Mathiang Akoi, of Austin, leads a congregation of Dinka South Sudanese at Grace Lutheran Church. His journey to get there has been daunting. -- Matt Peterson/
Mathiang Akoi, of Austin, leads a congregation of Dinka South Sudanese at Grace Lutheran Church. His journey to get there has been daunting. -- Matt Peterson/

A home for worship: Leader of Sudanese congregation finds peace on Christmas

Published 8:06am Wednesday, December 25, 2013

As snow fell upon Austin on Christmas Eve, it appeared Mathiang Akoi’s chance to celebrate a traditional midnight church service would disappear again.

It has been several years, but at least Akoi will have more opportunities and can celebrate Christmas Day with others of faith. At times in his life, it wouldn’t have seemed that way. The South Sudanese Austin man spent 12 years of his life in refugee camps, watched family and friends die along the way and traveled thousands of miles to find peace. Now he has a home for worship.

With unwavering faith and a stubborn will to overcome life’s toughest obstacles, Akoi and his congregation have found their house of God, and the uncertainty of years past may finally be behind them.

All under one roof

The Dinka at Grace Lutheran Church have a Bible in their own dialect.
The Dinka at Grace Lutheran Church have a Bible in their own dialect.

Grace Lutheran Church in Austin opened its doors to the South Sudanese congregation last year. Akoi, one of two Dinka leaders in the congregation, said Grace members had many questions, but were quite respectful and welcoming. The church had also just welcomed a new Hispanic congregation. By all means, the building underwent a lot of change. With everybody there for the same purpose, there was little tension. The South Sudanese congregation, which is of Dinka ethnicity, needed a little assistance at first. Pastor Jeff Forbes was there to provide it.

“Mathiang and I would get together four to eight times a month and just coordinate things,” Forbes said. “That’s kind of how the first year went.”

More than a year later, the Dinka are gaining their independence and hold their own regular service.

Through an ELCA grant, the Dinka also obtained Bibles and worship materials written in their dialect.

“I’ve seen more independence, but also more trust,” Forbes said, who added working with the new congregation has been rewarding. “As time passes, we work more and more together.”

To break barriers, all three congregations joined for a potluck at the church. The event served its purpose. Forbes remembered the thought he and the Hispanic congregation’s pastor shared.

“We just realized all three of us were from different cultures, and we were excited about worshiping together and having a potluck,” he said. “I remember Pastor Refugio Sanchez saying, ‘This is the way it should be.’”

To help Akoi and the congregation, Forbes still performs baptisms and communion, as one has to be ordained to perform such rituals. Still, the Dinka are making headway.

This Christmas, Akoi was finally able to return to his traditional sense of Christmas, with a reenactment of the story of Jesus Christ’s birth, and celebration of it at midnight. For Akoi, getting back to this point in life has been a long haul.

Born in contention

Akoi was born in 1983 in the southern region of Sudan and brought up in Episcopalian faith. A civil war had broken out between the north and south. Akoi’s family was directly in its path.

Akoi said Islamic forces from the north attacked Christian villages in the south. They killed some, forced children to serve in their military and did worse to women and young girls. While Akoi was very young at the time, he still described how burning villages lit the horizon. Soon, attackers raided his village and set fire to it, as well. It was 1988. Akoi and some family members escaped, but not all of them.

“My father was killed,” Akoi said.

Children who were captured or escaped to refugee camps became known as the Lost Boys and Lost Girls of Sudan.

Akoi eventually reached refuge in Ethiopia with many others, but some who didn’t were enslaved in the military and forced to attack their own people. Later, they were also killed, so they wouldn’t try to rejoin their families or retaliate someday.

A new beginning

In refugee camps in Ethiopia, conditions were poor. Young boys were segregated while girls were allowed to stay in family settings, though some no longer had parents. It took time for communities to build their own homes, and even longer to begin school.

“There was no town or hospital,” Akoi said about the settlement. “It was just a random place.”

Three years later the Ethiopian government, in the midst of the country’s own civil war, was overthrown in 1991. Without protection, Akoi and refugees fled again. They sought safety in Kenya, but they had to get there first.

“We walked for four months,” Akoi said.

The next nine years

Despite living under the refuge of another country, the outlook improved — at least temporarily. In that setting, Akoi learned English from British-style lessons. The United Nations offered food, water, supplies to build homes, and help establishing a school system. With love and sympathy, U.S. women made quilts for the refugees through a program called Lutheran World Relief. In fact, women at Grace Lutheran made some of those quilts.

