Featured Stories, Lutherans in Minnesota

Sudanese immigrants in Minnesota find themselves planting Lutheran churches

As the new country of South Sudan is born

Leaders of the Sudanese worshipping community at Zion Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Anoka, Minnesota, meet to plan the future of the congregation. Photos provided by Zion Lutheran Church (ELCA), Anoka, Minnesota

When Sudanese immigrants arrived in America, they were not Lutherans. However, several Sudanese congregations have been formed or Sudanese groups have joined established Lutheran congregations in the metro Twin Cities area.

How did this come about? “Lutherans are welcoming, hospitable people, and that made Sudanese immigrants feel at home,” said the Rev. Susan Tjornehoj of the Minneapolis Area Synod office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). She explained that the Sudanese prefer drums with worship music to what is considered more traditional music. That is a challenge for some.

The challenge of change works both ways. The Sudanese homeland will be split effective July 9 into Sudan and South Sudan. The split came about after a national vote in January. The new configuration breaks down tribal distinctions to establish South Sudan.

Immigrants face huge financial challenges. In addition to supporting the local immigrant family, most Sudanese also send part of their earnings to their families in the homeland. Finding jobs for which they are qualified is also a challenge. Many have been drawn to low-skill meat-packing jobs which tend to be located outside the metropolitan area, in many cases in the southern part of Minnesota. The Sudanese migrate to where there are jobs for them. So, much of the growth of Sudanese congregations and other welcoming churches has been in that area.

An outer-ring suburban congregation welcomes Sudanese immigrants

An interesting example of a Sudanese ministry is at Zion Lutheran Church in Anoka where the Sudanese ministry is “an ELCA congregation within an ELCA congregation.” Here the Sudanese Lutheran Church in Minnesota officially dates back to 2002 when it received a tax identification number. There are eight to 30 members in the Sudanese congregation, and members worship on their own except for the fifth Sunday of the month or festival worship services.

Lutheran coffee drinkers now mingle with tea-drinking Sudanese in this vibrant Lutheran community.

The Rev. Mawien Ariik shepherds the Sudanese flock and holds the title of mission developer pastor at Zion. The Sudanese service is conducted in Arabic. Sudanese worshippers are primarily from the Dinka tribe. However, Madi, Zandi, Anuk, and Baria tribes are or have been represented.

Together with the Rev. Mark Tiede, pastor for welcome and life-long learning at Zion, members of the new worshipping group traveled to the Sudan earlier this year. Tiede described the shock of arriving in Sudan. Unlike other countries as viewed from the air, Sudan has no patchwork of farm fields. The Sundanese, despite their proximity to Egypt and centuries of history, have no crop agriculture. Thus, there has never been use of pesticides and herbicides. So, Tiede said, it would be one of the rare places on earth that would produce truly organic crops.

The shortage of adult males remaining in the local population was shocking for those visiting the Sudanese homeland. It is estimated that 40 years of war killed between two and three million men. Thus, male immigrants feel a strong pull to return to their homeland and assist in establishing a new nation. Those in the homeland maintain an expectation that the immigrant males will return and use their skills to develop their new country.

The Rev. Mawien Ariik baptizes an adult at a worship service of the Sudanese Lutheran Church in Minnesota.

Some males have already returned, and even Pastor Ariik is planning to return in August. He described the pull to return to the homeland as very strong. In many cases wives and children are remaining behind in the U.S., creating family stress.

Lutherans prepare for a new nation

Pastor Tiede says he is proud of the ELCA for its welcoming of the Sudanese. He views the “Sudanese Lutheran church in this country as a window to ministry in South Sudan.” This welcoming spirit helped the 4,000-baptized-member Zion Lutheran extend hospitality to the Sudanese. Lutheran coffee drinkers now mingle with tea-drinking Sudanese in this vibrant Lutheran community.

Sudanese worshippers are very comfortable with a liturgical worship service since the primary denominations in the Sudan are Orthodox, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic.

The ELCA is not alone in welcoming the Sudanese immigrants. The Rev. Peter Meier, assistant to the president for missions, Minnesota South District of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), says the Sudanese Evangelical Lutheran Mission Church of Southern Minnesota is hosted by Hosanna Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Mankato. The multi-site congregation worships once a month at Worthington’s St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church and alternates between Zion Lutheran in Albert Lea and St. John’s Lutheran in Austin.

In the Southwest Minnesota Synod of the ELCA, Bethlehem Lutheran in St. Cloud has an active ministry among the Sudanese and others of African descent. The congregation’s leadership has a vision to be “one congregation with many different cultures.”

Growing congregations

The Rev. Peter Reuss, mission director for the Southeast Minnesota Synod of the ELCA, reports five Sudanese ministries in that area of Minnesota.

Nile Our Savior’s Lutheran Chapel, a synodically-authorized worshipping community, is embedded within Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Faribault. Wal Reat is the lay evangelist and is in the TEEM program preparing him for ordination. Nile Our Savior’s worshipped at Our Savior’s for several years before the members grew close together. They are now one congregation in two languages, Reuss said.

Sudanese Dinka Congregation, a synodically-authorized worshipping community, has met at Zumbro Lutheran Church in Rochester for the past five-and-a-half years. In recent years they have begun exploring joint ministry. Kamen Makuer is the lay evangelist.

Anyuak Faith Community, a synodically-authorized worshipping community, started worship in March of 2010 and has quickly become a part of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Austin. Nygare Gilo is the lay evangelist. The Anyuak tribe comes from the border between Ethiopia and Sudan, so some call themselves Sudanese and some call themselves Ethiopian.

St. John Lutheran Church in Owatonna has a Sudanese service which started in January of 2010. From the beginning it has been one church with two languages. Gatbel Paleak is the lay evangelist.

St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Austin has a Sudanese service which started in November of 2009. From the beginning it has been one church with two languages. Simon Bol Top is the lay evangelist.

These are some of the Sudanese worshipping communities and the congregations that have extended hospitality to them.

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