In 2001, just one month before 9/11, 32,000 evangelical youth invaded Midland, Texas. Drawn to a Christian music festival called “Rock the Desert,” they clapped and danced to the rock anthems of Newsboys and Skillet. Festival organizers also highlighted a social and diplomatic crisis in Sudan, then a war zone with one of the worst global records of religious persecution and human rights violations perpetrated by the Sudanese government and Janjaweed Arab militias. Over the next several years, as the attendance exceeded 90,000, organizers built a mock slave cell and an authentic Sudanese village and handed out promotional material on the Sudan Peace Act.
Activism surged well beyond the festival grounds. Midland itself, the site of a recent evangelical revival in a city already saturated with churches, hosted the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, which directed considerable attention to Sudan. Ex-child slave Francis Bok frequently visited local churches, speaking of his desire “to free his people in bondage.” Midland activists mobilized in support of the Bachus Amendment to the proposed Sudan Peace Act that would deny access to American stock exchanges for oil companies doing business in Sudan. They lobbied President Bush and held a series of vigils at the State Department. Bok even traveled to the White House to speak with the president. For the first time since the nineteenth century, observers noted, an American president had met with a former slave. But it was Midland, according to political scientist Allen Hertzke, that became “ground-zero in the grass roots campaign on Sudan … and a strategic player in high-level negotiations leading toward a peace treaty.” This activism, documented by Hertzke in Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights, extended the evangelical efforts that had helped pass the landmark International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.