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Serving in Uganda, graduate harnesses power of nonviolence

Serving in Uganda, graduate harnesses power of nonviolence

By Sarah Fertsch '19

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the April 24, 2017 issue of Mennonite World Review

From the mountains of Pennsylvania to the desert of Uganda, Messiah College graduate Phil Wilmot ’12 has gone to great lengths to promote peace through his nonprofit organization, Solidarity Uganda

Wilmot knew that he was passionate about peace from his early years. “I grew up in the heart of the Bible belt of the north, a rural Pennsylvania town with an active KKK,” said Wilmot. “I attended an evangelical church and was raised by a nationalistic family. Like many of my generation, I began questioning the worldview and values I had inherited during my teenage years.”

As a teenager, he played in a metal band, touring different local cities where he was exposed to homelessness and other social ills. These experiences never left him, and he began to wonder how he could advocate for people suffering from the neglect of society. 

While attending Messiah, Wilmot took time off to live among the homeless in downtown Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He also pioneered the peace and conflict studies major alongside Dr. George Pickens. Later, he studied abroad in Uganda, where he met Suzan, now his wife. After spending a few years in Pennsylvania after graduation, he felt God’s call to go back to Uganda to inspire nonviolent resistance. 

“I have seen the power and ability of nonviolence to effect change in the world,” said Wilmot. “Strategic nonviolent action is the most effective path toward liberating ourselves from the many forms of oppression we face.” 

Wilmot collaborated with the east Uganda community to start the nonprofit Solidarity Uganda. He and his team train, organize and empower locals to nonviolently spark social change. The organization has successfully exposed sexually violence, opposed unfair land theft, and pushed for the release of more than 100 political prisoners.  

Solidarity Uganda is currently working to repeal a sales tax that would impoverish local grain farmers. Wilmot and his organization have trained farmers to peacefully block the border of Uganda, halting traffic and the export of goods. They use radio shows to promote the civil resistance and are currently working to campaign in the public schools. 

“Virtually any problem presented to society can be addressed through civil resistance. Peaceful movements have ousted dictators and ended foreign occupations,” said Wilmot. “Research shows, in fact, that nonviolent movements have been ten times more effective than violent movements in authoritarian countries.” 

For Wilmot, his faith was tested when he was arrested for speaking out against the oppressive Ugandan government. Wilmot, his wife Suzan (who was pregnant at the time), and three other activists were sprayed with gas, and then arrested. They were held in a torture facility for four days. Wilmot says that in Uganda, 80 percent of inmates are on remand, meaning they have not been convicted of a crime. 

“Arrests, threats, intimidation and disappearances are a weekly reality of our work,” said Wilmot.  After his arrest, he wrote a book titled “A Wolf Dressed in Sheepskin: A White Guy’s Dilemma in a Ugandan Jail Cell.” The book is now available for purchase on Amazon.  

Although he is passionate about peace, Wilmot spends most of his time with his kids. His wife Suzan is on the Board of Executive Directors for Solidarity Uganda. 

Wilmot cites the Ugandan dictatorship, extreme climate change and poor access to water as problems his organization expects to face soon. “Peace, to me, is liberation from oppression, a reality of total freedom and abundance that cannot be achieved merely through the not-doing of violence,” said Wilmot.

Messiah College offers a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or a minor in peace and conflict studies. As a peace and conflict major at Messiah College, students will learn about the nature of conflict and about the Christian foundations for peacemaking and reconciliation.