A letter from Shelvis Smith-Mather serving in South Sudan
Individuals: Give online to E200316 for Shelvis and Nancy’s sending and support
Individuals: Give online to E052032 for RECONCILE
Congregations: Give to D507554 for Shelvis and Nancy’s sending and support
Churches are asked to send donations through your congregation’s normal receiving site (this is usually your presbytery).
“If I were home and had my gun…” Ojullu confesses, “I would have hunted down the Murle [tribesmen].” Ojullu’s face is calm, his tone matter-of-fact, but his eyes seem lost in the tragedy of the last 48 hours. A village raid left his home burned down and father shot. Robbers stole his possessions, the fire destroyed his property, and the bullets shattered his father’s arm. If he were home now, gunfire and funeral drums would surround him as weeping family members and irate community leaders assemble before him. If he were home, a gathering of neighbors would convene near the ashes of his compound urging him to seek revenge. Elders would evoke hate rhetoric toward the Murle tribe and he would be expected, by many, to follow the traditions of revenge.
Ojullu, however, is not home. He is at the RECONCILE Peace Institute (RPI), sitting in my office, hundreds of miles away from the unrest. The powder-blue curtain swaying in front of the office window flaps toward us as a cool breeze enters the room. The breeze undoes a stack of student applications and gently cascades them across my desktop. Our chairs sit face to face between my coffee-brown desk on my left and the window on my right. Four vanilla walls enclose the modest room as I lean in to hear Ojullu’s softening voice.
“What should I do?” he asks.
“What do you want to do?’ I respond. My toes curl underneath my chair as I brace for his response.
He simmers, quiet and angry like the eye of a storm. Nevertheless, RECONCILE’s community invites residents to truthfully grapple with the complexity of conflict. He details the competing allegiances at play in his mind. Ojullu knew his neighbors and family expected him to retaliate, yet he also knew several church leaders believed he could help change the community’s culture of violence. A major South Sudanese church denomination nominated him and 10 other leaders for the training, local congregations raised money for their travel, and “sister churches” in the United States provided additional funding for books, housing and tuition. While some urge him to continue the traditions of revenge, others call him to think differently and live differently and be different from the norms of his culture.
While at RECONCILE Ojullu is a part of a different type of village. He lives with 70 leaders from situations of severe conflict around the nation. They are men and women from different tribes, backgrounds, and spheres of influence who are working to unite their community. They want to cultivate a different way of thinking, living and being. While Ojullu has been with the group for only one week, the sheer contrast of this new community causes him to question his initial reaction to the situation.
“If I return to my home now,” he says, “I will have only my anger. If I return home after the training, then I will have skills and knowledge to change my community.” Leaders come to RECONCILE to learn about reconciliation; they leave RECONCILE having lived it. In this village people pray together, study together, play soccer and eats meals together. Ojullu decided to remain at RECONCILE to the end of the training.
Like Ojullu, many other faithful South Sudanese are pursuing reconciliation during a time when their nation seems to be rapidly proceeding on a downward slope towards destruction. As I write, I am unable to return to my home in Yei, South Sudan. My family and I left South Sudan to update partners on peacebuilding efforts, and days later our town was surrounded by rebel troops and neighboring towns were captured. My co-workers evacuated into a nearby United Nations (UN) compound. They later fled to Uganda and Kenya for refuge. Since that time my wife and I have received update after gory update from friends and neighbors hiding in “the bush” and resettling in refugee camps.
Just days ago one of the United Nations’ featured articles was about our town. The headline read, “100,000 Fearful Citizens Trapped Within South Sudan Town.” The article stated “civilians are being slaughtered like animals” by soldiers. In spite of these horrors, my South Sudanese co-workers still pursue reconciliation efforts. In fact, one of my colleagues is currently facilitating meetings with soldiers to ask them to allow food, supplies and medicine to reach the citizens “trapped” in our town by the ongoing fighting.
To these people God offers a word of encouragement; to these people God gives a promise of hope. In the book of Isaiah, chapter 65, God gives a peculiar vision of a new heaven and a new earth, a vision that includes a powerful image: “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together” (Isa. 65:25). The scene may seem like folly to some, but for others it is a reminder that all things are possible with God’s help…even reconciliation. God offers a choice to continue in the old broken world order of South Sudan or to create something new. While many surrender their faith in times of hardship, Ojullu and many others remain faithful to God’s vision of a restored world.
Thank you for supporting our family and the ministries we serve in South Sudan. We are deeply grateful to work alongside South Sudanese who inspire us daily, and we know such partnership would not be possible without your gifts. Thank you.
Please read below for an important note from Hunter Farrell:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. (Isaiah 43:1b-2, NRSV)
Dear Friend of World Mission:
Thank you for your prayers and for your financial support of Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather this year, and any previous year. I know from my 15 years as a Presbyterian mission co-worker that your prayerful financial support has meant the world to them.
Even as I thank you, I want to let you know that this is a critical time for churches and individuals to commit themselves to support Shelvis and Nancy. Our global church partners greatly value their service and you well know how important this ministry is in building connections between the body of Christ in the U.S. and South Sudan.
We have historically relied on endowment interest and the general offering from churches to sustain the vital work of all of our mission workers. Those sources of funding have greatly diminished, and it is only through the over-and-above gifts of individuals and congregations that we are able to keep Shelvis and Nancy doing the life-giving work God called them to do. A year ago, in May of 2015, for the first time in recent history, we had to recall some mission workers due to a lack of funding. We communicated the challenge to you and you responded decisively and generously. Through your response, we heard the Spirit remind us, “Fear not!”.
Today, I’m asking you to consider an additional gift for this year, and to increase the gift you may consider for 2017. Sending and support costs include not only salary but also health insurance and retirement contributions, orientation, language training, housing, travel to the country of service, children’s education, emergency evacuation costs, and visa/passport costs.
My heartfelt thanks for your prayers and support of our Presbyterian mission co-workers. In the coming season, we will celebrate God’s sending of the Christ child, the source of the good news we share. May you experience anew the hope, peace, joy, and love that are ours because “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
Thank you for saying “yes” to love.
With you in Christ,
Director, World Mission, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
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