Mission Co-Worker Shelvis Smith-Mather studying at Oxford University
by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — For the Rev. Shelvis Smith-Mather, the road to the majestic halls of Oxford University took a journey of nine years and three continents. But it is, he says, a “crazy, wonderful, beautiful story.”
“And… a long story, but the details of the many stops and starts along the way speaks to how it has come together now in God’s time,” he said.
Shelvis and his wife, the Rev. Nancy Smith-Mather, have been Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-workers (MCWs) for more than a decade. First they served as Young Adult Volunteers in Kenya, and then as MCWs in South Sudan and Uganda. He served as principal of the RECONCILE (Resource Center for Civil Leadership) Peace Institute, while Nancy focused on overseeing the South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project.
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. From the beginning, Shelvis was interested in doing research about the role of the church in peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts. He asked if there would be an opportunity down the road to explore that.
“That’s when the seed was planted,” he said, “but there was no further thought of when or how that research would be conducted.”
In 2012 he wrote a proposal to the University of Aberdeen’s Theology Department and found a faculty member interested in supporting his research. He was ready to travel to Europe in October 2012, but Nancy was pregnant with their first child and not feeling well, so he postponed the trip by two days. His son, however, was born two months prematurely in South Sudan before Shelvis departed for Aberdeen. Uncertain of whether the newborn would live, they were medically evacuated to Kenya for further care. The baby survived after several weeks of care and Shelvis postponed the start of his program.
He officially started the research in spring 2013. During that time, the professor from Aberdeen left the university, passing along the proposal first to one professor and then to another. With the departure of several key professors, Shelvis suspended the research for several months. He restarted the program in 2013, but the outbreak of civil war led to the Smith-Mather family being evacuated out of South Sudan weeks before the start of his field research.
When the family was ready to return to South Sudan, RECONCILE advised them to stay in the U.S. because their community, Yei, was still unstable. Instead, the organization asked the couple to travel the U.S. and speak to as many people as they could to raise awareness about the conflict and ask for prayers.
With a weeks-old baby in tow they traveled around the country speaking at churches, school and universities. They spoke to groups large and small and even presented for Susan Rice, who would go on to become the U.S. National Security Advisor. Shelvis spoke publicly despite having one suit with two holes in it from wear.
The Smith-Mather family returned to South Sudan and he continued to collect stories and reflections. He began with the RECONCILE staff, also talking with soldiers and refugees, not knowing how the research might be used. For the next few years, the focus was on developing the RECONCILE Peace Institute, but he did research sparingly with Aberdeen.
“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.
Nancy Smith-Mather, who has been her husband’s partner in life and in ministry for many years, supported her husband’s desire to continue the research, believing the church community is doing something special in South Sudan.
“To be able to share some of those stories I believe can inspire people in different contexts where there is conflict, even where there is division that may not be violent conflict,” she said. “There are some amazing and radical examples of forgiveness among the reconciling groups.”
In July 2016, the Smith-Mather family (now with a four-year-old and a two-year-old) returned to the U.S. for the birth of their third child.
“Since Nancy arrived from South Sudan sick, she was quickly hospitalized, and from her hospital bedside we began to get messages from our friends and colleagues that war had broken out (again) and the community where we lived, Yei, was on fire,” Shelvis said. “Many of those people, we had just said goodbye to days earlier, were either fleeing into ‘the bush’ or being evacuated to the UN compound, not knowing when or if they would return.”
During this time, they also received the news that the third professor assigned to this project was leaving Aberdeen.
He began to search for another university to take on the project.
Shelvis said there were many times when he wondered whether the project would ever come together. He reached out to university after university. Most were positive about the research itself but didn’t think it was a good fit for their programs.
“I heard ‘no’ for a lot of reasons,” he said. “It was frustrating because I believe these are important issues and South Sudanese can offer a rich perspective about the challenges they face in their own country and the unique and important role the Church is playing, but all I heard was ‘no, no, no, no, no.’”
