South Sudan Lutheran Church, Fargo, N.D.

Social worker, Cass County Economic Assistance Division; chair of the Fargo Human Relations Commission; Bush Foundation fellow; and member of the Eastern North Dakota Synod Council.

I grew up going to church every Sunday. My mother is an Episcopalian priest in South Sudan, and my father was a committed Christian and a schoolteacher.

My older brother and I were playing in the Nile River when Sudanese soldiers attacked our village. We fled with the crowd. After walking for many days without food and water, we arrived at the refugee camp in Ethiopia. I remember seeing some children surrendering and dying of starvation and thirst. There were 26,000 of us walking; only 11,000 made it. They called us the “lost boys” and “lost girls.”

At the refugee camp, we attended school under the trees and ate one meal a day due to a lack of food. What UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) provided was never enough to sustain us for 30 days. By the 26th or 27th of the month, my older brother and I had nothing to eat. We called those “black days,” waiting for the 1st to come. It was not easy being 8 and 11 years old and responsible for your daily activities and what to cook or eat.

Leaving home due to war was heartbreaking. We thought we would be able to go back to our village within a couple days, then it was months, then years. I didn’t make it back until 2013, 17 years after I left.

When we arrived in Philadelphia in 2006, St. John Lutheran Church in Phoenixville, Pa., sponsored us. My brother and I lived with Mary Heiser before we got our own apartment with help and guidance from Pastor Cindy Krommes. I attended Phoenixville Area High School, and volunteers from the church taught me English and brought us food (my favorites were chicken and pizza). We had strangers opening their doors and hearts to us and helping us thrive in our new home. It was like we had a family again.

Our church is a place where people who have experienced emptiness, war zones, confusion and misery can know healing, fulfillment, joy, love and faith.

After I moved to Fargo, I joined First Sudanese Lutheran Church. We came together with other Sudanese community members and the synod to start South Sudan Lutheran Church. Our church is a place where people who have experienced emptiness, war zones, confusion and misery can know healing, fulfillment, joy, love and faith.

Almost all refugees/immigrants living in North Dakota struggle to find work, secure housing, access services and transportation, understand and overcome cultural differences, learn and understand English, and raise children and ensure their educational success in a culturally unfamiliar context. At South Sudan Lutheran, we created a one-on-one tutoring project to bridge new American students’ learning gap with their peers.

I see God in the work that I do daily. I like social work because I feel like I make a difference in others’ lives.

As chair of the Fargo Human Relations Commission, I want to build a community that recognizes, welcomes and values all residing voices and perspectives.

On synod council, I connect with pastors and church leaders who have faith in humanity and a vision for a community in which everyone belongs and everyone matters. It is very challenging with all the decisions we have to make collectively for the betterment of our synod, especially when churches’ contributions are decreasing and church demands are increasing daily.

I always pray for world peace. I pray for the coronavirus to go away. I pray for my family’s health.

My grandfather used to say, “I cannot be whole unless everyone is whole.” I use this saying a lot to help me stay in a close relationship with others. It means that we need each other’s support to survive and thrive. I don’t want to be the only one doing well if others aren’t doing well. It’s not just about me—it’s about us.

Through my Bush Foundation fellowship, I’m currently enrolled in the Harvard Kennedy School leadership programs, taking online classes for a master’s in public administration. The fellowship provides financial support for me to become the leader I want to be in two years.

Driving back home from the church with my kids, I stopped and handed a homeless guy $5. My son asked me why I gave money to someone I do not know, and I told him that I was buying a blessing from God. We do not get a blessing from going to church alone. We do not see God from just going to church as well! We get the blessing and see God for the good things we do daily.

I hope and pray that the church at large survives the pandemic. Some churches are now hurting, with no gathering and no offering, and most churches depend on member contributions to stay active and be maintained. I am afraid that some churches will never return to services after the virus. I am appealing to the church at large to think critically and find innovative ways to help.

I’m a Lutheran because I was sponsored by St. John and I fell in love with their services, Bible studies and lovely, caring people.

Erin Strybis
Erin Strybis is a freelance writer based in Chicago and author of The Beauty of Motherhood: Grace-Filled Devotions for the Early Years (Morehouse Publishing, March 2023). Find more of her stories at her website and on Instagram.

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