Holston pastor aims to help Sudanese join denomination

Holston pastor aims to help Sudanese join denomination

Pastors and other church leaders hold up their new United Methodist worship books, printed in the Arabic language, during a training in Khartoum, Sudan. Photo by Botrous Tutu

MARYVILLE, Tenn. -- Now that the Rev. Botrous Tutu has returned safely from a trip to Sudan, he’s got a new mission to tackle and a burning question to answer: 

What does it take to become a member of The United Methodist Church when you live in Sudan? 

Tutu’s mission is to find out and help pastors of about 40 churches in his homeland achieve the membership he says they desperately want.

“I’m very sad for them because they say they are United Methodist but ‘nobody cares for us,’” says Tutu, who has lived in East Tennessee for the last 20 years.

On Christmas Day 2021, Tutu traveled to Khartoum and the Nuba Mountains region of Sudan to deliver 200 copies of a United Methodist worship book translated into the Arabic language. He then led training sessions for about 225 African pastors and other church leaders.
Pastors hold new books during Nuba Mountain training.

“They were excited to have the book in their hands. They have something that can lead them,” said Tutu, who speaks both Arabic and English.

The Sudanese church leaders had requested the worship book in their own language for many years, Tutu says. Now they want to officially belong to the church from where the book came.

“When we have churches in this country who say ‘we no longer want to be United Methodist,’ it’s joyful to see churches in North Africa who want to be United Methodist. In fact, they already consider themselves United Methodist,” says the Rev. Buzz Trexler, the Tennessee pastor who helped Tutu produce the book.

“The Book of Worship for United Methodists in Arabic-Language Churches” includes liturgy for baptism, Holy Communion, marriage, and funerals. The book was reproduced with permission from United Methodist Publishing House and with financial support from Holston Conference.
United Methodist Book of Worship in Arabic language

Tutu began to see a need for resources in the Arabic language as he studied to become a United Methodist local pastor in the United States. He now leads Spring of Living Water, a Sudanese congregation based at Green Meadow United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee.

However, he never lost contact with friends and other Christian believers back in Sudan, a country he left in 2001 after extremists beat and imprisoned him for preaching about Jesus.

“These churches work hard to bring people to Christ,” Tutu said in December 2021 before leaving for Sudan over the holidays. "I told them about The United Methodist Church and how we worship."

He first learned about United Methodism in 2001, when Cokesbury United Methodist Church helped Tutu and his family settle in Knoxville, Tennessee. Tutu then shared what he learned about John Wesley and his new church with people in Sudan who already knew him for his witness and deep faith.

Over time, churches and pastors connected to Tutu began to consider themselves United Methodists, hanging up United Methodist signs and asking for training materials.
A trainee points to a United Methodist church sign.

“People there are trying to find the right church that believes in Christ,” Tutu said.

Sudan is predominantly Muslim  -- 91%, according to the Pew Research Center. About 5% of the population is Christian. A 2019 constitution now protects freedom of religion in Sudan, a dramatic change from the political climate occurring under Omar Al-Bashir from 1989 to 2019.

When Tutu visited Sudan from Dec. 25 to Jan. 17, he felt safe, despite a U.S. travel advisory and the concern of his stateside friends. “Sudan is different now,” he says frequently. On the ground in Sudan, the trip went without incident, as the pastor and his wife Muna visited churches in Khartoum and the Nuba Mountains. He preached and led three large trainings using the new worship book.

The most difficult part about the trip was getting in and out of the U.S., Tutu said, with complications of COVID-19 tests, airline tickets, baggage, and missed flight connections. The snafus delayed his travel both at departure and return.

“It was an absolute disaster,” said Trexler, who spent the days before Christmas trying to help his friends get off the ground.
Muna and Botrous Tutu check bags at Knoxville airport.

Back in the U.S., Tutu wants to help people he trained in Sudan to be recognized by The United Methodist Church, which is currently not the case.  

“To our knowledge, there are no UMC congregations in Sudan,” the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of Ask the UMC, a service of United Methodist Communications, said in an email on Dec. 15. “There is also no identified global mission work in Sudan at this time.”

Burton-Edwards explained that it is possible to develop United Methodist churches in places without an organized episcopal area, but not without episcopal supervision.

“When Global Ministries enters a new territory to organize UMC congregations, it does so in collaboration with the Council of Bishops, who assign one of their number as bishop for that missionary area,” Burton-Edwards said.

The ways and complications of the church can be difficult to explain to people in any country, Trexler noted. “They don’t understand the polity. What they understand is this is a church they want to be part of.”
Tutu and Trexler talk to a Sudanese pastor on the phone.

Tutu and Trexler are beginning to ask questions and schedule meetings to find out more. They have a list of more than 40 churches in Khartoum, Um Doreen County, and Thogo County in Sudan -- and a refugee camp in Egypt -- that Tutu says have leaders desiring to be part of the United Methodist connection. At least two of the churches have 4,000 or more worshipers, he said.

Tutu is stressing patience with his colleagues in Sudan. “This is bigger than me,” he tells them. “I bring you this book. You use this book and practice and maybe you will be United Methodist one day.”

In a telephone interview with The Call, translated by Tutu, one pastor in Khartoum, Sudan, expressed his appreciation to Holston Conference for supporting the new worship book as well as Tutu.

“We are learning a lot … and learning how we can enter worship,” said the Rev. Mahmuod Asaja, pastor of Samira Cathedral. “And we are using this book because before we didn’t have any materials. Thank you for sending [Botrous Tutu] here. It’s a big job.”
Church leaders attend training in the Nuba Mountains.

Asaja also asked Holston Conference “to stand with us” and to visit his country. “They will see what is going on. We are United Methodist, and we are not going to change our denomination.”

Photos by Botrous Tutu, Buzz Trexler, and Annette Spence

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Holston Conference includes 850 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.


annette july 2023.jpg
Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.

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