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Revs. Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather named to Emory University’s ‘40 Under 40’ class of 2018


PC(USA) mission co-workers recognized for their work in South Sudan

By Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather and family. Courtesy of Presbyterian World Mission

LOUISVILLE – Each year, Emory University and many other organizations around the country name a class of leaders who have made a significant impact in business, research, leadership, public service or philanthropic endeavors. This year, PC(USA) mission co-workers the Revs. Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather were named to Emory’s 2018 class of “Forty Under Forty.”

Although nominated together, the Smith-Mathers are being recognized individually for their dedication and significant impact. They were selected from hundreds of nominees, representing the very best in their chosen fields. The Smith-Mathers are the only husband and wife team to win the award at Emory.

“We give God the glory for this honor, as God opened the doors for us to work alongside our South Sudanese sisters and brothers,” said Nancy Smith-Mather.  Their incredible faith and perseverance changes and challenges us.  We meet people working in difficult contexts in South Sudan who feel called to serve their people not matter the conditions, even while they have the option to leave.  Their courage and dedication inspires us.  It is a privilege to be present and able to ask, how can we join you?  We believe in what they are doing, and they credit their bravery and perseverance to God’s grace in their lives.  Perhaps these individuals will not receive awards for their work, yet we trust God finds ways to keep them encouraged.  Perhaps part of that encouragement comes when a PCUSA mission co-worker shows up, reminding them the global church supports their efforts.  If so, praise the Lord.  May God continue to protect them from the bullets they hear pass by and the diseases that may catch them in a rural location without medical facilities.  May God strengthen them to carry out what is deep in their hearts.  Their lives urge me to be a better follower of Christ.”

“Shelvis and Nancy were selected for their unique and amazing work in South Sudan,” said Emily Carol Swan of Emory University. “Their courage and devotion are what stood out the most to the selection committee.”

In early 2011, the people of South Sudan voted to separate from the Khartoum-based government of Sudan and form an independent country. The same year, the Smith-Mathers moved there to join the ministry of RECONCILE International. Created by the New Sudan Council of Churches, RECONCILE is a Christian organization that works to foster peace and healing in communities struggling from decades of war. South Sudan is the youngest country in the world, but because of the ongoing civil war, many children have never known peace or had the opportunity to attend school. The U.N. says that a girl in South Sudan is statistically more likely to die in childbirth than finish primary school. The country’s overall literacy rate is only 27 percent.

A peace agreement signed in June 2018 remains fragile. The South Sudanese are hopeful but cautious in believing this will be a lasting peace. Under the threat of international sanctions, President Salva Kiir signed a peace agreement with rebel leader and former Vice President Riek Machar in August 2015. Machar returned to Juba in April 2016 and was sworn in as vice president. Just three months later, violence broke out again between the two factions. Both sides blame the other for violating the ceasefire. Because of the ongoing violence, the Smith-Mathers moved to neighboring Uganda in 2017 to work with RECONCILE in the refugee camps, now home to a million displaced South Sudanese. While they continue to make trips into South Sudan, they have not yet returned to their former hometown of Yei due to insecurity.

Before the violence reached Yei where they lived, Shelvis served as the principal of RECONCILE’s three-month Peace Institute (RPI). RPI gathers faith and community leaders from around the country and strengthens their skills in resolving conflicts and recovering from trauma. People who are often from rival ethnic groups live together in the dormitory, share meals, listen to one another’s stories and build friendships.

In 2014, Nancy’s role with RECONCILE expanded to include managing a project with three additional PC(USA) global partners: the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS), Across, and the Yei Teacher Training College. The South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project is a collaborative effort to address a gap in educational development caused by years the years of ongoing conflict.

The Smith-Mathers, both ordained PC(USA) ministers from the Greater Atlanta Presbytery, were married and took their first ordained calls in Africa. They were assigned to Kenya in 2008 with the PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program and signed up for an additional year after their initial one-year appointments ended.

In 2012, the Smith-Mathers’ son, Jordan, became the first child in South Sudan born to U.S. parents. Jordan has two younger sisters — Adalyn, born in 2014, and Nicole, born in 2016.

The Smith-Mathers both grew up in Atlanta and attended high school, college and seminary together. They are graduates of The Westminster Schools in Atlanta; Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina; and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.                                                                                    

“The Presbyterian Church of South Sudan and RECONCILE International have asked Presbyterian World Mission to walk alongside them to address extraordinary needs for education and peacebuilding in a country that has been torn upside down by civil war. Nancy and Shelvis responded courageously to that challenge and to the call to serve,” said the Rev. Debbie Braaksma, World Mission’s coordinator of the Africa-area office. “The Smith-Mathers work beautifully with their Sudanese colleagues in a spirit of service and humility, and they also serve as effective bridges to U.S. Presbyterians as they share the stories of the impact of the South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project. Their dedication inspires me, and I am very thankful to have them as a part of the Presbyterian World Mission Africa team.”

To watch a video in which the Smith-Mathers’ talk about their work:

To support their work in the South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project, click here to donate.

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