Libby Dearing never gave up on her dream for a United Methodist orphanage in South Sudan, but she did begin to wonder if it would ever happen.
“I began to think God had changed his mind and didn’t tell me,” says Dearing, who saw an urgent need for a children’s home on her first visit to Sudan in February 2008. “So I prayed and I asked, ‘God, is this still what you want?’”
The answer came last Christmas, when a church in Chattanooga, Tenn., took a special offering to get the orphanage started. The goal was $85,000. Christ United Methodist Church collected $290,000, enough to complete construction.
“It was like being hit upside the head, a neon sign,” said Dearing.
In September, 24 children will move into a home that has been lovingly promoted and planned by Dearing, her husband, and others since the Holston Conference formed an official covenant partnership with the East Africa Conference in 2008.
The Rev. Fred Dearing, former Chattanooga and Kingsport (Tenn.) district superintendent in Holston Conference and current district superintendent in Yei, South Sudan, says the orphanage and ongoing Imagine No Malaria offering are “miracles.”
In addition to raising more than $2.07 million for South Sudan in the last seven years, the 889 churches of Holston have, in the past year, raised more than $1.17 million to help their denomination eradicate malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.
“What those two things bespeak is the overwhelming power and faithfulness of Holston Conference,” said Fred Dearing. “If you give them a goal, they will rise up and meet it.”
The orphanage, named Grace Home for Children, is scheduled to open in September, according to Libby Dearing.
"God did this," she says. "If Holston Conference hadn't, God would have found someone else to receive the blessing."
See orphanage photos on Facebook.
'ACTION IS REQUIRED'
Libby Dearing, age 60, has learned a lot in the last two years of living in South Sudan. She learned how to hold a chicken through a long worship service, for example, when it was offered as a gift.
“You learn all kinds of skills when you have to,” says Fred Dearing, age 70.
Fred Dearing was Kingsport District superintendent and his wife was a nurse when he joined Holston’s first-ever team to Sudan in April 2006, at Bishop James Swanson’s request. A Vietnam War veteran, Fred Dearing was at first reluctant to make the trip, but was soon caught up in Holston’s burgeoning relationship with the United Methodist Church in Sudan.
Two years later, Libby Dearing crossed the ocean and immediately noticed the number of Sudanese children left homeless by civil war, violence, and other tragedies. In meetings with the Sudanese, Holston members were repeatedly asked to help the abandoned children.
“Action is required,” Libby Dearing wrote in a 2009 booklet prepared to raise support for the orphanage. “If we are to answer God’s call to care for the orphans, we must provide a place for them.”
Dearing and Holston team members visited the three existing orphanages in Yei River County, including one with Presbyterian and another with Pentecostal ties. Art Masker and the Rev. Sam Puckett of Holston United Methodist Home for Children traveled to South Sudan to help conduct a feasibility study for the orphanage.
"There is such a severe need for the care of vulnerable children who are either orphaned or left with individuals who don't have the ability to care for them," Masker said.
The report concluded that Holston should "provide the kind of care where children can be safe and grow and understand that a God of love cares for them, despite all the suffering and difficulties of their past," Masker said.
A CHILD NEEDS A HOME
By 2011, the Dearings had agreed to work and live in South Sudan, taking the place of the Revs. Boo and Phyllis Hankins to guide Holston’s mission partnership with the East Africa Conference.
The Dearings were immediately submerged in several projects, including training pastors, supporting partnerships between U.S. churches and 36 South Sudanese local churches, and making sure donations were used as intended for digging wells or education.
However, Libby Dearing wouldn't be diverted from her belief that a United Methodist orphanage should be part of the mission.
“I always knew it was needed but when I got over there, people began to tell me that an orphanage was not the way to go. ‘They need foster care.’ Well, sure they do,” Libby Dearing said. “A child needs a home. But there are too many children and the need is too great.”
Frustrated, she consulted her mentor, Lillian Klepp, known as “Mama Lilly,” who left Wisconsin for Sudan in 2001 to open the Harvesters Evangelical Presbyterian orphanage.
“Answer me one question,” Dearing asked. “If you had to do it over again, knowing what you know now, would you do it?”
Without pause, Klepp answered, “Absolutely.’”
Soon after, the Dearings received news of the $290,000 Christmas offering in Chattanooga (which has since grown to a total of $311,000). Construction on the orphanage started immediately.
PREPARING THE WAY
Fred and Libby Dearing came home to the U.S. for six weeks this summer to attend Annual Conference, visit friends and family – and eat. Home food is one of the things the Dearings miss the most in South Sudan, along with paved roads.
“It’s such an ordeal to do anything,” says Libby.
When they returned to South Sudan on July 11, they were glad to see progress made on the children’s home. Located near Pukuka United Methodist Church (the church built by First Maryville United Methodist Church), the 10-acre compound will include four dormitory houses, a kitchen/dining room, director’s house, guard house, and office building.
A convention center will be built later, Libby Dearing said.
“The children love to sing and dance. They need somewhere where people can come and work with them,” she said. The convention center will also be used for Vacation Bible School, tutoring, mission teams, local pastors and community meetings
The 24 children who will live at Grace Home for Children will attend the school at Pukuka UMC and will be cared for by seven women (“mommas and cooks,” says Libby), four guards, an administrative director and a bookkeeper/office manager.
In May 2013, Art Masker made his third trip to Africa to write policies for child rights and protections and to train the new director, Justus Kwaje. The feasibility report recommended the hiring of a director from South Sudan, Masker said.
"I'm thrilled with the promise Justus holds as a strong Christian man with a good head on his shoulders to lead the home," Masker said.
Selection of the children will begin soon, says Libby Dearing, with "double orphans, those who have lost both parents" as first priority. "Then we will look at children who are in vulnerable or unfit situations.”
She will rely on pastors, tribal chiefs, and the South Sudanese government to help identify the children: “We’re trying to get ages 3 to 8, so we can have a bigger impact on them, a longer time to teach them," she said.
The annual budget to run the orphanage is estimated at $37,000 to $45,000. The Holston Conference Foundation has established an endowment with $120,000 contributed by Holston churches and members, said Roger Redding, executive director. The goal is to raise $300,000 to $400,000 to sustain the orphanage.
“We cannot just build things without some thought to future operations and maintenance,” Redding said. “Christ United Methodist Church’s amazing gift that took care of the construction has allowed our efforts to focus on … things other than construction.”
In fact, Fred Dearing said much of his work in South Sudan is now directed toward developing ways for the people to sustain the many ministries begun by the Holston Conference and East Africa Conference, of which the orphanage is only one. The nation is young and has many needs, having won its independence from Sudan in July 2011.
“The odds facing these people are so great. It’s going to take a while to get them established,” he said. “We will just walk alongside them and not give up.”
To give to Grace Home for Children, write checks to Holston Conference Foundation, P.O. Box 900, Alcoa, TN 37701, with "South Sudan orphanage" on the memo line. You may also give online.
Follow the Grace Home for Children blog.
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Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.