Constructing peace in a conflicted land

February 24, 2014 | Rebecca Neal Tompkins '02, Contributing Writer

Shelvis, Jordan and Nancy Smith-Mather.
Shelvis, Jordan and Nancy Smith-Mather.
Shelvis, Jordan and Nancy Smith-Mather.

Perhaps one of the most exciting parts about being a student is the unknown surrounding life after Furman. Life can take many different paths, and for Rev. Shelvis ’01 and Rev. Nancy ’02 Smith-Mather, serving as mission co-workers in the Republic of South Sudan has indeed proven to be a unique and rewarding adventure.

The religion and sociology double majors, both now ordained ministers in the Presbyterian Church-USA,  have been working in South Sudan for two years with RECONCILE International (Resource Center for Civil Leadership). Their infant son, Jordan, was also born there late last year.

RECONCILE is an indigenous ecumenical Christian organization in which Shelvis serves as the principal of the Peace Institute, and Nancy monitors and evaluates the organization’s programs. RECONCILE provides training for religious and civic leaders in the areas of conflict transformation, trauma healing, and recovery and civic education.

South Sudan became an independent country in July 2011. South Sudan is still building capacity for services, while facing civil unrest and inter-ethnic conflict. Currently more than 500,000 people are displaced as a result of recent warfare.

“A lot of the services we have here in the United States—schools, clinics, a court system that works—all of those things are things that are coming to—or haven’t reached—the majority of the citizens,” said Nancy. “The institution of the Church is strong and has opportunity to do a lot of the conflict transformation work or mediation in communities.”

The Church, she adds, has a lot of the respect that allows it to be a neutral mediator, build peace in communities and mobilize large groups of communities, while capitalizing on its grassroots connections.

“Being able to train the faith and community leaders has impact in the communities, and we feel great to be part of that,” Nancy added.

Shelvis indicated that while equipping South Sudanese leaders to work within their own communities for peace building, he and Nancy are also training some of these leaders to take over their roles with RECONCILE in the future.

The Smith-Mathers, based out of Atlanta, Ga., are home for a short time to share about how God is at work in South Sudan. The couple is traveling to different supporting churches, schools and seminaries, talking about God’s work in the South Sudan and the challenges the nation has been experiencing.

“There was a lot of discussion when we left [South Sudan] about what would be the appropriate thing to do in the midst of this crisis our friends, neighbors and the nation were experiencing. It became evident that we’re blessed with the privilege of being Americans, which also means we’re blessed with the privilege of an American audience and support,” said Shelvis.

He and Nancy say they are helping to amplify the voices of the South Sudanese.

”They said you all go back to the U.S., share our story, help to bring more resources, and Lord willing, as things begin to settle down, that [work] can be part of the healing, as well.”

Their work in South Sudan is possible, Shelvis and Nancy both say, because of their Furman education and undergraduate experiences. Both were also outstanding, All-Southern Conference student-athletes during their time at the university. Shelvis played football and Nancy was a member of the soccer team.

“My Furman religion major was foundational in helping me to have a way in which to study, to learn about different faiths, to learn about my faith, and to put my faith in the context of the wider Christian body,” Nancy commented. “Now we are interacting with the global Church and the different cultures, and trying to be a bridge for what the Church is doing in the South Sudan and what it’s doing in the United States.”

Shelvis credits his foreign study in Italy, Turkey and Greece with religion professor John Shelley, Ph.D., for the life-changing experiences he draws from today. He says he recently shared with Shelley how pivotal his foreign study was in life, faith and worldview.

“It’s one thing to see the Catacombs and learn what the early church members were doing.  It’s another thing to say ‘how does that apply to me today as an American who has been blessed with many different privileges—how is it that I can also join into this radical call in a way that is loving with my mind and my heart’?”

Nancy also noted that it was during her time at Furman that she grappled with issues of faith, poverty and disparity in the United States and locally in Greenville. She carried those issues overseas.

“The good news of God’s love for us and the gospel has to be holistic in looking not only at issues of our emotions and spirit, but also financial and economic situations, healthcare and opportunities we do or do not have….Being able to explore that at Furman was a huge help to me.”

As double majors, Shelvis and Nancy also credit the sociology department for their solid foundation. “We want to thank you for the ways you’ve shaped our lives,” said Shelvis. “You shaped us in our understanding of vocation and in our worldview, because it was here at Furman we were able to better understand humanity and how we interact with each other, both good and bad. It was here that we were able to critically think about our faith, our religion and how we engage that. And it was here that we were able to apply it to our lives after Furman.”

If you would like to follow Rev. Shelvis and Rev. Nancy Smith-Mather and their work, updates are provided at pcusa.org/shelvis-and-nancy-smith-mather.