SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A man who was one of thousands of children in Sudan forced to flee or be inducted into the army during the country’s civil war was ordained recently as a deacon by the Episcopal Diocese of Utah.
For Gabriel Garang Atem, 36, the achievement marked another step on a long road where his faith has sustained him as he navigated the dangers of a war in Sudan, famine and life in refugee camps.
As an orphan in 1987, he and thousands of other young children were forced to flee Sudan on foot to Ethiopia.
Thousands of the children, mostly boys, lost their lives as they faced attacks from rebels and wild animals, drowned in rivers, or succumbed to malnourishment, dehydration and exposure to the elements.
“It was not safe for us because there was no way you can protect yourself. You do not have weapons. You are not grown up enough so that you can defend yourself. It wasn’t really a good life for us,” Atem said.
His unwavering faith in God, Atem said, helped him as he and the other boys faced the possibility that they may not survive.
“It wasn’t I worried about what will I eat tomorrow. It was ‘Will I wake up tomorrow?'” he said. “‘Am I going to be able to make it to walk thousands of miles? Am I going to make it to get water? I’m thirsty and I need water. Am I going to get it?'”
He maintained his hope and strength by telling himself that he would be a better person one day if he stayed alive. Now that he’s become a deacon and is on a path to the faith’s priesthood, Atem said that day has come.
He said he was called by God to become an Episcopal priest. He can apply for that opportunity now that he’s been made a deacon.
“When God called me, I accept the call because since I was a little boy, I knew I wasn’t going to live on my own without the help of God through people,” he said.
Atem said he’s one of only a handful of Lost Boys of Sudan who have gone on to become ordained ministers in the U.S.
Atem was resettled from Kenya to Virginia in 2001. He moved to Utah about a decade ago.
He soon earned a high school diploma, went to college and began serving as a lay pastor, leading worship services in the Dinka language.
Atem has since returned to Africa to visit family, and he married a woman there in 2006. By 2009, he was a United States citizen and was able to bring his wife to the U.S. They now live in Salt Lake City with twin boys.
Atem told the Deseret News that the Episcopal Diocese and Utah have warmly embraced the Sudanese community and refugees.
“We feel welcome,” he said. “Being a stranger in the house of God is really a blessing. With the help of the diocese, they see us as their brothers and sisters in Christ.”