BOUTH, Sudan – Gary Kusunoki used to be a police lieutenant in San Clemente, Calif. Now he's working a different, far more dangerous beat — in the sands of southern Sudan.
Kusunoki gave up his badge to take up the cloth on behalf of Orange County, California's Calvary Chapel. His new job is to bring food and faith to people suffering in one of the world's forgotten war zones.
In addition to humanitarian work, Kusunoki and his cohorts are struggling to convince the Bush administration that theirs is a cause worth joining. The message seems to be getting through.
In congressional hearings earlier this year, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "There is no greater tragedy on the face of the earth than the tragedy that is unfolding in Sudan."
The war tearing apart Sudan has been raging for at least 18 years. On one side is the hard-line Arab Islamic government based in the North; on the other, rebels of the black African South — many of them Christian or followers of traditional animist faiths.
So far, 2 million people have died in the fighting, another 3 million are slowly starving to death and 4 million more are homeless. The toll of the conflict is the worst of any since World War II.
Its opponents charged the Sudanese government with a long list of wrongs: Persecution of southern Christians, encouraging slavery, ethnic cleansing, terrorizing dissidents by targeting civilian and religious sites, and arbitrarily blocking international food aid to needy regions.
The United Nations is the main supplier of aid to the region; the U.S. a principal donor. In the past year, $135 million worth of American aid went to Sudan.
Safe Harbor and the several other American, faith-based humanitarian groups like it work outside of the U.N. umbrella, without the permission of the Sudanese government.
Their planes and operatives are in constant danger of attack from government forces.
One of Kusunoki's recent missions took him to the town of Bouth, a stronghold of the rebel SPLA army with which Safe Harbor works.
The scene of intense recent fighting, Bouth is a Sudanese government-enforced "No-Go Zone." By agreement with the government in Khartoum, not even U.N. aid workers' missions are allowed to work there.
The Russian-made plane carrying Kusunoki and a Fox News team into Bouth left as quickly as it arrived for fear of coming under fire. A legitimate fear, apparently; the sounds of government helicopter gunships firing in the distance could be heard.
Kusunoki and his team of aid workers stayed anyway, though, bringing sacks of maize, seed, and fishing line and tackle (a tributary of the Nile River is nearby) for the starving residents of Bouth. Also on board, a doctor to aid the sick, including several malnourished children.
"If we don't get them food from outside sources," Kusunoki said, "the people here would just starve."
Kusunoki also brings with him another kind of aid — the spiritual kind, which he believes is also important in his new-age crusade.
Upon arrival, Kusunoki was greeted by what looked like the entire population of the village, most of them singing renditions of Christian hymns, carrying crosses and breaking out into an African version of a Christian revival meeting.
Despite years of persecution, the Christian population in southern Sudan has maintained its centuries-old faith. Native pastors from churches come to Bouth from miles around to hear from and compare notes with the missionaries from Safe Harbor. They listen to sermons in the long, thatched roof buildings that are the churches of this Sudanese region and receive bibles from Safe Harbor in the various languages of the tribes in the vicinity.
Why Bibles for people who are starving? Kusunoki says his mission is two-fold. "We brought them food," he says, "but our job is to minister to the whole man."
There are some who say the approach taken by groups like Safe Harbor is too simplistic. The critics say Safe Harbor's calls for Washington to take on the cause of the southern rebels and demand an end to the Sudanese government's bombing campaigns in the South is more involved than the Bush administration might want to be in what is essentially a civil war.
Furthermore, they say that by cooperating with the rebel SPLA forces the aid groups are only prolonging the conflict.
But Kusunoki says building morale among the persecuted Christians, reminding them that they are not alone, is worth the effort.
"I hear more times than not," he says, "the value is not what we bring, the value is that we are willing to risk our lives."
And during a heartfelt going-away ceremony upon Kusunoki's departure, the people in Bouth appeared to back up his claims.