In 2017, he traveled to England to attend a meeting of the Conflict Research Society, a group of academics and practitioners engaged in issues of peace around the world.
“We talked about Syria and the Middle, East, and when we got to South Sudan it was so clear to me that yes, there is a rich perspective coming from the sociologists, political scientists, economists and policymakers, but there was no one in the room that was native to that country or had lived in that country for a substantial period of time. All those brilliant minds in the room, but there were clear blind spots to the nuances of culture, the nuances of living in the country and the dynamics of conflict that are present there. Yes, their voices are important to the conversation, but the voice of the local people needs to be heard as well,” he said.
Smith-Mather said the Church is a critical part of the peace process. Church leaders are so well-respected, and the institution is held in such high esteem that it is an essential part of this nation’s development.
“It’s hard for people in South Sudan to talk about the story of their country without talking about the role of the Church. When South Sudan became a country there were only five miles of paved roads. It’s the Church that has been developing hospitals and schools. When international NGOs get evacuated out, it’s the South Sudanese Church leaders who stay and make sure that internally displaced people are being fed. When you have these conflicts, it is the Church that invites people to reimagine what it would look like to live together and talk about forgiveness,” he said.
South Sudan has the highest number of deaths among relief workers anywhere in the world, and it would be higher without the Church. The Rev. Peter Tibi, director of RECONCILE, and other ecumenical leaders, with only their collars and their faith for protection, are often able to negotiate the release of workers and get much-needed relief supplies through the feuding factions.
While at the conflict research conference, Smith-Mather met a theological lecturer at Oxford who had served as a missionary in East Africa. He pitched the idea of his research and she was interested in walking the journey with him. With her urging he shared the idea with six departments and got seven rejections. (One department had forwarded it to another). “So, one department I didn’t even apply to rejected me,” Smith-Mather said with a laugh.
Leaders of the South Sudan Council of Churches and a UN poet laureate wrote a joint letter of recommendation for Shelvis to attend Oxford. Along with Tibi, the letter writers were Canon Clement Janda, the former General Secretary of All Africa Conference of Churches and former General Secretary of New Sudan Council of Churches, and Bishop Paride Taban, United Nations Peace Prize Laureate and a South Sudan peace icon.
Mission co-workers and leaders within the denomination proofread the proposal, revised his applications and prayed with him on days it seemed the project would not go further.
“There’s an African proverb: ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,’” Shelvis said.
Finally, a social anthropology professor who had worked a significant amount of time in Africa saw the project and reached out to him. He gave Smith-Mather only one date and time he could talk because he was leaving the country for an extended period.
One phone call shouldn’t be that difficult to manage, but at that time Smith-Mather was working in refugee camps in Uganda teaching reconciliation techniques. Electricity is available only a few hours each day, and there are no phone networks. On the way back to one of the refugee camps, their car went into a ditch. They ran out of gas. They got stopped at a military checkpoint where the soldiers were interested in bribe money. But by 10 p.m. he was in a place that had electricity and phone service and he reached out to the professor.
The professor didn’t answer.
After an email, Shelvis called back and the professor picked up. Smith-Mather felt for the first time that he might actually realize his dream.
He began a four-year program at Oxford in the fall to study the role of the Church in peacebuilding. During the first two years he will work on his master’s degree, the third year on research in South Sudan and the fourth year at Oxford, where he will write and present his dissertation. If all goes well, he will have a masters and a doctorate from one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
But what really excites him is being able to share his what he learns, curricula he might develop and his contacts with the people of South Sudan, a country he says his family is inextricably linked to.
“While I wish the journey had been much shorter, I know there is acceptance and commitment now and I’m so excited to be here representing PC(USA), RCA (the Reformed Church in America) and our South Sudan partners,” he said.
While Shelvis focuses on research and developing peacebuilding curricula, Nancy will continue to coordinate the South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project. Now a family of five, the Smith-Mathers will spend the next four years moving back and forth between South Sudan and Oxford.
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