As the nation grieved and prayed in response to Saturday's shootings in Arizona, many in Holston Conference also prayed for the long-expected referendum in South Sudan which began Sunday, Jan. 9.
The East African nation will vote through Friday, Jan. 14, in a decision that marks the final stage of a 2005 peace agreement. The agreement ended 22 years of war between the Sudanese government based in Khartoum, in the mainly Muslim north, and rebels based in the mainly Christian south. Southern Sudanese are widely expected to choose independence, freeing themselves from the rule of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
For the referendum to pass, a simple majority must vote for independence and 60 percent of the 3.9 million registered voters must cast ballots.
After the first full day of voting in Sudan, the Rev. Boo Hankins -- appointed by Bishop James Swanson to serve in Sudan since July 2009 -- reported on his Facebook page that "everything was peaceful today."
"There is a 7 p.m. curfew so we are settling in for the night," Hankins wrote.
Steve and Diantha Hodges, who relocated to Sudan in July 2010, are currently back in the U.S. to visit an ill relative.
"We've been praying daily and will continue," Steve Hodges wrote on Facebook. "We had six minutes in the morning workshop service here at Pleasant Community Church ... to explain about Sudan and ask for prayers for the referendum and the difficult days beyond."
Church leaders have so far been assured that Holston mission workers in Sudan are safe and that protective plans are in place in case of violence related to the vote or possible secession.
"Boo, Phyllis, Steve and Diantha have assured us that everybody is in a celebratory mood regarding the referendum," said Danny Howe, chair of Holston's Missions Ministry Team. "The local government in Yei feels the referendum will go on without issues and safety concerns."
Holston leaders are in contact with the United Nations as well as the denomination's own General Board of Global Ministries to monitor safety and security in Yei, Howe said.
"The United Nations is nearby [where Holston workers are assigned in Sudan] and easy to get to." In the event of danger, an evacuation plan is in place to move mission workers to a safe holding place for a few days "and then out of the country," he said.
To aid church members and others in praying for the referendum, nine clergy and lay members each wrote prayers and submitted their favorite Sudan photos. The "Sudan Peace' series is online and may be used throughout the week of voting.