ALCOA, Tenn. (June 20, 2016) -- Botrous Tutu has been a preacher for many years -- since the 1990s when he was tortured in Sudan for refusing to renounce his faith -- and for the last four years, in a little church in Alcoa.
On June 11, 150 people came from three states to see Tutu put on a clergy robe and celebrate his official status as a licensed local pastor in the United Methodist Church.
Now, the Rev. Botrous Samuel Tutu, age 50, is under appointment to Green Meadow United Methodist Church, serving the Spring of Living Water community of worship, mission, and discipleship at the church.
“I’m so happy, because the Holy Spirit was moving when he gave me that stick,” Tutu said, referring to a highlight in the Saturday afternoon ceremony. “I’m going to be the leader of the people.”
Tutu actually received his license with 23 other local pastors during a June 7 ceremony at the Holston Annual Conference in Lake Junaluska, N.C. A special follow-up ceremony was planned June 11 to allow Tutu’s Alcoa congregation to celebrate along with South Sudanese friends from Atlanta, Memphis, Chattanooga, Nashville, and Harrisonburg, Va.
“We knew the worship service with the community, with everybody there, was going to be a meaningful moment, acknowledging that Botrous has pastoral authority,” said the Rev. Buzz Trexler, Green Meadow’s pastor. “This is the community he is serving, and obviously, they saw it as a hallmark moment in the church.”
Tutu has scars on his body from the beatings, cuts and burns suffered while imprisoned in Sudan in the 1990s. A native of the Nuba Mountains, Tutu was arrested by extremists for preaching about Jesus and establishing Protestant churches in his war-torn nation.
“A lot of stuff happened in Sudan,” Tutu says. “When I came here, I was trying to sit and not preach, but the Holy Spirit was pushing me again. I found myself back into ministry.”
When Tutu and his family got off the plane at McGhee Tyson Airport in January 2001, they were greeted by pastors and members of Cokesbury United Methodist Church. The large Knoxville congregation helped Botrous, his wife Muna, and their children find a home and learn how to live in the U.S.
John Gargis and his family were Cokesbury members who befriended the Tutu family. Today, Gargis is associate pastor at Fountain City United Methodist Church in Knoxville. He was one of the pastors participating in Tutu’s emotional ceremony at Green Meadow Church on June 11.
“I could still see him walking off that plane, coming to a new land, and handing us Samuel, his three-month-old baby, like we had known him for life,” said Gargis. “Fifteen years flew by, and now I am looking out to see the congregation that he is leading.”
After his U.S. arrival, Tutu got a machinery job and began attending Cokesbury. “I went to church to pray every Sunday and to listen to the preachers,” he said. He soon started a church for other Sudanese refugees living in Knox and Blount Counties. They met at Knoxville College and in private homes.
By 2012, the growing African congregation needed a permanent place. Tutu talked to Gargis, who asked his friend Buzz Trexler, pastor at Green Meadow, to help. Trexler took the request to his church council.
“It fits with our mission of openness, so we invited them in,” said Trexler.
Green Meadow’s congregation of 35 people meets on Sunday morning and worships in English. Spirit of Living Water’s congregation of 35 people meets on Sunday afternoon and worships in Arabic.
Over the last four years, Trexler performed the sacraments such as Baptism and Holy Communion for both congregations. However, he and Tutu often talked about starting the complicated process that would allow Tutu to fully lead his own congregation.
“It became an obsession to get him to this point in the journey in a system that is quite Western,” Trexler said.
In 2015, Tutu entered the ministry candidacy process within Holston Conference and began the meetings and education leading to credentialed ministry. Trexler and others helped Tutu with language and other challenges.
After the Tutu family relocated to Tennessee, Holston Conference coincidentally started a mission relationship in 2008 with the southern part of Sudan now known as South Sudan, an independent nation. Some of the Holston Conference members attending Tutu’s ceremony at Green Meadow have traveled to his home nation.
One of the ceremony’s speakers was the Rev. Charles Maynard, the Maryville District superintendent of 64 churches. A storyteller and author, Maynard shared the story of “The Magic Stick” while holding a walking stick he had owned for 20 years.
“It’s sassafras that honeysuckle has wound around,” Maynard said during the ceremony. “I’ve used it to tell stories to children. I’ve hiked many miles with it, over the mountains, for many years.”
At the end of the story about a porcupine and rabbit -- and the need to use one’s heart and mind to lead the way -- Maynard handed the stick to Tutu. “Here’s your stick,” he said.
The crowd applauded, as Tutu stood speechless with the gift that represents leadership in his country.
After the ceremony, the congregation and their visitors sang, feasted, and worshiped into the night.
Video: Singing during June 11 ceremony (The Daily Times, 6/17/16)
Video: Cokesbury's DeFur interviews Tutu (December 2015)
Sudanese pastor endures hardship for faith (UMNS, March 2001)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.