Every story that Brett Burris tells ends up being a story about Africa. At least, that’s what his three sons say. That's because Burris is passionate about South Sudan and the people he has come to love.
“I talk about it constantly,” he says. “God put it on my heart a year ago. It consumes me. I think about it all the time.”
In September 2013, Burris traveled to South Sudan with a team from the Chattanooga District. The people he met and the things he saw changed his life.
The experience also made him an advocate for this year’s Annual Conference missions offering.
“The children are so thirsty for school,” Burris said. “They will walk miles to attend a school that’s essentially held under a tree or thatched roof. Then they’ll sit on what looks like a split rail for hours to soak up any knowledge the teachers can give them.”
Since 2005, Holston Conference has invested about $2.7 million to develop and support schools, churches, an orphanage, wells, nutrition, health, agriculture, pastors and leaders in South Sudan. Church members gave generously to help Holston Conference fulfill a 2008 covenant partnership with South Sudan, formed through the East Africa Conference.
Now, the 897 churches of Holston Conference are joining in an offering to develop education in South Sudan. The goal is $175,000. The offering will be collected throughout May and celebrated during the June 8-11 Holston Annual Conference held in Lake Junaluska, N.C.
“South Sudan has one of the weakest education systems in the world because it is the newest nation in the world,” said the Rev. Tom Hancock, chair of Holston’s Missions Ministry Team.
“Fifty percent of South Sudan’s population is under the age of 18. Fifty percent of those children are under the age of five. So when you invest in the education of South Sudan, you really do invest in the future of a nation.”
RISING FROM WAR
Burris is one of many Holston members who struggle with how education may be taken for granted in the U.S., while children in South Sudan yearn for an opportunity to learn.
“People ask me, ‘Why do we go there and do this when there is so much need in this country?’” said Burris, a member at Burks United Methodist Church in Chattanooga.
His response is that there are so many “safety nets” for children in the U.S., such as welfare and other social programs, public schools and financial aid for college.
“The children in Sudan don’t have safety nets,” he said. “We are their safety nets.”
Holston Conference has helped develop 15 schools in the Yei District of South Sudan, where Holston’s own Rev. Fred Dearing serves as a United Methodist district superintendent. The schools are connected to 15 churches, five of which have partnered with districts or churches in Holston Conference.
About one-third of all primary- and secondary-school students meet in the open air, according to Dearing. Only 12 percent of schools meet in permanent buildings. Holston has helped build three "blocks" (buildings) for the school in Yei. Chattanooga District is building a school to accompany the church in Ligotolo.
However, the offering collected by Holston churches in May and June 2014 “is not a brick and mortar project,” Hancock says, although many supplies, such as chalkboards, wear out quickly in the outdoors and must be replaced sooner.
“This offering is about supplies, scholarships, resources, and training to strengthen the education system,” Hancock said.
For example, Burris noticed that almost all of the schoolteachers in South Sudan were male. Most only have some if any secondary-school (high school) education, yet they teach because they have more education than others.
“That shows there is such a disparity for males to receive education over females,” Burris said. “There is such a need to train both male and female teachers.”
“South Sudan has an 85 percent illiteracy rate,” Dearing says in a new video about the upcoming Holston offering. “Fifty years of war has decimated their educational system.”
Only 50 percent of children in South Sudan finish primary school, Dearing said. “It’s very difficult for young girls to stay in school.”
BUILDING A NATION
After years of working with the people of South Sudan to provide fresh water, pastoral training, improved health and nutrition, and to care for the orphans, Holston’s next challenge is education, Hancock said.
“These are priorities set by the people of South Sudan,” Hancock said. “They are setting the agenda as we move forward, and they have identified education as the next step.”
The school in Yei is the largest (with about 1,000 students) and the most advanced, with classrooms, an administrative office, kitchen, and supply area. The remaining 14 schools are isolated in rural areas (“the bush”) and have greater needs, Hancock said.
Generations of people in South Sudan have grown up knowing nothing but war, Dearing said. Education will help build teachers, doctors, politicians, farmers, bankers and other leaders who can lead the people to peace.
“Education helps the people to have hope,” Dearing said. “We are asking you to help the people to have hope.”
“You can see it in their faces,” says Burris, remembering the people he met in South Sudan. “They know why we are there. They know we are there to help. They have such a desire for their youth to learn and to have that opportunity.”
“We have an opportunity to help build up a new nation,” Hancock said. “We have an opportunity to be part of another miracle in South Sudan.”
To give to the Annual Conference missions offering, write a check to your local church with “Education in South Sudan” on the memo line or give online at ACoffering.Holston.org.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.