A letter from Nancy Smith-Mather in the U.S., waiting to return to South Sudan

September 2015

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I wrote this journal entry during my time serving as a Young Adult Volunteer in 2010.  I lived in a very rural town called Boma in Jonglei State, Southern Sudan.  The story struck a chord with me recently after four consecutive medical delays in our return to South Sudan.  God reminded me that I am not needed for the work in South Sudan to continue; I simply need to wait on God and trust.  A difficult lesson, and one not so different from the one below.

We did not speak the same language, but we tried to communicate anyway

Today I am feeling extremely useless, and so I began to question why I am here.  Living in Boma is extremely humbling.  Humbling in the sense that there is little I can actually do here and next to nothing that I am really good at.  I am realizing that “usefulness” is really connected to my feelings of self-worth.  In my own country and culture, there are many things I can “accomplish” in a single day.  I can do well in a day of graduate school classes, perform at my job, buy groceries and cook dinner, drive a car, even pay my bills online.   But here, my limitations are obvious.  The two cars at our office are both stick-shift (which I don’t know how to drive), and the dirt roads are nothing like what I know from home.  Buying food in the market is difficult, because I do not know the local language, and the one time I attempted helping the cooks to cook food over the fire my performance was pitiful.  The smoke was difficult to handle, not to mention the art of cooking in a pot over firewood.  I already mentioned that I don’t speak the local languages Murle, Jiye or Arabic, but I would like to mention it again as it means my conversations with non-colleagues are limited to basic greetings.

I think today all of this came to a head when I felt useless in my own area of “expertise,” the Bible.  One colleague was explaining that we should not eat the meat here in Boma because the animals are killed by hanging and not slaughtering.  He pointed to a passage in Leviticus, at which point another colleague looked at me, “the minister,” and asked what we should do.  I tried to explain that there are many laws in the Old Testament that we often do not follow, and it is debated if they are still applicable with the New Covenant.  At this point I was directed to Acts 15, in which the elders specifically point out that the converts to Christianity in the early Church are not to eat animals killed by hanging.  When looked at again for my response, I simply said, “I am learning.”  I was told that eating animals that have been hung was not about culture and interpretation, and that Americans try to dodge some things clearly in Scripture.

Learning to change the oil; no gas stations in town

Hmmm.  I really did not want to argue this point, and I admit I have not spent much time thinking of the way animals are killed.  Perhaps, because in my limited world, meat is wrapped in plastic and tagged with a price.  I do know to check the date to see if the meat has expired, which is again not a helpful skill in my new context.

So, as I sat washing my clothes by hand today (which I do not do well or efficiently), I started to question my reason for being here.  If I were in the U.S., then there are many jobs I could do and feel competent and useful.  Here I do not even know how to iron, which they do by placing coals from the fire inside a metal iron.  I have to ask for help all the time.

My thoughts led me to the last job I had in the U.S., which was helping to welcome people into our country coming as refugees.  My understanding of their struggles in a new country and culture is now at an entirely different level.  I was the teacher, I understood doctor’s visits, the public school system, how to use an oven, air-conditioning, a shower, etc.  I know what kids need to pack for summer camp, I can navigate the public transportation system, I toss out junk mail stating I can win $1 million, and I understand the benefits of car, medical and life insurance.

Water for cooking, washing clothes, drinking, cleaning, bathing…stop smiling, keep pumping!

Although grateful for a heightened awareness of the struggles faced by those resettling in a new country, my questions were not satisfied.  My longing was deep and felt painful.  Why am I here?

The answer to that question may be simple and complex at the same time.  But the affirmation I received from God was that there is benefit in recognizing I am actually “useless.”  The reality of all of my “skills” proving useless pushes me to question what is it really that is useful?  I think God wanted for me to remember that on my own, I can do no great things.  When I am in line with God’s purpose, God’s plan, and God’s work on earth, then I am able to be “used” for something that matters.

Um, I have no idea how to cook like that

Here and now, all I know that I am able to do is love people, learn and try.  I feel I am supposed to be here for this season, and I find comfort in Paul’s words, “when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Thank you for your prayers and support that allow us to serve God in South Sudan.  We trust that God is using our lives for God’s purposes, and we know that God uses the context and people of South Sudan to strengthen and mold our faith. We are deeply grateful.


The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 139
Read more about Shelvis and Nancy’s ministry

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