12:00 P.M. EST February 11, 2011
Sarasia Emilio Anisie puts her fingerprint on a registration document as citizens of Southern Sudan lined up to register to vote in the January 2011 referendum on secession from the north of the country. A web-only photo by Paul Jeffrey/Response.
When the overwhelming vote for independence in Southern Sudan became official, the celebration in Yei, Sudan, lasted throughout the night and into the next morning.
Danny Howe, co-leader of a 10-member team from the United Methodist Holston Annual (regional) Conference visiting the area, recalled the jubilant shouting after results of the Southern Sudan Referendum 2011 were read on Feb. 7.
“It began in adjacent villages and increased in intensity as it filled the air with the spine-chilling reality that we were experiencing a human emotion that we had never experienced before,” Howe said. “Soon after, the sound of gunshots began to accent their need and desire to let the world know that South Sudan was finally free.”
Back in the United States, Victor Chol is helping plan an independence celebration over President’s Day weekend. One of the original “Lost Boys of Sudan,” the 32-year-old member of the Marysville (Tenn.) United Methodist Church is now an American citizen but is committed to the revival of his homeland.
“This is a historical moment for the South Sudanese and all Sudanese,” he said. “It’s a dream come true for all of us.”
In the Holston Conference, 900-plus churches in Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia are heavily invested in a partnership with United Methodist congregations in Southern Sudan and their surrounding communities. The independence vote has generated both excitement and a sense of responsibility within the conference.
“The consequence for the church and for the world is that we’re really going to have to step up and be supportive to this fledgling country,” said Bishop James Swanson, the conference’s episcopal leader.
“There is strong acknowledgement that only through God can a new nation be born that can provide lasting peace and bring hope to a people who have been oppressed for so long,” Howe added.
Born out of peace agreement
Mandated by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, after many years of civil war in Sudan, the referendum on seccession was conducted Jan. 9-15. More than 98 percent of those voting in the 10 states of Southern Sudan approved independence.
On Jan. 7, Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, said his government would accept the vote to separate, and U.S. President Barack Obama announced the United States would formally recognize Southern Sudan “as a sovereign, independent state” in July.
He offered continuing support for all Sudanese. “We will work with the governments of Sudan and Southern Sudan to ensure a smooth and peaceful transition to independence,” Obama said.
Thomas Kemper, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, welcomed al-Bashir’s pledge to honor the vote. “We also pray that peace and harmony will prevail during the difficult negotiations on the details of the separation, including borders, oil supply and transport, and the rights of persons from north and south living in the opposite land,” he said in a statement.
The Board of Global Ministries “has interests and commitments in both North and South Sudan,” Kemper noted, and he expressed hopes for peace and mutual respect.
“We are pleased that the possibilities look good for Christian communities in the south, including our United Methodist congregations, to enjoy religious liberty into the future,” he said. “We hope that the rights of Muslims in the south will be respected even as we pray that the rights of Christians in the predominantly Muslim north will be guaranteed.”
One of the mission agency’s partners in Sudan has been the Ginghamsburg (Ohio) United Methodist Church, which has raised $4.4 million for humanitarian work in southern Darfur. Darfur is not part of Southern Sudan.
Curious children from the Dar es Salaam school peer into the Yei United Methodist Church in Yei, Sudan. A web-only photo by David Malloy, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
This year, the Ginghamsburg congregation will extend its mission to Southern Sudan, in collaboration with the United Methodist Committee on Relief and the board’s mission evangelism unit.
The focus, said the Rev. Mike Slaughter, will be on agriculture, clean water and education. For the first time, Ginghamsburg will help plant a church in Sudan. “We haven’t had that opportunity since we’ve been working mostly with Muslims in Darfur,” he explained.
Even with the affirmative vote, he pointed out, the political situation for Southern Sudan remains complex. “I think the future there is very fragile,” Slaughter added. “My immediate concern is the humanitarian aid and relief.”
In the United States, Ginghamsburg helped get out the vote on January’s referendum by assisting members of the Sudanese community in the Dayton, Ohio, area with child care and transportation to voting locations in Washington and Nashville, Tenn.
Chol and the organization he founded in 2007, the Sudanese Lost Boys and Girls Volunteer Association, worked on voter registration in Southern Sudan, instructing the largely uneducated population on how to use the complicated ballot, he said.
That experience only highlighted his opinion about the overarching need for education in the new nation. “If there are skills, there are opportunities,” declared Chol, who is studying for a master’s degree in public administration at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.
‘A lot at stake’
Meanwhile, United Methodists are working to meet immediate needs of the increasing population of Southern Sudan. The Yei area, for example, has grown from 40,000 in 2006 to more than 450,000 today, Howe said.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief is helping address a severe food shortage with a three-year project designed to improve the production of cassava crops and help establish fish farms.
“There’s a lot at risk, and a lot at stake,” said the Rev. Jeannie Higgins, chair of Holston’s Sudan Action Team. “We believe the church is strong and empowered to work for change and is raising up new leaders to do that.”
The Holston Conference, which has sent 13 mission teams and several missionaries to Southern Sudan since 2006, made commitments to the Sudanese church and the denomination’s East Africa Annual Conference in the areas of education, health care, pastoral support and safe water supplies.
“We’ve pretty much committed ourselves to making sure there is fresh drinking water … at every site where there is a church,” the bishop said. “But we’ve also promised there would be no restrictions on who gets the water.”
Both Chol and church leaders are placing a special emphasis on young people in Southern Sudan. Jarrod Suits, a youth director at First Broad Street United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tenn., led youth-worker training sessions during the team visit this month.
Chol is raising funds to buy supplies for training sessions at community centers in three states. “I’ll be going this May to help train youth,” he said.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.