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For Episcopal priest going to South Sudan, sewing is a mission

Sunday, November 18, 2012 | 3:50 p.m. CST; updated 4:01 p.m. CST, Sunday, November 18, 2012
Christina Cobb, the chaplain of the Episcopal Campus Ministry in Columbia, will be traveling to South Sudan in late November to teach sewing classes.

COLUMBIA — Christina Cobb, the chaplain of the Episcopal Campus Ministry in Columbia, paid $60 for a foot-pedal-powered sewing machine last week and just completed her first project.

"I made myself a little purse to hold my Kindle and passport," she said.

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Cobb bought the antique machine so she could prepare for an upcoming mission trip to South Sudan, where she will teach sewing to women who do not have access to electricity.

Cobb will travel with nine other missioners: five others from the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri; two from the Diocese of Salisbury, Church of England; and two from the Diocese of Lund, Church of Sweden. The group plans to leave Nov. 25 and return Dec. 13.

The Episcopal Diocese of Missouri has had a relationship with the Diocese of Lui, South Sudan, for the past six years. Thirty members of the diocese have taken mission trips to Lui since 2003.

But this is Cobb’s first trip, and it will be the longest she's been away from her three children, ages 4, 6 and 9.

"I have never been away from them for more than a two-night clergy conference, and I have never been off the continent," she said. "This will be an adventure."

Previous mission trips have included a variety of projects, such as drilling wells so that residents can have clean water and building a preschool, which allows mothers who never finished school to continue pursuing their educations, said Evelyn Smith, chair of the Companion Diocese Committee.

"A lot of the girls have to leave school early because they have to take care of the family and family needs," Smith said.

On the upcoming trip, Cobb will teach classes on sewing, and other members of the Diocese of Missouri will teach carpentry skills to the local residents, most of who live in semipermanent buildings and huts called tukuls, Smith said.

"A fair amount of what we’re doing through this relationship is trying to help with long-term development issues and help them grow and be able to provide for themselves better," Cobb said. "After so many years of civil war, their economy is in shambles, their infrastructure is in shambles, so we’re trying to rebuild and promote self-sufficiency."

The Republic of South Sudan seceded from Sudan on July 9, 2011, after decades of a civil war characterized by village bombings and civilian massacres by the Sudanese government. But fighting has continued since the split, especially at the border.

Some of the ongoing conflict is related to oil profits. South Sudan is a source of crude oil, and export pipelines run through the north. But there are also religious differences. South Sudan is primarily Christian and animist; northern Sudan is predominantly Muslim.

Lui is toward the nation’s southern end, far from the border violence, Cobb said.

Cobb has been sewing since her seventh-grade home economics class and said those skills could allow the Lui women to make more school uniforms, which are required for children to attend school.

"Appropriate dress is really important to them," Smith said.

The women in Cobb's classes will share four to six foot-pedal sewing machines, called treadle sewing machines, that are already in Lui from previous mission trips. Cobb will bring supplies, such as sharp scissors, that are not readily available.

Some of the women in Lui know the basic skills of sewing, so they will work on more advanced patterns and cutting, Cobb said.

Cobb also hopes to teach classes on canning, a skill she learned growing up on a dairy farm in southern Missouri. Food preservation skills could help with issues such as hunger and infant mortality, she said.

"My understanding is that in Lui, people have great access to fruits and vegetables during the rainy season, but given how tenuous life has been for a number of years, they haven’t done enough to preserve fruits and vegetables through the dry seasons," Cobb said.

South Sudan had the 18th highest infant mortality rate in the world as of 2012, estimated at 71.8 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to CIA World Factbook.

"One of the things that helps reduce that is proper prenatal nutrition," Cobb said.

Episcopal missioners have noticed progress in Lui in recent years. Smith has been to Lui twice: on a mission trip in 2009 and with her husband for a month in 2011, when she taught English to adult students.

"The last time we went, they had two cell towers, and we were thinking, 'this is so weird,'" Smith said. "They’re able to have communication, which is so astonishing."

The people of Lui can now buy prepaid cards to make calls with cell phones, though they still do not have running water, electricity or general access to computers, Smith said. There are some computers powered by generators and solar energy at the church offices.

Smith also saw a new government school being built.

"Because it’s a brand new country, I think they’re trying to grow and develop, and these are just different signs of a healthier community," Smith said.

Religion is the foundation of community life in Lui, Smith said. Her English students were all actively involved in the church, and she used biblical scriptures as their readings.

On the upcoming trip, Cobb will lead a clergy conference, focusing on the theological and social contexts of biblical scripture.

Missouri missioners can learn from the people of Lui, Smith said. "They have such faith in the Lord, and they share it so readily with people that are there."

Supervising editor is John Schneller.


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