Life was better in Kenya, but as refugees, Akoi and his people were still vulnerable. Natives did not want them in the country, Akoi said. By 1996, armed thieves routinely raided the camps and took nearly whatever they wanted. They even stole the quilts.

“They came in with guns and were raiding the refugees,” Akoi said.

Then it got worse. On Christmas Eve 1997, Akoi and others experienced a tainted Christmas during a simple, outdoor church service. Akoi recalls the midnight ceremony, in which candlelight symbolized the coming of Jesus. Then raiders struck again. They opened fire during the midnight service and killed three people. One was the pastor.

“The local Kenyan people attacked the church and killed the pastor,” Akoi said.

While other teenagers around the world dreamt of techy gadgets or new bicycles the coming day, Akoi and the congregation looked for a safe place to run. After everything they had seen, they could have tossed their faith aside. They didn’t. In fact, Akoi looks at all his struggles the opposite way.

“If there was no God, I would not be able to make it myself,” Akoi said.

Violence in Kenya continued, and by 1999, the U.N. had assisted in immigration arrangements for Sudanese to come to the U.S. Akoi said he was in one of the first waves of people to arrive. As he spoke last Thursday, Dec. 19, about the day he arrived, it had been exactly 13 years since he landed in Olympia, Wash.

Another journey

Akoi finished his senior year of high school in Olympia, but it was difficult, he said. Learning English in the U.S. was different than learning the British system. Yet he graduated and went to college. Better yet, Akoi and other Dinka were set up with a Lutheran church in which they could worship with the existing congregation. Of course, these Dinka are Episcopalian, but that didn’t matter.

“When we came here, we didn’t see the differences,” Akoi said

And, after all, the Lutherans had helped them with so much.

On Christmas Eves in Washington, though, Akoi would travel two hours to join a Dinka congregation in the traditional midnight service. He had been reunited with his ways.

Back in college, Akoi remembers the psychology and biology classes; however, he never graduated. He was also working at a grocery store at the time. Caseworkers had helped he and others get jobs, but he wasn’t making enough money to work and continue school. Again, he had to set out for another home and way of life.

In 2006, Akoi moved to Fargo, N.D., where he took a factory job assembling windows and doors. However, in 2009 he lost that job and later went to work for Walmart. He heard people were getting jobs in Austin, so he transferred to the Austin Walmart and eventually landed a position with Quality Pork Processors.

However, while Akoi was in Fargo, he spent time under the wing of a Sudanese pastor and learned how to become a leader within his congregation. In Austin, Dinka people urged him to lead their congregation. He hadn’t been ordained, but he had experience, so he accepted. One problem: His community didn’t have a church in which to worship.

“There was a majority group of Dinkas, and they didn’t know where to go on Sundays,” Akoi said.

Akoi and another person spoke with leaders of St. John’s Lutheran, which already has a Sudanese congregation. They spoke with leaders at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, which also has an Ethiopian congregation. It seemed as though there was nothing available.

Home at last

A pastor at St. Olaf Lutheran Church, who had resigned, recommended the group go to Grace Lutheran, where Akoi told Forbes about the situation.

“I explained to him, ‘We need somewhere to pray,’” Akoi said.

Forbes told the church council, which approved the request.

In September 2012, Akoi and the Dinka joined Grace Lutheran Church. As one can see, Akoi and his family have been through a lot, but just two months after joining Grace, Akoi’s son, Peter Samuel, suffered a brain aneurysm. He was 11 years old. That time, though, the entire church was there to help. Grace’s congregation and Thrivent Financial teamed to help cover some of the medical costs, pray and offer some comfort. Again, Akoi pushed forward. But now he faces even more hardship as fighting broke out about a week ago in South Sudan, and his family is in the midst of it again. He prays for them.

While Akoi still is not ordained, he and others have gone from attending Grace’s services to holding their own. The Dinka congregation has grown as well. About 180 Dinka have attended services at Grace, about 60 per service. They also hold Sunday school, which is taught in English for their children’s benefit.

With time, Akoi hopes his group will become an ELCA-recognized congregation. From there, he also hopes to become a pastor, as he has accepted the difficult task ahead of himself.

“The responsibility is actually huge,” Akoi said. “Talking to people, spreading word of God, a lot of paperwork…”

The new religious leader isn’t used to such paperwork, but Forbes has assisted with the process. Still, Akoi may follow through with the schooling, which will consist of group meetings a couple times per month and take-home assignments. With a job, family and ministerial duties, that may not be so easy. However, Akoi is up to the challenge. He has always been fighting for something, and has never given up.

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