By Rachel Reiff Ellis
The Birth of a Child
A thousand things raced through Shelvis Smith-Mather’s mind on October 20, 2012, as he sat in the tiny hospital just outside the village of Yei, South Sudan. Despite plans to board a plane three days later in order to deliver their first child in the United States, his wife, Nancy, just over 7 months pregnant, was instead lying on a bed gripped in the unmistakable throes of labor.
“On top of my concern for Nancy, I couldn’t stop thinking about the statistics and figures I knew to be true about South Sudan,” says Shelvis—statistics such as women in South Sudan are more likely to die in labor than to graduate from high school.
Shelvis also knew that the rural hospital was ill-equipped to handle a baby so premature. And he realized they would need access to more advanced transportation than they had in order to get to a hospital with the level of care they needed.
But despite a dearth of technology and transportation, the baby’s time had come: Jordan Eman Smith-Mather was born seven weeks early in a country recently labeled “the worst place in the world to give birth.” Within minutes, he was in distress, and the Smith-Mathers began praying in earnest.
“For me, that was the most challenging point, because the medical staff was very honest and told us they may not have the equipment they would need based on his condition,” recalls Nancy. Miraculously, through the use of a “homemade” CPAP machine and the town’s only incubator, Jordan was stabilized and successfully transferred via plane to a hospital in Kenya, where he was admitted to a neo-natal ICU.
As Jordan improved over the next weeks, many people wondered: Would they stay in Africa? Jordan’s dramatic arrival cast new light on life in an impoverished region with few resources. Says Nancy, “I knew the daily difficulties of living in South Sudan. I was keenly aware, however, that I did not know life as a parent to a young child in South Sudan.”
But the couple agreed that the decision to stay was clear. “Between the deep desire for loving, human relationships and the reality of the great inequity in our world, we felt God’s Spirit pushing us forward, allowing us to follow the hope of making a difference,” Nancy shares.
The Birth of a Nation
The seed of the Smith-Mathers’ call to the Sudan had been planted in 2008 during their service year in Kenya as Young Adult Volunteers with the Presbyterian Church (USA). After their initial term was over, they signed up for an additional year, during which Nancy worked for an interdenominational community development organization in South Sudan. The decades-long civil war that preceded the Republic of South Sudan’s split from Sudan had created deep schisms between ethnic groups in the poverty-stricken region, yet the Smith-Mathers saw glimmers of hope and felt a pull toward a deeper engagement with the people in this new nation, formed in July of 2011.
“In the areas where I worked in South Sudan, churches are some of the strongest local institutions present,” Nancy says. “The leadership and membership of congregations possess a great ability to organize and bring about peace and holistic development in their communities.”
Personal encounters with survivors of Rwandan genocide who taught forgiveness despite their experience with atrocities inspired the Smith-Mathers to help bring an end to the suffering in a lasting and sustainable way.
The Birth of a Mission
Their interest in peacebuilding led the Smith-Mathers to the Resource Centre for Civil Leadership (RECONCILE), an indigenous ecumenical Christian organization founded in 2003 to promote peace by providing training in trauma recovery, conflict transformation, and civic education. In 2011, South Sudan’s National Council of Churches invited the Smith-Mathers to serve as peace educators in collaboration with RECONCILE.
The Smith-Mathers began their ministry in December 2011, moving to Yei, South Sudan, where they participate in RECONCILE training events addressing inter-ethnic conflict, and where Shelvis is the principal of the Peace Institute, which offers three-month courses in community-based trauma healing, peace studies, and conflict transformation.
As they began their work in the war-torn area, a side effect of years of conflict quickly became apparent, foreshadowing Jordan’s birth story. “In the presence of conflict and violent clashes, there is an inability for development to happen,” Shelvis notes. “That means there is an inability to gain access to medical care—which means there’s not just a death that comes by guns, but there is a death that comes by a community’s lack of resources.”
Compounding that was a lack of trust between foreign aid workers and the southern Sudanese. “There is a history of well-intentioned Americans coming in with an agenda and ignoring the voice and concerns of the people who are indigenous to that land,” explains Shelvis. The Smith-Mathers wanted to remove this “lens of suspicion” and build trust.
So they began with a two-pronged approach: First, they sought to enter into authentic community engagement with the Sudanese in a way that would allow real dialogue; and second, to relay their community’s problems to those with the resources to help.
The Birth of a Family
With the arrival of Jordan came an opportunity they had not foreseen. “Jordan’s birth was this tremendous bringing together,” explains Nancy. “The excitement and energy around him and the fact that he was born in South Sudan meant that—at least to our colleagues at RECONCILE—Jordan was South Sudanese.”
In fact, an elder of Yei gave Jordan his own Sudanese name: Yopay, which means “one who comes before his time.” Jordan has become “their” baby—everyone considers themselves an uncle, an aunt, a grandfather. “There’s this connection that Jordan has with the people here and this place that is different than what Shelvis and I can have,” says Nancy.
Jordan, whose first name is a reference to the crossing of the Jordan River, and whose middle name, Eman, is Arabic for “faith” and “hope,” keeps them grounded in the larger message of hoping for and believing in something better, that with God all things are possible.
“Through his birth we were able to cross through that ‘Jordan river moment’ and then place the stones together to be a reminder that the living God was with us in the midst of that struggle,” says Shelvis. “We feel like Jordan will always be that reminder to us that God was indeed with us.”
But the story doesn’t end there. As their work continues in South Sudan, the Smith-Mathers maintain hope that their experience will serve as a call to action for the Christian community and beyond.
“Ultimately, this isn’t a story about us. This is a story about how God is at work and how God is calling us to be at work in the world,” Shelvis says. “When we tell the story, we’re also offering an invitation for others to be involved in it.”
“This story allows us to share the miracle of our son and at the same time talk about how there are thousands upon thousands of women who have babies in impoverished areas who don’t have this happy ending, who don’t have this opportunity,” he adds.
"This story is beyond us. We have a responsibility to share it in a way that says, ‘Now what?’ It happened. Praise the Lord. Now what?”
Rachel Reiff Ellis was born when both her parents were students at Candler. She took some of her first steps on the Emory campus.