One year ago, the Sudan Action Team was formed after a conference staff member read a book over the Fourth of July holiday. Today, church leaders are urging others to read the same book – knowing they, too, will be moved to join a ministry that's progressing with breathtaking speed.

'This book has changed my life'

By Annette Spence

The story is becoming wellknown in Holston. At a conference staff meeting in July 2005, Children's Coordinator Anita Henderlight told of a book she read over the weekend. "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky" is about the suffering and hunger of three little boys after their homes were set on fire in Sudan. At ages 5 and 6, they crawled across desert land, begged for water, and spent night after night with only soil as their beds.

It wasn't just any story. It is a true story, lived out every day in Africa. Anita Henderlight was haunted. "This book has changed my life," she said.

Bishop James Swanson and others were so moved by her response to the book, Swanson immediately ordered the formation of a Sudan Action Team.

One year later, people who've already read the book and who have joined in the ministry are sometimes overwhelmed by the speed at which new developments are emerging.

"No one has turned down an invitation to participate in this ministry," says Henderlight, whose part-time position now involves traveling all over Holston - and beyond - to plead for the children of Sudan. "As a church worker who has always had to beg people to volunteer, that's amazing to me."

People of joy and strength
In 2008, Sudan will be the focus of the Holston Annual Conference's mission effort. At this past Annual Conference, Holston launched the "One Conference, One Book" campaign to help educate members.

"Once people read the book, they will know what's happening in Sudan," says Henderlight, referring to "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky."

In April, a three-member Holston team, including Henderlight, the Rev. Fred Dearing, and the Rev. Tom Seay, traveled to Yei, Sudan, to begin building relationships with the people around a United Methodist compound. They saw the dirt floors, the burned-out huts, the unsanitary water supply, the orphans, the hunger.

Yet, they were also lifted up by the strength, joy, and giving nature of the people.

"We will not beg," Pastor Conis Towongo told the Holston team during their visit. Today, Holston is the only United Methodist conference working in southern Sudan. Towongo emphasized that United Methodist churches in the area (comprised of people, not buildings) don't want handouts, but true partnerships in building community and church infrastructure.

"These people do not walk around sadly in sack clothes. They are filled with joy and God's love," Jane Ohuma told the Holston representatives during their visit. Ohuma is head of UMCOR Sudan.

Henderlight and her fellow travelers saw evidence of that everyday. On the morning they arrived in Yei, children suddenly came "out of the bush," carrying mangos for their breakfast. When they saw the visitors, they beamed and brought their mangos to share.

"These people have nothing, nothing, and yet they wanted to give to us. Six of us were eating off one mango," Henderlight said.

Since April, poignant presentations by Henderlight, Dearing, and Seay have moved many individuals and groups to respond.

The Holston Conference Foundation, through the Thomas Wilson Fund, committed $7,500 to build a well this summer and is hoping to attract enough donations to dig a second well by the year's end.

"The pictures of the mud hole really hit me hard," said Foundation Director Roger Redding, referring to the water source from which the people of Yei drink. "I knew immediately there was an opportunity for the Foundation to "quench the thirst of others."

When the Vacation Bible School of Sevierville Circuit, in Maryville District, heard of the need for clean water in Sudan, they set out to raise $1,000 for the Foundation's effort. Number of VBS participants: 15 children, 18 adults.

At a presentation in June, 25 participants at a Christian Educators Fellowship luncheon spontaneously gave $900. The money bought nine bikes for Sudanese teachers who work for no salaries and who must walk four miles, round trip, from town to the United Methodist compound.

Beginning in August, Dearing and other district superintendents will approach clergy to help provide salary support for 10 Sudanese United Methodist pastors who also work for no money.

"We're well beyond where we ever dreamed on our timeline," says Lori Sluder, a member of the Sudan Action Team. "Talk about new life and resurrection." About 12 members regularly attend Sudan Action Team meetings, but 30 to 40 volunteers are involved. (Some, like the Rev. Jeannie Higgins, minister of discipleship at Asbury UMC, Morristown District, read "They Poured Fire" and asked to be on the team.)

Immediately afer the team's creation, alliances were formed with the author of the book, Judy Bernstein, as well as the General Board of Global Ministries and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). A Web site, informational DVD, traveling display, publicity materials, and book study guides were quickly developed.

Holston leaders regularly meet with some of the "lost boys" who are now young men living in the United States. After the young men suggested that playing games could help lift refugee children out of depression, participants at Resurrection and Divine Rhythm donated more than 10,000 soccer balls, volleyballs, Frisbees, and hackey sacks in January 2006.

On July 8, Holston Conference received national attention when Henderlight showed pictures of her Sudan trip at an emotional reunion of "lost boys and girls" who have resettled in the United States. Held at Crossroads UMC in Fairfax, Va., the gathering was covered by the Washington Post.

"The United States is blessed to have people like those at Crossroads UMC and like the leaders in the Holston Annual Conference who have actually taken the time to travel to Sudan and to get to know the people and to understand the circumstances there," said Jim Winkler of the General Board of Church and Society.

Another Holston team is already scheduled to return to Sudan in March 2007. The first trip, in April 2006, was "100 percent successful" because it established "on-the-ground contacts" and relationships with the people of Yei, said Anne Travis, director of connectional ministries.

The Holston team reassurred the Sudanese people that, unlike some church groups, Holston Conference would return to Sudan.

"We're not leaving them," said Henderlight. "We're coming to stay."

How to get involved
Read the book. "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky" is available at Cokesbury Bookstore for $12 (paperback) or $25 (hardcover). Receive a 20 percent discount by ordering online at

Visit the Web site. At, you will find a study guide co-authored by Holston's Rev. Mat Merker and Judy Bernstein, a list of "Eight Ways to Get Involved," and other resources.

Request a presentation. Sudan Action Team members will come to your church to talk about "Hope for the Children of Sudan." Contact Anne Travis toll-free at (866) 690-4080 or

Give. To give money to Holston's Sudan mission, write checks to your local church or to Holston Conference. Designate "Advance Special #537, Hope for the Children of Sudan" on the memo line.

To give to the Foundation's well ministry, make checks payable to Holston Conference Foundation, 9919 Kingston Pike, Knoxville, TN 37922. Write "Well Ministry - Sudan" on the memo line.


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