|Edina: Symbol of strength in Sudan ministry
Edina Tomalu interprets for Bishop James Swanson of the Holston Annual
(regional) Conference during a February 27 worship service at Yei
United Methodist Church in Sudan. A UMNS photo by David Malloy, GBGM.
A UMNS Report
By Annette Spence*
May 26, 2009
Edina Tomalu walks seven miles each day to work at the United Methodist
compound in Yei, Sudan. It is a job for which she receives no regular
pay. At night, she takes orphans and widows into her home, missing
meals so she can share her food.
is a worship leader and an advocate for women and children for The
United Methodist Church in south Sudan. A UMNS photo by Annette Spence.
At age 31, she is a worship leader and advocate for women and children for the United Methodist Church in south Sudan.
But for mission leaders of the Holston Annual (regional) Conference
-- which includes more than 900 churches in east Tennessee, southwest
Virginia and north Georgia -- and citizens of Yei, Tomalu might be the
leader of the United Methodist Church in south Sudan.
"The males think they are the leaders of the church, but it's
evident that they look to Edina a lot," said Danny Howe, chair of the
conference mission team and two-time traveler to Sudan. "She has the
respect of the community. And because she has that respect, she is bold
in her leadership."
"She's the strongest woman I ever met," added the Rev. Jeannie
Higgins, chair of Holston's Sudan Action Team and also a Sudan mission
team veteran. "She's so self-sacrificing that I worry about her. But as
long as her health holds out, Edina will be a key person in that
Faith and pain
Tomalu realized her calling as a teenager, when the pastor of an
Anglican church asked her to pray aloud and assist with pastoral
duties. Jealousy among the congregants led to a death threat. Her
parents begged their 15-year-old daughter to stop her church work and
Edina told her parents the story about Jesus, when his parents found
him teaching in the temple. Then she told her mother and father:
"I will never come home. Father God has
already called me in ministry. If I die in the ministry, bury me with
joy. If I die of this world, you will lose me completely."
"I will never come home. Father God has already called me in
ministry. If I die in the ministry, bury me with joy. If I die of this
world, you will lose me completely."
"My father said to my mother, 'Let her go.'"
Among her responsibilities today, Tomalu is a leader of worship,
advocate for women and children and interpreter for United Methodists
struggling to communicate in different languages.
She is thinner than when she greeted the first Holston Mission Team
in 2006, and she complains of stomach pain. Higgins noted that Tomalu
"buzzes from one thing to another," while remembering, like many
Holston members do, a story about her tirelessness.
"I was involved in clergy training on my first trip to Sudan in
March 2008," Higgins said of Holston's ongoing ministry with the East Africa Conference.
"We were on a break, and Edina had several letters written by United
Methodist Women from Holston to the women in Sudan. She wanted to read
them out loud to the women."
She read until Higgins became weary and wished Tomalu would stop.
"But she would not be hurried," Higgins said. "She sensed the
importance of each letter. There must have been 50, and she didn't stop
until she had read each one."
The mother of two children -- Nancy, 5, and Simeon, 3 -- Tomalu
helped Salaam United Methodist School grow to its current maximum
enrollment of 1,500 students with 18 teachers. ("Salaam" means "peace"
in Arabic, Sudan's national language.) The United Methodist Committee
on Relief financed the school's first building. Holston Conference will
pay for a second building with money raised through the annual
Tomalu has also been a leader among those asking Holston to help the
19 United Methodist churches of south Sudan care for their widows and
orphans. Holston's Libby Dearing is now championing the effort to
develop a United Methodist children's home in Yei.
Tomalu speaks frequently, sometimes with frustration, of the people who come to her in need of food, shelter, education, safety.
"I have no answers for them," she said. "I know that only through Jesus, we can help them."
But she also speaks boldly of the role of women in developing a country scarred by war, disease, and poverty.
Tomalu is the church’s worship leader. A UMNS photo by Annette Spence.
"This I tell you without fear: 75 percent of the church in Sudan are
women," she told worshippers at Yei United Methodist Church in a
service attended by Bishop James Swanson. "The women are the pillars of
the church. We have great pain because we lost so many children in the
war, but we also have great faith."
When Tomalu first met Swanson during his trip to Africa in February,
she was surprised and delighted to discover he is a black man.
“She just hugged me and said quietly, 'I didn't know,'" Swanson says.
Later, Swanson was impressed by the young woman's gift of
interpretation. She translated Swanson's sermon for worshippers at Yei
United Methodist church.
"What surprised me was not just her ability to interpret my words,
but also my heart," Swanson said. "Every movement I made, she was in
step with me."
Howe remembered how she laid hands on and prayed for the sick child
who came to the temporary clinic set up by a Holston Mission team in
February. When the infant Rafael died, Tomalu's language skills and
relationships were crucial in arranging for the child to be quickly
transported and buried next to his mother's grave, 22 miles away.
Holston Conference supplied the necessary $200.
"She knew all the things that needed to be done to take care of that
baby and his aunt, in an environment where I didn't know where to
turn," Howe said.
Tomalu understands her people's suffering. Like so many, she labored
as a child and lived in a refugee camp after her home was attacked by
the Sudan People's Liberation Army.
"The women are the pillars of the church.
We have great pain because we lost so many children in the war, but we
also have great faith."
"It has cost me," she says, referring to years of hunger and hard
work. She left the refugee camp at 18 when she saw soldiers brutalizing
"They would ask, 'Do you want to be happy?' If you said yes, they
cut your lips to look as if you were always smiling," she says. "If you
answered, 'No, I want to be sad,' they put a padlock on your lips."
Tomalu came to the United Methodist Church in 2001. She had learned
to speak English well in the refugee camp, but was eager for more
education. A friend told her, "There is another church. It is called
Methodist. This church wants people, and this church wants to find
people to go to school."
Tomalu got in on the ground level of the United Methodist Church of
south Sudan, which had just been organized by the Rev. William Upendo.
She was identified as an achiever and was appointed as the women's
"God planted his seed in me -- his spirit gives me wisdom," Tomalu explains. "What God put in me is unique, but it is not easy."
Since then, the church of south Sudan has experienced conflict as
well as great success. Church leaders say Tomalu worked faithfully
through it all, building relationships at first with the Western
Pennsylvania Conference. That conference bought the first plot of land
for the United Methodist compound.
The Holston Conference followed in 2006 and has since signed a covenant with the East Africa Conference and sent seven mission teams to Yei. An eighth team is scheduled for November 2009.
"The response was put by God into Holston Conference to care for the
needs of the people," Tomalu said. "I hear God whispering in my ear
that we don't have to do it alone."
Continuing education has not been possible for Tomalu, although
Holston provides Africa University scholarships for young adults from
Yei. However, the young woman with a big voice is already counted on to
shepherd her community into a better future.
"She's helped the church stay focused on its goals, their vision,
and the priorities they identified with Holston Conference," said Howe,
referring to the covenant agreement that calls for education, health
care and self-sustainability. "It's not always popular for women to
have a leadership role in this country, but I sense she walks on some
pretty solid ground."
*Spence is editor of the Holston conference newspaper.
News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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