Tragedy in Sudan Moves Conference to Expand Goals

April 03, 2009

By Annette Spence*

March 31, 2009 | YEI, Sudan (UMNS)


The tiny, frail child appeared to be asleep in his hospital bed. It was only when the mother wailed - and the nurse began to tie up the infant's toes - that observers realized what was happening.


The child had just died. The nurse was routinely preparing the body for the onset of rigor mortis. It was a Saturday afternoon in south Sudan, where three United Methodist bishops were visiting the town's only hospital. By the time the bishops had prayed for the patients and families and then stepped outside to recover, three more infants had died.


"God does not want us to let people live like this," said a tearful Bishop James Swanson, embraced by others who also witnessed the grim scene.


The experience was part of a Feb. 16-March 4 mission trip to Sudan by members of the Holston Annual (regional) Conference. Swanson is resident bishop of Holston, which includes 906 churches in east Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and north Georgia.


Swanson was accompanied by Bishop Daniel Wandabula, resident bishop of the East Africa Conference, and Bishop Felton E. May, former interim top executive for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and its special consultant on Africa.


The bishops would learn that four other children had died the day prior to their visit. Another severely malnourished infant - who had been personally cared for by Holston volunteers - died a few hours after the bishops left the hospital.

"In our effort to help preserve life, we've seen life slip through our hands," said Danny Howe, who led the Holston team to Sudan and is chairperson of the conference mission team. "It hurts as much in Africa as it does in the U.S.A."

(Above, left, Bishops Daniel Wandabula - at left - and James Swanson pray for Rafael and his aunt just before the severely malnourished baby died.) 

'On the ground'

Holston Conference was "on the ground" with its sixth mission team to Yei, Sudan, as part of a 2008 covenant with the East Africa Conference. The covenant calls for Holston to raise a minimum of $250,000 to build schools, dig wells, equip clergy, improve health, and teach self-sustainability in a region scarred by decades of war, poverty, and disease.


To date, Holston has raised about $180,000 and begun several projects. Many groups in Holston have contributed separate funds and donated medicine, school supplies, and equipment. Another conference-wide offering is scheduled in June, and a clergy member from Greeneville, Tennessee, the Rev. Buford Hankins, will be appointed for two years as a "transitional" district superintendent in Yei. Hankins and his wife, the Rev. Phyllis Hankins, will settle in Sudan this July.


What they witnessed in Sudan recently is now driving Holston leaders to appeal for an even broader rescue effort, which may include a hospital and orphanage.


"I am adamant that there will be no more children who will suffer because nothing is available to them," said Howe. "I won't rest until I contact every United Methodist agency to help get them what they need."

"We can't save every child's life in Sudan, but we can certainly save more," Swanson said. "The need is so great - greater than our resources. We are invested in other missions that we don't want to suffer. But we know there are others who, if they knew what was going on in Sudan, would want to help us do something about it."

(Above, right, Sudanese children get water from a new well, dug with money raised by the Holston Conference.)

Strong connections

The 15-member team from Holston went to Sudan with goals of training clergy, providing medical care, and planning the next construction phases for a school and superintendent's house.


The team arrived safely back in Holston just as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was charged with war crimes and several foreign-aid groups were subsequently expelled from Darfur. Yei is about 800 miles southeast of Darfur.


Fifty-five clergy and lay leaders representing 17 churches in south Sudan attended training led by the Rev. Fred Dearing and the Rev. Andrew Amodei of Kingsport, Tennessee. They were supported by Isaac Sebit Methew, deputy coordinator of the United Methodist Church in South Sudan, and Edina Tomalu, women's president of the United Methodist Church in South Sudan.


Steve Hodges, a Board of Global Ministries missionary based in Sneedville, Tennessee, researched agricultural and business opportunities. By trip's end, he had proposed a project for Sudanese women to raise chickens and grow green vegetables, addressing a desperate need for both nutrition and income.


The Holston team also worked closely with the field office of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.


Also joining the Holston team in Sudan was David Malloy, annual conference liaison for The Advance, who helped the East Africa Conference apply for about six new Advance numbers for directing financial gifts to south Sudan.


"I've never seen as many malnourished children or such a lack of access to water," Malloy said. "If Holston Conference could be a model for other annual conferences, we could get a lot of support here."


Overwhelmed with need

The drive to address Yei's hospital situation emerged as Holston physicians and pharmacy workers treated 3,200 patients suffering from malaria, malnutrition, dehydration, parasites, skin infections, and other ailments. Some patients walked as far as 25 miles for the free medical care and medicine.


When an orphaned baby named Raphael was brought to the temporary clinic, Holston doctor Mike Boggan immediately saw the skeletal child was near death. The baby was rushed to the only hospital serving the 400,000 residents of Yei and beyond.


Howe learned that the government-run facility was so poor, the staff had not been paid for six months. Beds were lined up in the open-air porches of the stifling, crumbling building. Patients supplied their own bedding, medicine, and food, or they did without.


Holston workers bought the needed supplies for the sick baby and his caretaker aunt, then donated other medicine and equipment to the hospital. They visited the child each day to monitor his progress.


"I've always considered myself more of a scientist, but there's no way to divorce yourself from the pathos and hopelessness of the medical situation," said Boggan (shown caring for a patient at a temporary clinic set up by the Holston team, in photo above), who called the hospital staff "very dedicated" but overwhelmed with need. "I still have nightmares about it."

When the three bishops stepped off the plane in Yei, the Holston team quickly took them to visit their young patient. They didn't know Raphael and the other infants would die within a short time.


On the same day the Holston team departed Yei, another team of young adults arrived to offer Vacation Bible School to 2,000 children living on or near the town's United Methodist compound. Holston plans to send additional teams to continue their covenant work with East Africa Conference.


The three bishops met and shared mutual goals with Yei's highest ranking official, Col. David Lokonga Moses, who also participated in Sunday worship at Yei United Methodist Church. "My prayer is that God will help the children," Moses told worshippers.


For more information about Holston mission in south Sudan, contact the conference office in Alcoa, Tennessee, at 865.690.4080 or


*Spence is editor of the Holston conference newspaper.