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A yellow tricycle and a magical plate of biscuits

Finding joy during transition forced by COVID-19

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

A portrait of the Smith-Mather family: Shelvis, Nancy, Jordan, Adalyn, Nicole and a yet-to-be-named baby sister. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Validating loss and understanding our feelings is a concept not difficult to grasp during a global pandemic. But for mission co-workers the Revs. Nancy and Shelvis Smith-Mather, their seven-year-old son Jordan reminded them that sometimes you have to find the courage to lean into the pain to get through it.

In his seven years, Jordan has lived in four countries. At the start of the pandemic, the Smith-Mather family sheltered-in-place at Mission Haven in the Atlanta area. Through all his visits there over the years, Jordan has had one constant friend: a yellow tricycle enjoyed by more than one “mish kid.”

One early morning recently, Shelvis heard his son crying and went out to investigate.

Jordan Smith-Mather sits atop the beloved  but outgrown yellow tricycle. (Photo by Nancy Smith-Mather)

“I walk out and find Jordan slumping over a trike he can no longer ride,” he said about his growing child. “This trike has accompanied two generations of missionary kids through uncertain transitions back into the States. While the trike doesn’t ‘belong’ to Jordan, he enjoys it each time we return to this mission home in the U.S. Could it be that my son’s sorrow is as much about the pain of change as it is about his knees’ bruising?”

Following heavy sobs, Jordan asked his father for “alone time” to “sit with his thoughts.”

A decade of productive service

Shelvis and Nancy have been Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-workers (MCWs) for more than a decade. They first served as Young Adult Volunteers in Kenya, and then as MCWs in South Sudan and Uganda. He serves as principal of the RECONCILE (Resource Center for Civil Leadership) Peace Institute, while Nancy oversees the South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project.

Forced twice to leave South Sudan because of outbreaks of violence near their home in Yei, South Sudan, they spent time conducting trauma healing workshops and peacebuilding training in Uganda in one of the largest refugee camps in the world.

One of the objectives of RECONCILE is to conduct research and document cultural values that promote tolerance, reconciliation and coexistence among people of different cultural backgrounds. That led Shelvis to apply for a four-year program at Oxford to study the role of the Church in peacebuilding. If all goes well he will have a masters and a doctorate from one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

“I continued to think about how this research could be done in such a way that lifts up the perspective of the South Sudanese peacebuilders and survivors of war that speaks not just to the academic conversation about peacebuilding, but the larger conversation of how to approach reconciliation,” he said.

Leaning into change

“Like my son, I am grappling with unexpected change. Unlike my son, I have not had the courage or wisdom to lean into its sting,” Shelvis said. 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 season promising certainty. I was wrong.”

As the trajectory of the pandemic grew, the PC(USA) suspended travel for all staff. Nancy Smith-Mather was in rural South Sudan at the time, while Shelvis and the children were in the U.K. Nancy was granted permission to fly back to the U.K. At the same time, the children’s school was suspended indefinitely, and the U.S. prepared to close borders. The PC(USA) requested all mission coworkers immediately return to the U.S.

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

The healing power of biscuits

Nicole enjoys one of the magical biscuits. (Photo by Nancy Smith-Mather)

Back in Atlanta early on in the pandemic, Jordan’s bad morning was saved by a surprise gesture of kindness from a neighbor who rang the doorbell and left a care package of fluffy, golden biscuits on the doorstep.

“Our family’s peculiar morning reminded me of the value of acknowledging hurt. Receiving acceptance into Oxford University and moving our family to a new continent was a monumental feat,” said Shelvis. “My wife and children did not want to leave East Africa, yet they were willing to, even with many tears shed. I was looking forward to the opportunity for my wife and me to build relationships with leading experts, advocates, academics and practitioners that will strengthen our family’s efforts in South Sudan. This unique opportunity, one for which I longed and labored for years, again feels distant.”

Nancy Smith-Mather made a cake for the children to reveal the gender of their new sibling. (Photo Nancy Smith-Mather)

Against a backdrop of pain, the Smith-Mather family still finds joy.

“We all experience moments when we can do little to resist or prevent the pain of change,” said Shelvis. “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.”

And there is more good news for the Smith-Mather family. In addition to celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary, they are expecting their fourth child, a girl, in October.

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