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During a U.N. chapel service, mission co-workers ask God to ‘guide us’


The Revs. Nancy and Shelvis Smith-Mather advocate for prayers and peacebuilding in war-ravaged South Sudan

September 12, 2023

The Revs. Nancy and Shelvis Smith-Mather are pictured at Oxford University, where Shelvis is studying for graduate degrees using research he’s completed over a decade as a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-worker. (Contributed photograph)

Presbyterian Mission Agency mission co-workers the Revs. Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather were recently in the United States to meet with several entities at the United Nations to create awareness around the critical needs of those living in South Sudan under the barrage of continued violence and near-civil war. Hosted by the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, the Smith-Mathers led a morning chapel service for a group of in-person and online worshipers via Zoom.

Anthony Harris, a seminarian and intern with PMUN, called the group to worship reading from Psalm 63:1–4. A summer fellow with PMUN, Kayla Hawkins, followed with a litany taken from Psalm 15:1–5 before Shelvis taught worshipers a simple South Sudanese song, “Guide Us Lord We Are Here,” which helped center the worshipers for the day’s message.

Nancy then read from the gospel of Luke, chapter 9, verses 57–62:

“As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’

“Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’

He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’

“But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’

“Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’

“Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’

“Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’”

“I’ve never understood that passage or cared for it. How can a person who’s doing good need it and expect it won’t be out of sync with God’s calling?” said Shelvis.

The Smith-Mathers visited the United Nations to discuss the refugee crisis occurring because of the conflict along the Sudan-South Sudan border. (Photo by Tomas Eidsvold via Unsplash)

The tale of a young South Sudanese man helped Nancy to rethink the impact of the gospel passage. She shared the story of Daniel, an aspiring teacher, in the context of educational challenges within South Sudan, including the fact that South Sudan is the third-least literate country in the world. Most teachers there are volunteers who lack formal training. Most schools are under trees or in temporary shelters, against a backdrop of violence and decades of war.

At age 11, Daniel used to wake up at 4 o’clock each morning to walk three hours to reach the village school, then walk three hours home every day with no food or water along the way. He convinced his family to let him move to a refugee camp in Ethiopia so he could continue school, but was forced to flee when violence erupted there.

He eventually received a high school education in Uganda and was awarded a scholarship to attend the Teacher Training College in South Sudan. While there, violence broke out in his hometown twice, threatening the safety of his wife and children.

“It would have been good and expected for Daniel to stop being a student and come home to protect his family,” said Nancy. “But Daniel felt the rare opportunity to become a teacher was God-given. So, he relied on his community and church family to take care of his loved ones so that when he finally came back, he could provide his community with a trained teacher. He felt God calling him to be something different, something beyond what was expected.”

The Smith-Mathers began their calling in South Sudan in 2010. Their work as mission co-workers was interrupted less than a year later when the call came to be a caregiver for Shelvis’ mother, who battled cancer and endured two transplants.

“I have worked in South Sudan during times of civil war and constant insecurity, but caregiving for someone losing their battle with cancer was by far the most difficult ministry I’ve ever been a part of,” said Nancy. “Life is filled with seasons, and some will be called to good, needed and expected work. And there are other times there will be a ministry we’re called to step into that is hard to even imagine.”

“However you feel called, this is your call,” her husband said.

Scott O’Neill, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus: Revs. Nancy and Shelvis Smith-Mather mission co-workers advocate for South Sudan

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Gabe Loredo, Archives Technician, Presbyterian Historical Society
Lisa Love, Counsel, Legal Services, Presbyterian Foundation

Let us pray

Heavenly Father, your unconditional love inspires us to be loving, welcoming and hospitable to our neighbors. Pour into our hearts your compassion; strengthen and guide us as we go forth to make your kingdom tangible. Grant us your peace and surround us with your presence. Amen.

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