Pillow Talk

A Letter from Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather, serving in South Sudan, currently in the U.K.

November 2019

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“We are not in a country at war,” Shelvis stated, feeling a bit reflective the night before his orientation week at Oxford University. A good bit of the time we lived in South Sudan, civil war was ongoing.

“We are not worried about diseases like cholera or Ebola,” he continued, triggering memories of the numerous times we were checked for Ebola traveling in and out of our small town of Arua, Uganda. Arua is in Northern Uganda and shares a porous border with Congo, where an Ebola outbreak continues to claim lives.

South Sudan also borders Congo. Earlier this year, I failed the temperature test at the airport three times when trying to enter South Sudan for a visit. Before departing from Uganda heading to South Sudan, I did not have a fever, yet the bumpy, no-air-conditioning, tiny-plane flight shook up my health. The fact that the Ebola screening took place beside the dirt runway inside a tent already baked to sweltering by the morning sun did not help.

“Go sit under the mango tree and cool down,” the health worker advised. I sat for a few minutes, then re-entered the screening tent, to fail the test again. Two other travelers found themselves in the same boat, and we all returned to the shade of the tree again, anxious that we might miss the next leg of our travels.

“Can we have our temperatures taken under the tree?” one worried passenger inquired. The health worker agreed. With branches acting as the new medical center roof, the health worker pointed the digital thermometer at each of our temples. Sitting under the mango tree, we all passed the test, causing instant laughter and smiles …

“I think this is going to be a season of self-care for our family,” Shelvis continued as our children slept quietly in the next room and our heads lay cradled in warm pillows. “I don’t know many families who have lived lives like ours, on the edge of adventure and insanity, but I think it has taken a toll on us.”

I listened, grateful for a chance to pause, and grappling with the painful twinge that comes when emotional wounds of the past 10 years are referenced. The good memories of East Africa are quickly and easily shared, the difficult ones often kept quiet.

We arrived in England on the first of September. God opened doors for us to secure housing, get our visas, acquire winter wardrobes for our family, and not miss our plane. God even mobilized a few friends in the U.K. to warmly welcome us with flowers, brownies, helping hands and some cultural advice.

“It is unheard of,” the receptionist at our children’s new school said when we explained that we had shown up without an appointment at the County Council Office and had actually met with an admissions representative. The representative then emailed St. Ebbe’s Primary School the next day, granting Jordan and Addie permission to attend. Previously, we were told the process would take weeks, so the children would miss a month or more of school. We are grateful for grace.

Four days after the kids started school and daycare, I made a trip to Uganda and South Sudan checking on the Education and Peacebuilding Project. Traveling back and forth will be a new normal for our family, yet these three weeks away from our family was the longest I’ve been apart from the kids. Shelvis did an amazing job caring for them solo, sending me pictures frequently so I would not worry. “Dinner tonight, grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” came one note, featuring a sandwich photo.

After attending a reconciliation consultation between two rival groups living in the refugee camps in Uganda and meeting with partners and colleagues in South Sudan, I arrived back in Oxford on the second of October. One more hurdle stood between us and getting totally settled and unpacked. When our family first entered the U.K. we did so on a tourist visa. We had to leave the U.K. and re-enter using Shelvis’ student visa before the sixth of October. After allowing myself 24 hours to get control of a stomach bug I brought with me from South Sudan, we packed a suitcase with one extra outfit and PJs for everyone, and started a one-night trip to France.

While we made some great memories in Paris, I would not particularly recommend the trip for families with children ages 2 to 6. Just wait until they are a bit older. Case in point, on our way back from Paris to London on the “chunnel,” an under-the-ocean train, I asked Nicole, “Did you have fun in France?”

“I did not go to France,” she responded, not yet able to grasp the idea.

The kids did enjoy saying, “Bonjour!” and “Merci!”, words they remembered from their French class in their Ugandan School. Jordan also felt special taking a boat tour on the Seine River, as his new classroom bears the name. At St. Ebbe’s Primary School each class is named for a river. Addie is in “Congo” class.

Travel back to Oxford entailed three different trains and a bus ride which dropped us off on the side of the road, struggling to hold three sleeping children, in the chilly rain, at quarter to one in the morning. God winked at us, and a taxi happened by, able to take us to our doorstep.

One night after completing that trip, we found ourselves having enough space to relax and recognize our position at the cusp of a new season. Hence the pillow talk.

I heard wisdom in Shelvis’ words, which beckoned me to acknowledge the gravity of our difficult experiences that, while surrounded by many joyful ones, needed to be respected for their weight. Perhaps this time in England could allow appropriate healing for emotional and relational wounds. When so geographically close with people living in war or in conflict-forced refuge, it can be hard to take time to for self-care.

“I think this is going to be a time when we can establish some healthy patterns for our family,” Shelvis continued. “I think it will be good.”

In my spirit, I believed he was right.


Please read this important message from Sara Lisherness, interim director of Presbyterian World Mission

Dear friend of Presbyterian Mission,

Greetings in Christ! As the interim director of Presbyterian World Mission, I am grateful to have the opportunity to thank you for your continued support of PC(USA) mission co-workers.

The enclosed newsletter bears witness to some of the many ways in which God is at work in the world through long-standing relationships between global partners and the PC(USA). These partnerships are nurtured and strengthened by the presence of mission co-workers in over 40 countries; you are an important part of this partnership too, as you learn about and share how our church is involved in global ministry; as you pray for our partners and mission co-workers; and as you take action to work with others for God’s justice, peace and healing.

I write to invite you to continue joining us in partnership in three ways. First, your prayers are always needed. Please pray that God will continue guiding the shared work of the PC(USA) and global partners as we engage together in service around the world. Pray, too, for mission co-workers, that they may feel encouraged in the work they are doing under the leadership of global partners.

Second, please consider making a year-end gift for the sending and support of at least one mission co-worker. There is a remittance form at the end of this letter and an enclosed envelope so that you can send in a special year-end gift.

Finally, I encourage you to ask your session to include one or more mission co-workers in your congregation’s mission budget for 2020 and beyond. PC(USA) mission co-workers’ sending and support costs are funded by the designated gifts of individuals and congregations like yours; your gifts allow Presbyterian World Mission to fulfill global partners’ requests for mission personnel.

Faithfully in Christ,

Sara Pottschmidt Lisherness
Director, Compassion, Peace and Justice Ministry
Interim Director, Presbyterian World Mission

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