In the midst of ethnic, political and developmental tensions, the Revs. Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather work with their South Sudanese partners in the areas of peace building and reconciliation.

The Smith-Mathers, mission co-workers with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), serve in South Sudan. They are in the United States through May and visited the Presbyterian Center March 13 to talk about their ministry.

The Smith-Mathers work with RECONCILE, an indigenous ecumenical organization established in 2004 by the New Sudan Council of Churches. RECONCILE promotes peace building by providing training in trauma recovery, conflict transformation and civic education. These activities are done in areas of high inter-ethnic conflict, where the church is often the entry point.

The church plays a role as “a unifying force across regions, across tribal forces,” Shelvis said. “In the midst of all these things going on, we find God at work.”

The Smith-Mathers spoke of the powerful example set by their South Sudanese partners, including members of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, the Presbyterian Church of Sudan and the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan.

Founded in 2011, South Sudan is a new country and faces many challenges. Carrying the legacy of the longest civil war in Africa — during which 2 million people died — South Sudan faces violent conflicts between clashing political parties and ethnic groups as well as a lack of economic development. In December 2013, violence erupted in South Sudan, forcing the seven PC(USA) mission co-workers based there to evacuate and causing the displacement of thousands of South Sudanese.

Shelvis spoke of one town, Yei, in which religious leaders were faced with 9,000 people looking for basic necessities. The churches decided that all members and leaders would fast once a day and use the money they would have spent on lunch to provide for the internally displaced people.

“These churches have sacrificed to provide for those in need,” Shelvis said.

Nancy added that the church in South Sudan has a powerful influence and is able to work both on the grassroots level and in a broader capacity.

While a January ceasefire in South Sudan provides some hope, the country still faces many challenges. The Smith-Mathers asked Presbyterians to learn about the situation and pray for reconciliation.

Donate to the RECONCILE Peace Institute here.