The pastors and missionaries that have held a partnership with Holston Conference for 14 years are persevering with faith formation, education and sustainability projects -- in the face of enormous odds. Despite setbacks, the mission is blazing onward, say Holston leaders.
“The fruition of 14 years of work is coming to pass,” said Danny Howe, chair of Holston’s South Sudan Advisory Team.
One of the latest projects is a coronavirus awareness campaign reaching South Sudanese people now living in Ugandan refugee camps. Donors from Holston invested in the printing of posters and the renting of vehicles and loud speakers to teach people about social distancing, wearing masks, and washing their hands to stop virus spread.
The pandemic messages are also being shared through music and drama in three refugee camps: Imvepi, Rhino, and Bidibidi. (See related video.)
“Thanks for standing with the forgotten people of South Sudan who are still looking for peace, which peace seems to be far from us,” said Mandela Wani, leader of the COVID-19 awareness campaign.
Holston mission workers are doing their best to make sure the people of South Sudan are not forgotten, said Howe.
“In the middle of the worst and the worst of times, they are still committed to being ministers and proclaimers of the Word,” Howe said. “There are still opportunities to help. God will help Holston in whatever future there is for them.”
Since 2006, Holston Conference has worked with war-weary United Methodists in Sudan to drill wells, build churches, and provide pastoral training. Nine years ago on July 9, 2011, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan as the outcome of an agreement that ended Africa's longest-running civil war.
But in 2016, civil war erupted again to force many of the South Sudanese people to flee their homeland. Holston mission leaders followed them to Uganda and kept working with them in the refugee camps, providing clean water, shelter, food, and education.
In late June 2020, mission leaders were devastated to learn 36 children under Holston’s care would no longer be allowed to live together in a refugee camp, but would be separated into foster homes according to Ugandan law.
The children had been supported by Holston Conference churches since 2013, when Holston built “Grace Home” in South Sudan and began providing education and shelter for children without guardians.
“My heart is breaking, and I am frustrated about the inability to do anything about this,” said Libby Dearing, who founded Grace Home and shepherded the children throughout the years. “My prayer now is that God will take care of the children. We are still holding out hope that they can be together as the family they are, and that we’ll see them again.”
The news was shocking to many who had visited and grown close to the children.
“We must have confidence that somehow God will work all of this out in a way that has not been revealed to us,” said Becky Hall, a member of the South Sudan Advisory Team. “Whatever we’re doing in South Sudan is still benefiting the children.”
Holston Conference will continue to financially support the education of Grace Home children, Dearing said.
The work goes on to help 23 South Sudanese pastors, most who serve without pay, to build up the church in the refugee camps in Uganda as well as in Yei, South Sudan.
“The pastors and churches who fled the violence are located in four camps,” said the Rev. Fred Dearing, Holston missionary to South Sudan. “There are now 18 churches organized in the camps, and two more are being organized.”
Five United Methodist pastors have chosen to remain and work in South Sudan, “even in the midst of the violence and insecurity,” Dearing said. “This past year, one pastor was shot and killed, another kidnapped and conscripted into a militia, and another was attacked but escaped. We were able to bring him and his family out safely.”
A fundraising campaign that kicked off in November 2019, with matching funds provided by the Holston Foundation, garnered $165,000 to continue supporting the South Sudanese church leaders and their flocks.
The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries also transferred about $50,000 in mission funds (from The Advance) for Holston Conference to distribute to pastors and churches working on sustainability projects, including livestock, crops, and beekeeping.
“The [General Board of Global Ministries] trusted Holston’s process and diligence and credibility to take this money and distribute it,” said Hall.
“Any opportunity that we have where we can help them take care of their families, we try to do that,” Howe explained.
The educational progress that church leaders and staff have made throughout upheavals is a source of pride for all involved in the mission partnership, Dearing added.
Three pastors were ordained in 2019, and six will be ordained later this year. Two staff members have received bachelor’s degrees.
Fifteen pastors have completed their courses of study and have received certificates in theology. In all, 38 students are currently supported by Holston Conference in continuing education.
Education is not only offered to United Methodists, but to others as well. Robert Ruba, a United Methodist teacher whose education was supported by Holston, has led three English literacy trainings for 150 people in the refugee camps. Additional trainings are planned.
“It's a wonderful time to be doing what we're doing, even with all the hiccups and frustrations," said Dearing. "It's a good day to be in a relationship with the people of South Sudan."
To support Holston's mission partnership with South Sudan, you may give online or send checks to: Holston Foundation, P.O. Box 900, Alcoa, TN 37701.
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.
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