The tiny village of Panyakwara Abara is well off the beaten path — in a country that has always been long off the beaten path of world politics. During Sudan’s brutal two-decade civil war, which ended in 2005, virtually every resident of Panyakwara fled to neighboring Uganda or Kenya. Only in the last few years have these refugees begun to return and to rebuild their lives. At first, it was difficult. Crops failed and people starved. During the long war, the generation that knew how to farm died, and the next generation struggled to learn.

But down the rutted dirt road to Panyakwara, there’s a remarkable sight. Thanks to an innovative agriculture project led by the Episcopal Church of Sudan, many of these former refugees are now growing their own sorghum and sesame — both staple crops — and feeding themselves, reducing the village’s dependence on international aid.

Panyakwara is only one example of the remarkable work the church does in South Sudan. In other villages, there are new schools, clinics, and water pumps, thanks to church members working with international partners. At Bishop Gwynne Theological College in Juba, students from a wide variety of tribes study agriculture, in addition to usual subjects like Bible and church history, in order to return to their communities as both priests and agriculture extension agents.

The religious work is all the more important in a region that is voting this week on a critical referendum to determine whether southerners wish to forge their own independent country. In recent months, the eyes of the world have belatedly turned on the troubled region. The Obama administration sent in seasoned diplomats, while the Western media — and George Clooney — descended on the region. The attention is welcome, but the challenges facing South Sudan remain steep. Last fall, the United Nations released a document titled “Scary Statistics,” detailing the poverty of the south. If the region votes for independence, as seems likely, South Sudan could become the newest — and poorest — country in Africa.

It is far from clear that the government of South Sudan is ready to tackle these challenges. More than half of the region’s oil revenue is being invested in the military, even as returning refugees desperately need new schools and clinics. At the same time, the future of millions of southerners living in the north remains uncertain in a possible two-state situation. Roads in South Sudan are often little more than rutted tracks and desperately need to be improved to unite the vast and disparate region. An impoverished state and an overwhelmed government make the future look bleak for the South, regardless of the referendum’s outcome.

But spend a little time in places like Panyakwara Abara, as I did in September, and it becomes clear that at least one institution in South Sudan is working: the church. After a period of sustained and rapid growth during the civil war, the church — primarily the Episcopal Church of Sudan and the Catholic Church — is now effectively the largest non-governmental organization in the country. It maintains a presence in virtually every village. In places where the government is barely functioning or even present, the church is providing services that unite communities torn apart by war.

Moreover, church leaders have emerged as important national symbols. The current Episcopal archbishop, Daniel Deng Bul, is a charismatic and dynamic leader who cut his teeth as a bishop in the difficult town of Renk, a community that straddles the divide between north and south. There, he fought off the northern government as it sought to disrupt his church by repeatedly arresting and jailing him for his work. Despite the challenges, by the time Bul was elected archbishop, he had built a cathedral for the new diocese while maintaining warm relations with local Muslim leaders.

The world is familiar with the idea of church leaders who use their moral authority to press for peace. Oscar Romero in El Salvador and Desmond Tutu in South Africa come to mind. The world acknowledged and supported those leaders as they faced oppressive governments. Tutu won a Nobel Peace Prize. Romero is memorialized in Westminster Abbey. But in Sudan, the world has looked the other way. Diplomats and movie stars generally ignore the church.

In what is likely to be Africa’s newest country, the church remains the one institution capable of delivering vital services and promoting peace. It deserves not only recognition for the role it plays in places like Panyakwara, but also support, so that it can continue its important work.

Jesse Zink is a student in the Divinity School. He has worked as an Episcopal missionary in Africa.