In the summer of 2005, I received an e-mail that rocked my world. It was a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a child, obviously malnourished, crawling to find food at a camp for internally displaced persons in south Sudan. The child, who looked about five years old, was stalked by a vulture. The vulture looked far healthier than the child.
I was so moved by this photo that as I went into staff meeting that morning, I found it difficult to concentrate on the issues. I asked the staff for prayer concerns when Anita Henderlight mentioned she had read a book that disturbed her. The book was “They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky” by Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng and Benjamin Ajak, three of the lost boys from Sudan.
The staff members were also moved as I told them about the photo I saw earlier that morning. It was at then we began to experience what we believe to be the Holy Spirit, moving on our hearts to do something about this horrible situation.
This was the genesis of what has evolved into a passionate, bold, and joy-filled witness of God’s love for the people of southern Sudan and for the people of the Holston Conference of The United Methodist Church.
In 2007, I decided to accompany a Holston team to Sudan in 2009. I also accepted an invitation from Bishop John Innis to serve as guest preacher for the 2009 Liberian Annual Conference. It was an opportunity to visit Africa and personally witness the impact United Methodism is having in this wonderful place.
The dates were set: I would be in Liberia Feb. 6-16 to preach and also to visit the J.J. Roberts School and Ganta Hospital, which Holston has supported for so many years. I would travel on to Uganda and then Southern Sudan through March 3, 2009. I had no clue what God had in store for me.
Last fall I began to prepare for the trip by getting my immunizations along with my wife, Delphine, who would accompany me to Liberia. My energy level started to rise about that time. Yet, I was so immersed in the ministry of Holston Conference and the upcoming appointment-making process that I didn’t have much time to think about the trip. January is a very busy month in The United Methodist Church. My calendar was so full of must-do meetings and local church visits that before I realized it, February was almost here.
In mid-January I received an e-mail from the executive committee of the Council of Bishops, stating that I had been selected for the Council of Bishops Visitation Team to the East Africa Annual Conference. The East Africa Annual Conference is comprised of United Methodist churches in Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Uganda, and Southern Sudan. The Council of Bishops executive team was aware of conflict within the churches in Burundi and Rwanda. They were also concerned about churches in Southern Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya. I was asked to join Bishop Felton May, Bishop Emilio DeCarvalho, and Bishop Gaspar Domingos – along with Bishop Daniel Wandabula of the East Africa Conference -- to assess the situation in these five sovereign nations and report our findings back to the Council of Bishops.
I return to you in Holston with new eyes, and I want to share what I experienced. In the next issues of The Call and in my blog, I will offer a glimpse of my discoveries in Africa. I will never forget this visit. It was challenging, but it was also a time of renewal as I prayed and sought the Lord’s face -- that I might see through Jesus' name and make decisions that would bless his holy name.
Bishop James Swanson is resident bishop of the Holston Annual Conference, comprised of 906 churches in east Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and north Georgia.
"Tragedy in Sudan moves conference to expand goals" (UMNS 3/31/09)
"Holston, East Africa conferences sign Sudan covenant" (UMNS 2/26/09)