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My vocation story: from Lost Boy to finding God in the desert

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“The desert is a significant place where people can meet God. Even before Jesus, holy people used to withdraw themselves from their families and live in deserts to meet with God. I encountered God for the first time when I travelled the deserts and slept in deserts as a child – the desert is where my intimacy with him, before I became Christian, began,” says St Francis College formation student Mamuor Kunpeter, as Vocations Month continues

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My parents and my grandparents didn’t know about Jesus. They worshipped their traditional God’s in what is now South Sudan. My local community’s god’ was named ‘Ayuiu’. We worshipped Ayuiu by sacrificing bulls and singing.

I became a Christian after I left Sudan during the second Sudanese Civil War in 1987.

I fled South Sudan for Ethiopia when I was 11. The journey across the desert without clothing or shoes was very bad. We travelled for many days – we walked for more than a month across the desert to escape the persecution of the Khartoum government who wanted to abduct boys so they couldn’t join the rebel groups once they became older.

More than 20,000 boys walked across the desert as unaccompanied minors. We are known as the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’. There were seven from my extended family and we walked with 13,000 others. I left my parents with only the food I could carry, which my mum packed for me, and a two litre container of water. My mum packed simsim for me, a sort of produce like peanuts which didn’t need cooking so it was easy to eat. I didn’t see my parents again.

We travelled at nighttime, mostly so the Khartoum government military in helicopters could not find us. We ran out of food quickly and ate wild animals, although not all of us would get a portion. It was a struggle.

The desert was very dry and it was dangerous. We could be abducted. Many were eaten by wild animals. Some children were eaten by lions. Most children who died just fell asleep and did not get up as they were too weak to walk any further.

Arriving in Ethiopia was another bad experience. We had no food at all and we arrived in Ethiopia with no place to go. So we had to sleep under trees. There was nowhere to go to the toilet so the children defecated anywhere, which spread cholera. Children also died of tropical diseases, which spread quickly because we lived close together. Many of us also died of malnutrition.

It took three months for the United Nations to come with food and medical supplies, although the strongest medicine they had was Panadol and hydration salts. They did not bring water so we had to keep drinking from the diseased river. There was no clean water until more than four years later in 1991.

In Ethiopia we had school classes under trees when it didn’t rain. The teacher and students wrote in the dirt with sticks. It was at this time when I was 11 years old that I began to have a relationship with God. In Ethiopia there was a church that I went to. It was there that I found out about the Israelites and how they travelled a long way on foot. After hearing their story, instead of thinking so much about going back to my parents, I thought to myself that this is what I had to live with, that this is my life now. I thought about what I had experienced and decided that there had to be some kind of power – something that was sustaining my life.

Around 1991 we were forced back to the Ethiopian-Sudanese border to Pochalla. The United Nations moved us out because of the threat of the Eritrea-Ethiopian rebels’ movement. Because there was no airstrip, the United Nations could not fly us in food. We left the Panyido refugee camp in Ethiopia in two groups, going in separate directions. It took me and my group three weeks to get to Pochalla on the border. It was easier the second time for me as I packed more food and was a few years older. Many of the children in the group that went in the other direction were shot at by rebels and either died in the gunfire or drowned as they tried to escape across the river Gilo. Some managed to get safely across the river.

We lived in Pochalla for a couple of months. The Khartoum government bombed the area from helicopters a few times and sent troops to attack us on the ground. Because of this, the United Nations decided it was an unsafe place for children so we had to move again, this time to Kenya.

The walk to Kenya was more than two months. It was bad. There wasn’t much food. We walked at night to keep safe. The United Nations did not have enough vehicles to transport the children so we had to walk across Kothngor desert. They did not plan well.

We arrived in northwestern Kenya at the Kakuma refugee camp in 1992. Over 15,000 of us had travelled there. We were very weak when we arrived, but life was better in Kakuma.

