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Bishop-led S.C. group visits AU, returns eager to share

By Andra Stevens

Inspired by their experiences during a one-week visit to Africa University, S.C. United Methodists are fired up about increasing their conference’s support for the institution.

A 32-member group, led by Bishop Jonathan Holston, visited Africa University Jan. 13-20 with the goal of experiencing the institution s ministry and impact firsthand.

This journey to Africa University was a wonderful opportunity for our laity and clergy to experience the excitement of international mission and ministry that is so uniquely connected to South Carolina Methodism,  Holston said. With our conference s support of giving 100 percent to the Africa University Fund apportionment, we join with others across our connection by investing in the hopes and dreams of this visionary institution. 

Describing South Carolina s success in meeting its full asking to the AUF in 2013 as a big achievement, Conference Treasurer Tony Prestipino gave much of the credit to a local pastor, the Rev. John Culp.

Culp, the pastor of Virginia Wingard Memorial UMC, Columbia, led the push to reach 100 percent for the AUF. He shepherded a resolution through at Annual Conference 2013 and was instrumental in soliciting several large donations from individuals and congregations. Culp also initiated the plan to have a South Carolina group visit the university this year.

South Carolina came through, said Culp. Members pushed to make a statement of strong support and to honor their bishop s trip to the university.

I think that it s a start,  Culp said. It s likely the first general church apportioned fund that we have ever paid in full, but with Africa University, we were only coming up short by about $5,000 each time. We needed to pay 100 percent. We met the goal and we are thankful. 

Increased commitment and excitement about AU

There s growing awareness and support for Africa University in the conference. Culp and others who made the trip are hoping that they can spur their congregations to do even more.

We returned to South Carolina with new commitments and a story to tell of a great university,  Culp said.

When you leave home, you see so much more of a need to serve others,  said Rachel Sistrunk, a lay member of St. Stephen UMC in Orangeburg. Sistrunk has been investing in Africa University for 21 years ”helping her church to pay its apportionments in full and contributing second-mile gifts for scholarships each year.

There is no doubt that we have great needs among our people and in our South Carolina communities, but we also have so much to give,  Sistrunk said. In Africa University, we have a wonderful opportunity to reach out to the greater community. 

I see faces on every dollar that I have placed (at Africa University),  said Jacquelyn Jenkins, director of Lay Servant Ministries for the conference and lay leader of St. Mark UMC in St. George. Being at AU has been a powerful and inspiring experience. I want to invest more because I have seen such incredible results. 

The Rev. Scott Smoak, a 2014 ordinand, was deeply moved by his encounters with the students and the ordinary Zimbabweans who are benefitting from the ministries of The United Methodist Church in Africa.

They have a sense of family, community and hope and joy like I have never seen,  Smoak said at the close of the visit. I am going back to share and live this more excellent way that I have learned this week. 

Changed attitudes

Eight participants made the trip thanks to a generous subsidy for the travel expenses from the Ethnic Local Church Concerns Committee. The ELCC chairperson, the Rev. Carleathea Benson, said the committee viewed the visit to AU as a chance to educate the leadership and help to invigorate missions in the conference s small membership churches.

Sometimes in our smaller churches ¦ in economically challenged areas of our state, we feel that we don t have and we can t do very much,  Benson said. But when people see firsthand what is going on in Africa and at Africa University, they learn from the experience and it changes their attitude. We just lit a flame, and together we are going to look at ways to take this experience of the trip and make it fruitful for South Carolina and for Africa. 

While on the campus, the group interacted with faculty, administrators and graduates. A major highlight of the visit was the group s participation in a half-day seminar that explored the challenges faced by African communities. As faculty members, partners and alumni of AU s college of agriculture shared their ideas and outlined local successes in addressing hunger in sustainable ways, members of the group said they were impressed by the leadership and the commitment to pursuing homegrown solutions.

Members of the group also met the students ”among them, 21-year-old Pierrette Kibanza from the Democratic Republic of Congo who is being sponsored by Belin Memorial UMC, Murrell s Inlet. Belin Memorial s congregation joined AU s Usahwira program in August with a commitment to provide a four-year scholarship for Kibanza so she can complete her bachelor s degree. The word usahwira  means beautiful friendship,  and they said that s exactly what is evolving between the congregation and Kibanza.

From the moment I saw her, I knew her heart and I felt that we had found someone very deserving,  said Betsy Alexander, wife of Belin pastor, Dr. Mike Alexander. She s a very humble young woman who had dreamed and prayed about furthering her education. At Belin, we dreamed of helping a student who could later make a difference in her home community and she is proving to be everything we hoped for. 

AU s ties with South Carolina are many and date back to the institution s inception. The university received its first major cash gift from a South Carolina couple, Dr. Jonas Kennedy and the late Mrs. Odette Kennedy, of Bennettsville. The Kennedys funded the construction of a residence hall for female students. Gifts from individuals and congregations across South Carolina have endowed four student scholarships and funded the construction of the Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey Faculty of Theology building, which opened in 2002.

Stevens is director of communications in the Africa University Development Office in Nashville.

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