Edina walks seven miles each day to work at the United Methodist compound in Yei, Sudan. It’s a job for which she receives no regular pay. At night, she takes orphans and widows into her home, missing meals so she can share her food.
She realized her calling as a teenager, when the pastor of an Anglican church asked her to pray aloud and assist with pastoral duties. Jealousy among the congregants led to a death threat. Edina’s parents begged their 15-year-old daughter to stop her church work and come home.
Edina told her parents the story about Jesus, when his parents found him teaching in the temple. Then Edina told her mother and father:
"I will never come home. Father God has already called me in ministry. If I die in the ministry, bury me with joy. If I die of this world, you will lose me completely."
"My father said to my mother, 'Let her go.'"
Today, Edina Tumalu is a leader of worship, advocate for women and children, master interpreter for United Methodists struggling to communicate in different languages.
At age 31, she is officially known as women's president of the United Methodist Church in South Sudan. She says she received the title from church leaders in 2003. (Her name is pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable, "Ed.")
But for mission leaders of Holston Conference and citizens of Yei, Tumalu might be the leader of the United Methodist Church in South Sudan.
"The males think they are the leaders of the church, but it's evident that they look to Edina a lot," said Danny Howe, chair of the conference Mission Team and two-time traveler to Sudan. "She has the respect of the community, and because she has that respect, she is bold in her leadership."
"She's the strongest woman I ever met," said the Rev. Jeannie Higgins, chair of Holston's Sudan Action Team and also a Sudan mission team veteran. "She's so self-sacrificing that I worry about her. But as long as her health holds out, Edina will be a key person in that village."
Faith and pain
Tumalu is thinner than when she greeted the first Holston Mission Team in 2006, and she complains of stomach pain. Higgins notes that Tumalu "buzzes from one thing to another," while remembering, like many Holston members do, a story about her tirelessness.
"I was involved in clergy training on my first trip to Sudan in March 2008," Higgins said of Holston's ongoing ministry with the East Africa Conference. "We were on a break, and Edina had several letters written by United Methodist Women from Holston to the women in Sudan. She wanted to read them out loud to the women."
Letter after letter, Tumalu read. She read until Higgins says she personally became weary and wished Tumalu would stop.
"But she would not be hurried," Higgins said. "She sensed the importance of each letter. There must have been 50, and she didn't stop until she had read each one."
The mother of two children of her own -- Nancy, 5, and Simeon, 3 -- Tumalu helped Salaam United Methodist School grow to its current maximum enrollment of 1,500 students with 18 teachers. ("Salaam" means "peace" in Arabic, Sudan's national language.) UMCOR financed the school's first building. Holston Conference will pay for a second building with money raised through the Annual Conference offering.
Tumalu has also been a leader among those asking Holston to help the 19 United Methodist churches of south Sudan care for their widows and orphans. Holston's Libby Dearing is now championing the effort to develop a United Methodist children's home in Yei.
Tumalu speaks frequently, sometimes with frustration, of the people who come to her in need of food, shelter, education, safety.
"I have no answers for them," she says. "I know that only through Jesus, we can help them."
But she also speaks boldly of the role of women in re-developing a country scarred by war, disease, and poverty.
"This I tell you without fear: 75 percent of the church in Sudan are women," she told worshippers at Yei United Methodist Church, in a service attended by Bishop James Swanson. "The women are the pillars of the church. We have great pain because we lost so many children in the war, but we also have great faith."
When Tumaula first met Bishop Swanson during his trip to Africa in February, she was surprised and delighted. She didn't know that he is black instead of white like most Holston members, until he stepped off the plane.
"She just hugged me and said quietly, 'I didn't know,'" Swanson says.
Later, Swanson was impressed by the young woman's gift of interpretation. She translated Swanson's sermon for worshippers at Yei UMC. (See video.)
"What surprised me was not just her ability to interpret my words, but also my heart," Swanson said. "Every movement I made, she was in step with me."
Howe remembers how she laid hands on and prayed for the sick child who came to the temporary clinic set up by a Holston mission team in February. Later, when the infant Rafael died, Tumalu's language skills and relationships were crucial in arranging for the child to be quickly transported and buried next to his mother's grave, 22 miles away. Holston Conference supplied the necessary $200.
"She knew all the things that needed to be done to take care of that baby and his aunt, in an environment where I didn't know where to turn," Howe said.
Tumalu understands her people's suffering, because like so many, she labored as a child and lived in an refugee camp after her home was attacked by the Sudan People's Liberation Army.
"It has cost me," she says, referring to years of hunger and hard work. She left the refugee camp at 18 when she saw soldiers brutalizing the residents.
"They would ask, 'Do you want to be happy?' If you said yes, they cut your lips to look as if you were always smiling," she says. "If you answered, 'No, I want to be sad,' they put a padlock on your lips."
Tumalu came to the United Methodist Church in 2001, after she hit a spiritual low in the Anglican church. She had learned to speak English well in the refugee camp but was eager for more education. A friend told her, "There is another church. It is called Methodist. This church wants people, and this church wants to find people to go to school."
Tumalu got in on the ground level of the United Methodist Church of South Sudan, which had just been organized by the Rev. William Upendo. She was quickly identified as an achiever and was appointed as the women's president.
"God planted his seed in me -- his spirit gives me wisdom," Tumalu explains. "What God put in me is unique, but it is not easy."
Since then, the church of south Sudan has experienced conflict as well as great success. Church leaders say Tumalu worked faithfully through it all, building relationships at first with the Western Pennsylvania Conference. That conference bought the first plot of land for the United Methodist compound.
The Holston Conference followed in 2006 and has since signed a covenant with the East Africa Conference and sent seven mission teams to Yei. An eighth team is scheduled for November 2009.
"The response was put by God into Holston Conference to care for the needs of the people," Tumalu says. "I hear God whispering in my ear that we don't have to do it alone."
Continuing education has not yet been possible for Tumalu, although Holston provides Africa University scholarships for young adults from Yei. However, the young woman with a big voice is already counted on to shepherd her community into a better future.
"She's helped the church stay focused on its goals, their vision, and the priorities they identified with Holston Conference," said Howe, referring to the covenant agreement that calls for education, health care, and self-sustainability. "It's not always popular for women to have a leadership role in this country, but I sense she walks on some pretty solid ground."
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.