The children went to Sunday services under the trees in the Kakuma refugee camp. A Sudanese Episcopal priest who ran our services trained a couple of older boys to read the Bible in our language, Dinka. That’s when I began to fall in love with God.

In 1993 I chose to be baptised by this priest. In 1996 I was confirmed. I kept going to youth ministry in the camp and have since been faithful to God.

In 2003, more than 15 years after I first left my parents, I came to Australia. When I first came here, I went to Tasmania. But, the Tasmanian weather was too much for me. So – I went from Kenya which is extremely hot every day of the year and where I lived for over 10 years to Tasmania. As the Tasmanian weather was too much for me, after two months I moved to Sydney.

In Sydney I started going to Anglican services. I noticed that the way people prayed and worshipped was the same as in Kenya. I didn’t know that being Episcopal and being Anglican were the same until then. I have stayed Anglican.

In Sydney when our congregation got bigger, we requested a special service in Dinka, our own language. This was good for people who couldn’t speak English, especially for old people so they could stay engaged in their faith. We were also able to sing more and dance in our services. We are used to singing and dancing to praise God. Most Australian services don’t have dancing. We find this a bit boring.

In December 2004 I got married to Mary. We first met through youth ministry in the Kakuma refugee camp where we were just friends. We met again in Australia after connecting on the phone while she was living in Perth.

In 2006 we had our first child and now God has blessed us with six children. In 2007 we had a daughter, Anna, with down syndrome. Because she has heart and lung conditions, the doctor suggested that we move to Queensland where the weather would be better for her health. So, we moved to Queensland in June 2009.

When my daughter was in hospital a few years ago, the doctors told me that her lungs were slowly dying. They told me that if a medicine didn’t work that she would not survive. I went to the hospital to see my daughter with two older women from my community. One of the older women told me that my daughter wouldn’t die and called us to pray. So, we bowed our heads and prayed right there. My daughter survived. I then realised that God had a plan for my daughter. This made me realise that God has a plan for everyone, including me.

This also showed me that God speaks through and works through people. Just as God guided the Israelites through Moses and spoke through Moses, God guided me through the older woman and spoke to me through her.

Pastor Phil from another local church helped me to bring my remaining brothers to Australia a few years ago after I finished my Bachelor of Business. He is a good man. Seeing the good he did, I prayed to God that I would help others as he helped my brothers and me. He is someone I want to imitate.

I have served in a number of church positions. In 2018 I was commissioned as a liturgical assistant. In this role, I organised church activities, helped the priest or Bishop with liturgical assistant duties, helped with church development and organised youth activities.

In 2018, Bishop Cam was doing child safety training in our church. I asked him why I couldn’t preach. Bishop Cam told me that I needed to do some study to preach.

I then found out about Seekers Day, which is a day that people can find out more about ordained ministry. I rang Bishop Daniel Abot, as I knew him from the refugee camp, and he encouraged me to go to Seekers Day, which I did.

I also spoke to Bishop Cam and asked about the priesthood. Bishop Cam told me that I needed to have a call, the support of my wife, and the support of my congregation to become a priest. With the support of Mary and my congregation, I started studying theology at St Francis College in 2019.

The desert is a significant place where people can meet God. Even before Jesus, holy people used to withdraw themselves from their families and live in deserts to meet with God. I encountered God for the first time when I travelled the deserts and slept in deserts as a child – the desert is where my intimacy with him, before I became Christian, began.

I love being a Christian.

Editor’s note: The Rev’d Canon Sarah Plowman, Diocesan Director Ordinands and Vocations, will be leading a pilgrimage walk for those wishing to discern a call to ordained ministry on Wednesday 11 August from 9 am to 4 pm. For more information or to register, visit the walkLIFE Vocations Pilgrimage registration page. If you have questions about the pilgrimage, please contact The Rev’d Canon Sarah Plowman via Sarah.Plowman@anglicanchurchsq.org.au. Church and ministries can visit the Vocations page of the ACSQ website for Vocations Month resources.

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