Lost Boy's journey leads to priesthood

Zachariah Char ordained to lead Sudanese congregation in Grand Rapids
June 20, 2007

Zachariah Jok Char was only five years old when he walked 1,000 miles for the first time.

One of the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan, he braved the desert heat and attacks by lions and hyenas, without shelter, food, water or adult protection. The children crossed Sudan, single file, headed for safety in Ethiopia after their villages were leveled and their families murdered. They were victims of a civil war that lasted 20 years, killed more than 2 million people and displaced more than 7 million, according to the United Nations.

Char was nine when he and the others were forced across a crocodile-infested river back into Sudan after war broke out in Ethiopia. And then they walked again, another 1,000 miles to the Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya, where they lived for eight years.

On June 16, Char walked in a procession of a different sort: down the aisle of Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to his ordination to the priesthood. It was a fitting next step in the life journey of a young man who credits God with bringing him through it all.

"This was the fulfillment of the call God gave me," said Char, who as a child was baptized by Sudanese Episcopal priests and loved attending Sunday school in his village. "He saved my life, and I have this mission now: that I will take care of his sheep. This is a big responsibility, but I have to follow it." Char will lead a congregation of about 100 Sudanese immigrants who have made their faith home at Grace.

More than 180 people attended the Saturday morning service officiated by Bishop Robert Gepert of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan. Both a drum and organ accompanied the singing, which along with the readings and prayers alternated between Dinka, Nuer, Arabic and English languages. Joyful ululations and alleluias by women in colorfully patterned traditional dress punctuated the proceedings, especially when Char was clothed in his new red and gold vestments and introduced to the assembled as their new priest.

"The ordination of a Sudanese priest in America is special -- special for us and special for America," said Simon Luk, a member of the Grace's Sudanese congregation. "[Char] is a nice young man, and people trust him and believe he can be a good minister. He involves everybody. Of course, that's the attitude of a priest, to accommodate all people."

"We're getting a pastor," added Gabriel Abol, another Sudanese Grace member. "Before, he was a preacher."

"Zachariah shows tremendous trust in God, and deep faith formed by his experience as a Lost Boy, which manifests itself in gratitude," Gepert said. "In addition, he demonstrates the ability to be at peace. There is a gentle spirit about him."

In 2000 and 2001, 3,800 Sudanese refugees were admitted into the United States. Char and many of his friends from the camp were among the 400 who resettled in the Grand Rapids area. They had never seen a washing machine, ridden in a car, used a flush toilet, taken an elevator. The U.S. government gave the refugees rent and food stamps for three months; after that, they were on their own. The young refugees found jobs, started attending school, and began to make a life for themselves in this strange new world.

Char found a job, first washing dishes at a hotel and then making hot dogs and sausages at Kent Quality Foods, where he still works full-time while attending school. He graduated from the local community college in 2005 with an associate's degree, and plans to graduate from Kuyper College in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in social work. This past February, Char became an American citizen in a ceremony at the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids with two other Lost Boys.

All the while, the young Sudanese people dreamed of finding a place where they could worship in the Anglican tradition, led by a priest who speaks their language, and gather for fellowship as they had in Kakuma.

"You realize the trauma and what they've lived through, and you step back and say, is my faith that rich, that deep? Is it a taproot for me like it is for them?" said Nancy Tweddale, junior warden at Grace. "Their faith is not an add-on for them; it's their sustenance."

The Grace congregation offered its building. By the end of the summer in 2003, a vestry had been formed, and by fall regular services of the Sudanese Grace Episcopal Church, a parochial mission of Grace, were held. They began discerning as a community who would be their priest.

"Zachariah was chosen by the people; he didn't put himself forward," Gepert explained. "They came and said ‘We believe he is the one called to be the spiritual leader of our church.' That's powerful."

In the Kakuma camp, Char had committed himself to the work of the church, and the elders took notice. "They saw that my relationship with God was close and they commissioned me as an evangelist," he said. Char led services, taught Bible study, preached, both in church and family by family, bringing the message to those who had not been to services.

To prepare for his ordination in the U.S., Char received instruction through correspondence courses and residential weeks at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Pittsburgh, the only seminary that provided education in Char's native language and culture, Gepert said. He also received theological and biblical training at local seminaries.

Char is a natural leader, who speaks with personal authority, not positional authority, said the Rev. Nixon McMillan, interim rector at Grace. "He is encouraging, not authoritarian. He is ambitious -- but for his people, not for himself. He grew up with these guys. They watched him all these years and they trust him."

Tweddale recalled asking Char once about survivor guilt. "I said to him, you watched the others die slow, agonizing deaths. Do you feel guilty? He said, ‘Yes all the time. There must be a reason, and I must use my life to find that reason and serve God,'" she said. "Zachariah trusts God implicitly."

"When I was in the refugee camp, a lot of things affected my life. Sometimes I was about to lose hope. I had no food, I had lost my parents. I had nobody. Then I would go to church and feel happy. God gave me that joy," Char recalled. "There were many difficulties I faced, but God gave me strength that I would be free. I dedicated my life to God, and ignored things that would lead me away."

He found particular comfort in the Book of Ecclesiastes. "I knew there is a time for everything: a time to mourn, a time for war, a time for peace. This is a time for sadness, but there will be a time for freedom. This kept me strong, and I kept going on with my work," he said. "Then I came to the United States. Now it is a time to enjoy."

Since leaving Africa, Char has returned twice, once in 2004 to be married and again in 2005. He and his wife, Tabitha, have a son, whom Char has not yet seen. The marriage and birth, both of which took place in the refugee camp, will make it more difficult for him to bring his family to this country, but not impossible. As with everything, Char has faith.

As its priest, Char has two primary goals for his congregation. One is to help people back home in Sudan, particularly the children. The other is to reach out to draw more Sudanese people to church and reconnect them with their community.

"It's not easy to win people back to church, but I want people to feel if I have problems, the community will help me," he said. "I don't want my people to forget the God who brought us here."

Char's life and faith are an effective witness to that. "Anyone who has ever met Zachariah will never forget him -- his love of Christ and his love of life," said Char Camfield, a member of Holy Trinity, Wyoming, who attended the service. "His ordination is one beginning in the ongoing success not only at Grace but the diocese as a whole. It sets an example to continue to reach out and spread the word of God to whomever, wherever, they meet."

To read more about the Rev. Zachariah Jok Char, visit http://gracechurchgr.org/zach_life.php.