It was a short walk on a summer afternoon in 2001. Wal Reat headed two blocks to the north. He had seen the low-slung, modern church near his subsidized apartment in his new hometown of Faribault, Minn., and he decided it was time for a visit. Standing 6 feet 6 inches, with skin as dark as chestnuts, and a soft, kindly face, he sauntered up the sidewalk and entered through the front door.

The church receptionist gave him a friendly wave, but he kept walking. “I was nervous because I didn’t know the people,” Wal remembers. “I had never been a Lutheran member before. I didn’t know about the Lutheran ways of worship. I didn’t know if the Lutherans believed in the same God or if they had their own beliefs. I didn’t know all those things. I didn’t know the people. And my English was also not good. Yes, I was nervous. Yes, it was difficult.”

Despite his fears, he entered the sanctuary and sat down in a pew to listen to the contemporary-music group rehearsing. Within minutes, the associate pastor walked over to shake his hand and invite him to worship the next Sunday. All the fears of not knowing how he would be received at this randomly chosen church near his apartment slowly began to recede with each welcoming smile. Everything changed for Wal – and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church – that day.

Wal’s journey is a classic refugee story, and yet it has a Lutheran twist. Like thousands of South Sudanese people, he sought asylum in the United States in 1995 after fleeing the civil war that destroyed his homeland and sent his family seeking a safe haven. While his family experienced unimaginable suffering – many of them are still displaced in Africa – Wal’s story in America is infused with hope, anchored largely in the support of a congregation that has embraced his dream of spreading the Lutheran faith in the newly independent nation of South Sudan.

Today – 13 years after that casual visit to the neighborhood church – Wal is the fourth Sudanese person to be ordained in the Lutheran church in the United States and the first in the Southeasten Minnesota Synod of the ELCA. Having completed a pastoral internship at Our Savior’s in 2015, Wal will return to Africa to continue the mission work that is underway.

However, the situation in South Sudan remains tenuous. Wal describes the political situation as a dictatorship that suffers from internal corruption and tribalism. There is also a general lack of security that inhibits work within the country. While a number of the lay ministers remain in the Nasir area, several of the evangelists have relocated to refugee camps to continue ministry among South Sudanese refugees.

Despite the challenges, the future is filled with expectations and plans. Wal hopes to return to his family in Africa in the near future and envisions spreading the Lutheran message as much as possible in South Sudan. “Whenever I think back to the things I have faced – the challenges, the wars, my brother in 1988 who stepped on a land mine and I was hit at that time too – so there were a lot of things – I think God was with me for the long journey.”

Amy Wolf
Amy Wolf has served as director of communications at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Minn., for nearly 20 years. She has a journalism degree from Indiana University and a MBA degree from Northwestern University. Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA supports Wal and others working to build the church in South Sudan.

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