On the last two trips, he wondered if he would ever go back. And yet, in March 2020, Bowman is scheduled to lead a mission team to again visit the South Sudanese people who have become like family to Holston Conference.
“There’s something that just draws you there,” Bowman says. “It’s overwhelming, and the relationships are so strong – the love they have for us and the love we have for them.”
On Nov. 23, United Methodists who participated on the past 45 mission trips to South Sudan will gather for a Reunion and Fundraising Dinner at First Broad Street United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tennessee.
For Bowman, it’s so important that Holston continues to care for the South Sudanese people during a dangerous time that he and his organization have made a big commitment.
For every dollar donated to continue the South Sudan ministry, the Holston Foundation will match up to $75,000. The goal is to raise $150,000 total.
The investment in a Holston Conference ministry is the largest matching opportunity in the Foundation’s history, says Bowman, executive director. In the past, the Foundation stewarded and invested donations given by church members to dig wells, provide education for orphans, and other ministries.
In this case, “the $75,000 match is a gift, approved by the Foundation’s board of directors,” Bowman said. “My passion and my heart is to make a difference ... I see the difference this will make in the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the world.”
Holston Conference has been in a partnership with a community of United Methodists in Yei, South Sudan, since 2005. Over the years, Holston congregations and church members have invested more than $3 million to build churches, establish orphanages, provide education, dig wells, offer medical care and multiple other life-giving services throughout the East African nation.
Three years ago, civil war again erupted in South Sudan. Escaping violence and starvation, many of the people that Holston members are closest to ran to neighboring Uganda.
Since then, they’ve been living in a refugee camp in the Arua District of northwest Uganda, waiting to go back home. The people include 37 orphans, 15 pastors, and about 20 staff who Holston Conference has committed to keeping safe.
“I don’t think people understand the extreme vulnerability these people have experienced for years,” Bowman said. “Hope is a very hard thing to find when you’re living in those conditions.”
Despite the upheaval and uncertain environment, the South Sudanese people in Holston’s care continue to move forward. Last summer, three pastors were ordained at the Uganda-South Sudan Annual Conference. Seven more pastors were commissioned. The 37 orphans of Grace Home, shepherded and defended by Libby Dearing through many transitions, are now pre-teens and teens with education and aspirations for helping their nation.
“It’s more expensive to do what we’re doing in Uganda than it is in South Sudan,” Bowman explains. Non-designated funding for Holston’s South Sudan mission will be nearly depleted by June 2020.
The Nov. 23 dinner at First Broad Street United Methodist Church will kick off a campaign to raise $150,000, providing $55,000 for education; $50,000 for medical, compound, and annual conference expenses; and $45,000 for operations.
For Bowman, the drive to ensure a secure future for a vulnerable group of people is personal.
He comes from a mission-oriented family, including two nephews adopted from Liberia. Bowman’s uncle, Bill Scholten of Johnson City, Tennessee, was a missionary in the Congo when he and others were killed by rebels during political unrest in 1964.
Bowman has spent his career raising funds for faith-based groups, including Salvation Army, Knox Area Rescue Mission, Carson-Newman University, Emerald Youth Foundation, and Christian Academy of Knoxville.
He was drawn to visit South Sudan for the first time in 2014 because he had heard others describe the impact the trips and the South Sudanese people had made on their lives.
“So many people had been there and talked about the simplicity of their faith and their joy," he said. "It intrigues me how the South Sudanese can be so life-focused when things can be so bad – and so God-focused ... Being around that kind of Christianity is humbling, because I’ve got a lot of complaints.”
People who know Bowman know he is also driven because he faces his own vulnerability. At age 49, he lives with a life-threatening aortic aneurysm that will one day require high-risk surgery to repair. The aneurysm is related to his painful arthritic condition known as ankylosing spondylitis, which has no cure.
Danny Howe, chair of Holston's South Sudan ministry, said Bowman quickly became part of the leadership team after his first trip. "It didn't take long for us to realize his gifts and talents, and more so, his passion for ministry, filled an existing gap ... Paul's guidance and nurturing are bringing stability to Holston's efforts in South Sudan and Uganda."
Bowman says his work feels “accentuated” when he is in East Africa, even though the trips can be challenging. He’s looking forward to leading a mission team of donors to Uganda in March so they may see the work and needs for themselves – and so they may also fall in love with Holston’s South Sudanese family.
“It’s a critical time in our need to raise support,” Bowman says. An awareness of the “frailty of life” inspires urgency.
How to help
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.
Holston gives $104,884 for South Sudanese friends6/13/2018 | Annual Conference Bishop Mission
LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (June 13, 2018) -- The Mission Celebration concluded with energetic music and message last night after a busy day of discussion and decisions. The Rev. Fred Dearing and Libby Dearing shared updates and hope for “our South ...
New normal: South Sudanese orphans adjust to life in Uganda12/20/2016 | Mission
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Dec. 20, 2016) -- The 36 orphans in Holston Conference’s care are better off than many South Sudanese children, and each will receive a gift on Christmas Day. Yet the United Methodist church member who just returned from visiting...
South Sudan Reunion & Fundraising Dinner on Nov. 2311/23/2019 | Conference Missions
The people of the Holston Conference have partnered with the people of South Sudan in ministry for more than a decade. Today, because civil war continues in South Sudan, our partners in ministry are trying to survive in Uganda. Come join us for a ...