Nancy and Shelvis Smith-Mather’s little boy is just an infant, but he’s already gained the attention of the media. That’s because Jordan is the first American baby ever born in South Sudan. It’s a joyful moment in a time of challenge.
The couple lives in the small town of Yei, South Sudan. As mission co-workers of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), they serve in one of the most unstable regions of the world — helping those who are displaced and working with RECONCILE, (Resource Centre for Civil Leadership), an indigenous ecumenical Christian organization — for peace-building and reconciliation.
“I think we both feel that God has us there at this time, and the vast majority of South Sudanese people want a peaceful and stable country,” Nancy said during an interview with CNN’s Brooke Baldwin. “They want their children to have a better life and educational opportunities. So, you have the masses that are willing to work for peace. Even in our hometown, several churches fast for one day and use that money to feed those who have no place to go and they do this across ethnic lines.”
A cease fire was recently signed following a month of inter-ethnic fighting in South Sudan. As many as 10,000 people are believed to be dead, many more displaced.
“The biggest challenge at this point is the internally displaced people that have come into Yei from the other areas that have gotten more of the inter-ethnic conflict,” Nancy explained. “I think that within the country there have been more than half a million people displaced from their homes.”
“These people are our friends, neighbors, adoptive family members — people who have been trained in our peace-building work,” Shelvis added. “Even when you share those numbers of 10,000 people dead, we really don’t know. Mass graves are still being found in major cities.”
Shelvis and Nancy note that the impact of the violence will not be fully known until relief agencies are able to go in and tally the numbers of those killed and displaced.
The pair was home in the United States for the holidays when the most recent violence broke out and was unable to return as a result. Shelvis says it’s a reminder that Americans have a choice, something those in the South Sudan do not.
“Look we’re fine, we’re fortunate. We have family that cares for us and loves us,” he said. “But the reality is the majority of people are not able to leave. The majority of the people in the South Sudan are displaced in U.N. camps or the bush and are searching for help.”
When asked if they believe the cease fire will stick, Nancy answered “we’re hopeful.” But both agree that international pressure for peace must continue and our financial and prayerful support for organizations like PC(USA), RECONCILE, and other relief agencies is a must because they are working on the ground for long-term peace-building.
“It’s very hard for Americans to imagine this, but think of being in a place where there is a lack of infrastructure, a lack of medical care, a lack of access to drinking water, where the government is still developing,” Shelvis said. “It’s in that backdrop that the church has a unique role to be engaged in not only bringing relief but to also help in this healing process.”
As for the Smith-Mathers, they have more joyful news to share – they are expecting their second child. Perhaps it’s another sign that God will always fill our hearts with hope even in the darkest, most challenging times.