On the Journey:
Rev. Stephen Gatthep Riek01 July 2011
Birthplace: Ulang, Sudan
Current Home: Melbourne, Australia
Family: Wife, Martha Nyayual, and six children
Job: Educational assistant to immigrant children and families
Church Ministry: Pastor, Morwell Sudanese Church of the Nazarene
What I Miss Most about My Home Country: Friends, my congregation, the cultural freedom to praise God openly, food, and weather
What I Appreciate Most about Where I Live Now: Peace
When I became a Christian in 1981 in southern Sudan (now South Sudan)—the place where I was born—I thought it was the only place in the world and that I was in the church where I would worship until the end of my life. But that was not to be the case at all.
There was no medicine or doctor in my part of the world, so when I was just a small boy, my dad died of an untreated disease. My lovely mom took care of me after my dad died, and she taught me to be a Christian.
The war in Sudan, which began in the early 1980s, was terrible. It took everything from us, including my mom. The next year—when I was 16 years old—I traveled by foot to Itang, an Ethiopian refugee camp. In 1991, the new Ethiopian government disbanded the camp, so I went back to southern Sudan even though I knew there were groups bombing civilians there. During this time, Christ took care of me and never abandoned me.
For six months, I stayed there, and I became an assistant evangelist in the Presbyterian church. When the United Nations and the Ethiopian government agreed to allow refugees to stay in the country again, I went back to Ethiopia.
Before I left for Dimma, the new camp in Ethiopia, I decided to married my beloved, Martha Nyayual. After five days of walking with very little food, water, or security, we reached the Ethiopian border, but rebels with guns attacked us and those walking with us. They took the clothes on our backs, our food, and some books. After separating us men from our wives and holding us for a long, sleepless night, the rebels finally released us. We felt lucky to be alive but were so worried about our wives. We walked toward Dimma, hoping the women had been released as well. We found them down the road crying as men were trying to take them as their wives, telling them their husbands had already been killed.
Our group arrived at Dimma with nothing in our hands. In the camp, there was never enough food, shelter, medication, or security. The same people who were bombing over our heads could come into the camp at night and take what they wanted from us. If you refused, they would kill you. We had to make our own shelters and find our own firewood for cooking. We waited for monthly UN food rations—mostly wheat—that we tried to make last the whole month. We couldn’t leave the area without permission from the camp coordinator. It felt like a prison.
Sometimes, we would go to the forest to collect firewood and take it to a nearby town to trade for extra food or medicine. One day, I walked about 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) looking for wood so we could cook food to eat. It was dangerous to leave the camp, but I had no choice. I collected a big bundle of wood and was ready to return to camp when I heard some people behind me. I froze. I heard them having a discussion about shooting me. When I turned to look, one of them had a gun pointed at me. He said, “I will shoot him now!” Others said, “No, you are not a good shot! You can’t kill him with that gun!”
I dropped my bundle of sticks and walked over to them. I forced myself to smile even though I was terrified for my life. I greeted them in their own language. “Shali,” or “Hello,” I said. They were surprised I was speaking their language. They looked at me. I tried it again. “Shali gori?” or “Hello, how are you?” I said, still smiling. At last, they responded, “Shali.”
These men were naked, so I offered them the shirt I was wearing, the only item of clothing I owned, as well as the sticks. I would have given them anything for my life. They refused and told me to go. I walked away slowly, expecting a bullet in my back at any moment. After a few minutes, I heard them walk away, and once again, I could breathe. This is one of many occasions where my life was spared. Many in my church and community have had similar experiences to these.
From 1993 to 1996, my wife and I planted and pastored a Presbyterian church in Dimma. Around that time, I met Nazarene missionaries who were looking for people to help them start churches in the camp. We found them to be friendly and helpful, and we liked the way they preached God’s word.
My wife and I both decided to join the Church of the Nazarene. We learned new things about holiness, entire sanctification, and God’s commission in Matthew 28:19-20 to go into the world and make disciples.
I planted Dimma First Church of the Nazarene and then a second congregation called Sherkole, led by John Yual, who is now the district superintendent in South Sudan. Eventually, we had six congregations, and I became the Dimma zone leader under the Gambella district. I went to college at the Nazarene Creative Leadership Institute to study ministry and leadership and eventually became a teacher of other pastors. Though life was still not easy in the camp at this time, it was made a bit easier because the Church of the Nazarene helped my three children through child sponsorship.
In March 2007, after 15 years living in the camp, God brought us to live in Melbourne, Australia. Life has been very different here. People drive everywhere instead of walking. The weather is much colder. The English is different. But there is safety here. Through God’s help, I have planted a Nazarene congregation, Morwell Sudanese Church of the Nazarene, as well as three preaching points. We have around a hundred people attending each week.
Now, I work four days a week with the church, and I go to other areas to lead Bible studies. To support my family, I also have a part-time job working with children in school who have recently arrived in Australia and whose first language is not English. I assist them in their classes and help mediate communication between their school and their parents.
What I have learned in my long journey is that even if there are challenges, God will help us to overcome them. I still carry the scars, physical and mental, from the days of war. They will never go away. But Martha and I thank God we have our lives, and we are now raising our family in a peaceful land. God cares for me, and I think God has spared my family and me for a purpose.