The South Sudanese community in Footscray danced and sang in Paul’s native Dinka language while family and friends prayed for Paul who begins his ordained ministry at Springvale Uniting Church this month.
Reflecting on Paul’s remarkable journey from war-torn South Sudan to Australia, preacher Rev. Prof Randall Prior described the occasion as not only a celebration but something of a “divine miracle”.
Paul was 10 when the war in Sudan caused him to leave his entire family. He joined 30,000 other young children, mostly boys, travelling on foot to Ethiopia, a distance of 2400 kilometres. They became known as “The Lost Boys”.
“It was chaotic,” Paul recalls. “Our parents were told we would get on a plane and live in a nice house. None of that existed.”
They walked for three months with little food and water. Sickness was rife. There were violent attacks. Approximately half the young boys who began the journey did not survive.
The group settled at a refugee camp in Panyido, Ethiopia. Three years later, with the outbreak of war in Ethiopia, they returned to South Sudan. But with the conflict worsening, they crossed into northern Kenya and finally settled at Kakuma refugee camp.
Paul lived in the camp for 11 years before he became “one of the lucky few” to be granted a new start. He arrived in Australia in May 2003.
Paul was 26. He had no family here and no papers to prove his exact age. Starting his life over was not easy.
“There were so many challenges. One of the major problems and something I still consider a challenge is the language. Even though I had studied English to Year 12, because of the different accent, many Australians struggled to understand me.”
Adapting to the cultural differences was also a major shift.
“I am very adaptable but it is undeniably challenging to transition from an African upbringing to Australian Anglo society life,” says Paul.
“Culturally in Sudan at 26, as the first-born (of 10 children) I should have been living in my own home with my wife,” says Paul. And so for Paul, this became a priority.
He married his wife Susan in 2006. They now have six children, aged from 11 to 2.
Since arriving in Australia, Paul has taken work wherever he could find it, as a cleaner, in a factory, sometimes working 18 hours in a single day.
He has managed full time work and study for the past 10 years completing his masters in theology and a human resources degree.
Randall described how Paul’s call to ministry emerged from his own search for meaning.
“The experience (of war) left Paul with a deep desire, a quest, to find hope - where his own hope, and that of his own people had been shattered, to find meaning-in-life where so much of life had been shockingly taken away.”
Through his theological formation and study, Paul has come to see suffering not as a form of punishment for wrongdoing but simply a part of human life.
“Human life is full of joy and suffering. It is never just not one way or other. I lost five of my siblings in the war. Yet, I am still alive. Why am I alive? I don’t know the answer. I can choose to dwell on my losses or I can be joyful for many gifts of life around me.”
“Yes there is struggling but through my struggling I can see God’s hand helping me stand on my own two feet.”
As he begins his role in Springvale, in one of the most multicultural areas of Victoria, Paul hopes to build “sustainable and living congregation”.
“Regardless of our limited resources, I hope we might always endeavour to be an outward reaching congregation, to work together as team, so that in years to come we can say ‘Yes God, we did your work.”
Randall concluded his sermon saying, “Paul, there is a sense in which your journey has come to an extraordinary conclusion – from the war-ravaged wilderness of a 10-year old boy in South Sudan to the point of celebration of your ordination here and now. Who would ever have imagined such a conclusion?”
“But in another sense, your story is at a new beginning. Unlike Moses who never did enter the Promised Land, you have entered it – you have glimpsed its reality – its power to bring life out of death. Upon this land you are to set your eyesight and from this land you are to source your vigour.”
“You are to do so for your own people in South Sudan who, even today, tragically remain ravaged by war. You are to do so for your own people now in Australia who remain torn by what continues to happen in their own country, and whose own lives in Australia are dislocated and uncertain. You are to do so for all people who, in their own way, are making their treks in wilderness country.”
We thank God for the many gifts which Paul has and will continue to bring to the Uniting Church and all those he encounters as he begins this new chapter of his life.
Photos by Rev. Dr Ji Zhang