrong, individuals are the key to any organization’s success. But without good systems and processes, those individuals find it increasingly more difficult to be effective.
Over the past seven years, the Center has been a dynamic entrepreneurial organization, and the Dean has made it clear that he wants to see the Center more integrated into the DNA of the Divinity School. To do that, the Center has to grow organizationally in terms of financial management, budgeting, fundraising, and communications. My role will include working with different entities within the Divinity School to integrate the Center more fully into the school. We will also work more closely with students and faculty.
How does the theology of reconciliation inspire your work here in a way that’s different from your work at World Vision?
When I first started working in international development, my focus was on working with individuals and communities to build peace. And it was very much a skills-based approach: Do this training, follow these steps, and you will have a better community. There was very little focus on the eternal aspect of a relationship with God. Reconciliation is a journey; it’s not a project. You can’t tick things off and say, “I’ve done this, and I’ve done that, and now I’m reconciled.”
Theology matters. It’s another thing that I really appreciate about the Center–the deeply theological approach to reconciliation. It’s not just this touchy-feely “Can’t we all just get along?” approach. It’s going back to the Bible and seeing what’s in Scripture that leads us toward reconciliation. Before, I looked at reconciliation as an end in itself. Now I’m thinking, “Reconciliation toward what?”