Small Trike, Big Change

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

July 2020

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Dear Friends,

My children often wake early, but this morning, even more so. Before birds thrust song into the morning’s darkness, the kids’ loud voices could be heard through our bedroom walls. Nancy quiets the house, taking our three active early risers for a bike ride under the street lights. She hopes their energy will spill into the great outdoors, rather than into the temporary quarters to which we have just moved. The five-hour change from a time zone shift causes the extra early start to the day. Before the ride finishes, two of the three are crying. More accurately, my five-year-old cries and my seven-year-old sobs. From inside the house, I hear the wails pierce the dawn.

With tears streaming down her coco cheeks and a raspberry red stain on her knee, my daughter, Adalyn, wraps her arms around me as I greet her at the door. She explains how she tumbled from her scooter. When her arms release from around my neck, I sense the worst is behind her. She wipes her eyes and scurries into the house for her next adventure.

Jordan, my seven-year-old son, however, seems to have a deeper hurt. I cannot see him from the doorstep in which I stand, but I hear his howls deep inside the morning fog. I walk out and find Jordan slumping over a trike he can no longer ride. This mustard yellow tricycle has an iron frame and is easily five times as heavy as it looks. This trike has accompanied two generations of missionary kids through uncertain transitions back into the States. For the most part, it remains relatively unchanged by its age except for a few bare rust patches on its frame and chipped paint. While the trike doesn’t “belong” to Jordan, he enjoys it each time we return to this mission home in the U.S. Jordan needs it today.

We have just arrived back in the U.S. after an abrupt departure from the U.K. as speculation increased about the global pandemic. The trike has been a good friend to Jordan through the years. Today, however, he faces the bitter reality that things have changed. Jordan remembered fitting atop the trike comfortably; now his limbs hang awkwardly over the pedals; his torso bends painfully over the handlebars. His knees bang against the metal with each rotation of its wheels. His eyes well up corner to corner, then tears tumble down past his battered knees and the trike pedals.

Could it be that my son’s sorrow is as much about the pain of change as it is about his knees’ bruising? After heavy sobs, Jordan asks for “alone time” to sit with his thoughts.

Like my son, I, too, am grappling with unexpected change. Unlike my son, I have not had the courage or wisdom to lean into its sting. While living in East Africa, our family encountered several moments when we needed to decide whether we would stay or go. Moments in which we needed to navigate the painful decision of whether the civil unrest or the urgent medical needs of our family dictated we leave to find safety and care. When we moved to Oxford, I assumed we were beginning a season of “stability.” A promising season of certainty. I was wrong.

The longer I live, the more it becomes clear that nothing is certain in this world except change. Our family was beginning to settle into Oxford, and COVID-19 unsettled everything.

As the trajectory of the pandemic grew, the PC(USA) suspended travel for all staff. My wife was in rural South Sudan at the time. The children and I were in the U.K. Fortunately, Nancy was granted permission to fly back to the U.K. Then, my children’s school was suspended indefinitely, and the U.S. prepared to close borders to Americans abroad. In response, the PC(USA) requested all mission coworkers return to the U.S. immediately.

We received the PC(USA)’s communication Friday afternoon, packed Friday evening, and left our home at 5 am Saturday morning. My family ran from the ticketing counter to the plane with bags in hand, boarding a commercial flight with passengers as uncertain as our family as to their futures. Life doesn’t feel confusing; it feels overwhelming.

We are currently on the second day of a 14-day quarantine staying in a cluster of mission homes called “Mission Haven.” Jordan’s “alone time” ends when the doorbell rings. He seems to be feeling better after sitting with his sadness. In a surprise gesture of kindness, one of our neighbors rings our doorbell and leaves a care package: a bag of fluffy, golden brown biscuits cooling at our front doorstep. Jordan and Adalyn’s dimples raise as they run to the table for the unexpected treats. In fact, we all pause for a moment to indulge.

Our family’s peculiar morning reminds me of the value of acknowledging hurt. It reminds me of the importance of validating loss and honoring our feelings. Receiving acceptance into Oxford University and moving our family to a new continent to attend was a monumental feat. My wife and children did not want to leave East Africa, yet they were willing to even with many tears shed. Personally, I looked forward to the opportunity for my wife and me to build relationships with leading experts, advocates, academics, and practitioners that would strengthen our family’s efforts in South Sudan. This unique possibility, one for which I longed and labored for years, again feels distant.

We all experience moments when we can do little to resist or prevent the pain of change. As the world processes unprecedented uncertainty and struggles to comprehend all that is happening, may we give ourselves permission to grieve our losses and also to be surprised by God’s unchanging ability to bring unexpected joy into our lives, sometimes in the form of love-filled biscuits.

Thank you so much for your family’s continued support, especially in the midst of so many transitions. May God show you abundant grace as you also endure unique challenges during this difficult season. We are grateful for you.

Shelvis and Nancy

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