By Christine Mortlock
Ayen’s husband abandoned her and her five children several years ago. Barely literate, she works at a popular restaurant chain in Roanoke five days a week. She brings home about $12,000 a year to feed, clothe, and house herself and her children, whose ages range from 8 to 18. They live in public housing in southeast Roanoke. The youngest child recently got into the gifted program at Highland Park Elementary School. The oldest child just graduated from the Boys Home of Virginia, a residential educational program for boys ages 6 to 17 and a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. He will attend college next year on a full scholarship and live in the alumnae housing of the Boys Home. In Ayen’s free time, when she isn’t working ten-hour shifts, cleaning, cooking, or raising her children, she tries to muster the energy to study for her American citizenship.
Ayen is just one of many South Sudanese refugees eking by in Roanoke.
She can manage, in part, thanks to the Rev. Sue Bentley, rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Roanoke. The Rev. Bentley has arranged for Ayen’s oldest child to attend the Boys Home, found someone within the diocese to donate a van to the family for $1, and gone to court on their behalf. Ayen and the Rev. Bentley, who Ayen affectionally calls “Mother Sue,” met when Ayen’s family began attending St. James. Since 2009, Sudanese and South Sudanese like Ayen have worshipped at St. James on Delray Street. The South Sudanese Christian Fellowship meets on Sundays at 5:30 p.m. in the parish hall of the Episcopal church.
Church has always been a place where Ayen has found peace, even in the midst of war, displacement, and relocation. Like many South Sudanese, she was raised Christian. In South Sudan, “we have a lot of church,” Ayen says. The Rev. Bentley adds, “The bishops will go out to villages, and they will confirm 300 or 400 people. Christianity in South Sudan is just exploding.” According to Pew Research Center’s “The Future of World Religions,” 60.5% of the population in South Sudan in 2020 were Christian. In South Sudan, church provided Ayen a respite from the constant news of war. “Every day you have to hear about war,” she says. Day-long church services with hymns that “calm you, make you happy,” she says, gave her a break from that. “The time goes by without you knowing what time it is,” she adds.
The refugees who meet at St. James have fled decades of violence. The Second Sudanese Civil War, spanning from 1983 to 2005, left about two million dead from famine, fighting, and disease and about four million people displaced, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees. South Sudan, formed six years after the war, still faces government corruption, violence, starvation, and a decimated economy. Ayen shares, “A lot of Sudanese communities are struggling, they don’t have houses, they don’t have any place to stay. My country is not doing good. It’s not. It’s going backwards.” According to an April 2021 United Nations report 7.2 million South Sudanese require emergency food assistance.
The congregation of Sudanese and South Sudanese at St. James sings hymns in Arabic and reads scripture from Arabic-English bibles. The Rev. Bentley ministers to them, in addition to those in her morning congregation. Besides attending every Sunday evening service, and preaching at most of them, she has raised money for necessities like washing machines, started a women’s sewing circle, tutored their children, encouraged one to attend seminary, and more.
St. James is one of the many churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia that has been or still is in ministry with the Sudanese and South Sudanese. Bishop Light recounted the history of the diocese’s relationship with the Province of Sudan in an essay written in 2009; some of it follows. The diocese’s ministry with the Sudanese began in 1979, under Bishop Light’s leadership, when it, along with Diocese of Bradford, England, partnered with the Province of Sudan. The diocese later sponsored Mark Nikkel, a missionary in both Sudan and the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Several other clergy and lay people from the diocese have been committed to helping the South Sudanese and Sudanese, some using their sabbaticals and time off to go to Sudan or refugee camps, and others contributing financially.
Ayen’s story of resettling in Roanoke is much like other refugees in Roanoke. She and her husband lived in Egypt for two years while applying for refugee status. Many refugees spend years, if not a decade or more, in refugee camps. Ayen eventually joined her husband’s brother in Roanoke in 2004 and worked at Hooker Furniture. Her husband is a Lost Boy, Sudanese men who fled their villages when rebels, vying for money, oil-rich land, and power, pillaged, and burned villages, murdering and impoverishing people along the way. Her husband saw his parents killed before him. Many Lost Boys, orphaned, hungry, were forced to be child soldiers. They trekked hundreds of miles to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Ayen, like many girls in Sudan and South Sudan, never went to school and started working at age 9 cleaning houses. “I’ve never been in any school. All Sudanese family members say education is not good for a girl,” Ayen says. “Girls get married when they are 14 or 15.” A lot of her relatives fought in the war. “Some of them they died too,” she adds.
The Rev. Bentley reflects, “When you’re living in war-torn country and there is so much suffering, faith is the one thing you have. You got to have hope somewhere and the church and the Gospel is your hope.” About 6500 miles away from the land where she was born, Ayen finds that same hope at St. James in Roanoke. It’s a message that has, does, and will continue to cut through the din of war, the horror of violence, the canker of power. It’s the message delivered by the Prince of Peace in backwater towns of Galilee thousands of years ago. It’s a message that transcends all national and ethnic divisions. It’s a message we return to again and again at worship here at St. John’s, in prayer, in words spoken to one another, and at the table.
*Ayen’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
Want to Learn More About Sudan and South Sudan
Recommendations from the Rev. Sue Bentley
Why Haven’t You Left? Letters from the Sudan edited by the Rev. Grant LaMarquand and published by Church Publishing in 2006.
Mark Nikell’s letters to the diocese were compiled into a book,
A Rope From the Sky; the Making and Unmaking of the World’s Newest State, by Zach Vertin
They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky, by Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, Benjamin Ajak
God Grew Tired of Us, The Heart-Breaking Inspiring Journey of a Lost Boy of Sudan, by John Bul Dau
What is the What, by Dave Eggers
Transforming Displaced Women in Sudan: Politics and the Body in a Squatter Settlement, by Rogaia Mustafa Abusharag
Building the Resilient Community; Lessons from the Lost Boys of Sudan, by M. Jan Holton
Sooley, by John Grisham
The Good Lie, starring Reese Witherspoon
Youth and Children’s Books:
A Long Walk to Water, (based on a true story), by Linda Sue Park. (Older elementary & Middle School)
Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan, by John Dau
Year of No Rain, by Alice Mead
Hoping for Peace in Sudan, by Jim Pipe
The Boy Who Saved the World, by Suraya Issa
Brothers in Hope, the Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan, by Mary Williams