Comforting Lyrics, Coronavirus, Distant Dreams

A Letter from Nancy and Shelvis Smith-Mather, serving in South Sudan, and the United Kingdom, currently in the United States

February 2020

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“What songs are you learning at choir practice?” I ask.
“I don’t know their names,” Jordan replies.
Not wanting to end it there, I prod: “Can you sing one for me?”
He begins with an unusually controlled, sweet voice, “Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring…”
When he starts to trail off, I add a few verses from my memory,
“God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way…”

My seven-year old’s school choir in Oxford, England, practiced “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for their closing assembly before the Easter holiday. Jordan would have learned that song in our home church, with its mainly African-American membership, if we still lived in Georgia. I didn’t expect he would sing it in the United Kingdom.

Helping our children connect to their African-American heritage remains deeply important to us. Yet, with the main setting for our family story staged overseas, they are not around the African-American community often. So, I thank God that the poem put to music, the official song of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), often heard during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, reached us in England. It makes the world seem very small, very linked.

Due to the outbreak of a global pandemic, the Easter assembly never happened. On February 27th, when I left the UK to monitor progress on the South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Program (SSEPP), there were only 15 recorded coronavirus cases in England. Two weeks later, after visiting refugee camps in Uganda and landing in a rural area of South Sudan, so much had changed. The U.S. restricted travel from Europe, and the Presbyterian Mission Agency banned all work-related international travel of employees effective March 11th. My ticket to leave Pochalla, a very isolated part of South Sudan, had a March 12th departure date.

My initial thought: “I want to be with my family.”
Second thought: “What can I do if I remain in Pochalla?” The answer to that question came easily: I could teach at the local Presbyterian primary school.

During my time in Pochalla, two of the school’s teachers took temporary jobs with NGOs providing humanitarian services in the surrounding area, further reducing an already limited teaching staff. The school offers classes from nursery school through Primary 8. One teacher per class would require nine teachers. Some mornings during my stay, only 4-5 teachers showed up. Half of the classes lacked teachers. Students sat in their classrooms or under a tree waiting patiently for a teacher until the dismissal bell rang.

After class, I met with 21 female students on scholarship through the SSEPP program. “It will not be easy,” I told them, “but if you work hard, you can reach your goals.” Walking away from the gathering, I wished I could change my words to, “if you study hard, you can gain skills to help your family and community.” Fortunately, these girls knew any educational accomplishment achieved would ultimately benefit their community. Nevertheless, the chances of these girls realizing their exact aspirations felt so slim. Most of the girls want to be doctors, yet Pochalla does not even have a high school. Furthermore, the majority of girls do not finish primary school, and they are forced to marry young and start families.

After my request for an exception to the employee travel ban was granted, I left Pochalla and rejoined my family in Oxford on March 14th. UK schools closed on March 20th. We returned to the US as a family the following day.

As lines of virus transmission cross the world map like airline routes, the disease exemplifies our connection to people who appear so distant. While our US healthcare system struggles to cope with large numbers of infections, we know other nations are much less equipped. A recent article by the Guardian, entitled: “Africa’s Fragile Health Systems Rush to Contain Coronavirus,” stated that the country of South Sudan has only 24 hospital isolation beds. God have mercy. Even with such vast disparity, the pain of losing loved ones cuts equally deep across cultures and time zones. God helps us all.

I suppose it makes sense that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” reached Jordan’s choir in England. The lyrics describe something essential to being human: the need to find hope in the midst of suffering. In today’s heartbreaking struggle to save lives, let us take courage, remembering that the God, “who has brought us thus far on the way,” who has seen us through tragedy after tragedy, will remain with us through the peaks and the flattening of the curve.

And, while we are socially distant from one another, let us not stop thinking creatively about ways we can touch the lives of those geographically near and far. Every person needs to feel connected, valued, loved, and hopeful. Pochalla needs doctors, just as many parts of the world need stronger healthcare and education systems. While we cannot do it all, God shows us which part is for us to play for today and then again for tomorrow. Amen.

Thank you for your support of our family. In this difficult time, may God surround you and your loved ones with healing and hope.


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