Ministering to Sudanese immigrants in Australia

Categories: Australia, Catechism, Interview, Sudan

When immigrants from South Sudan arrived in Melbourne, Australia, they quickly decided they preferred the quieter life in the country. Before long, the Sudanese made up a third of the congregants at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Traralgon, where Rev. Stephen van der Hoek was pastor.

Following is an interview with Rev. Van der Hoek, who reflects on the challenges and the joys of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with immigrants who speak a different language.

Tell us a little about yourself. 

My name is Stephen van der Hoek. I’m 31 years old, married to Mary-Ann, with six children. I was ordained at the end of 2008 and was sent to serve in the Gippsland Lutheran Parish, east of Melbourne, in Victoria (the southwest corner of Australia). Gippsland Parish (I think Americans use the word “circuit”) has 5 congregations in a geographical area about the size of Switzerland or Estonia.
The largest of the congregations was at Traralgon, a town of 30,000 people. The congregation had about 70-80 people. This congregation was about a third South Sudanese migrants [who came there because they] had contacts with a broad South Sudanese community in the area.

Why did the Sudanese come to Traralgon? What challenges does that bring?

A lot of the Sudanese immigrants had been living in Melbourne and wanted a quieter life in the country, so they moved to Gippsland. The immediate challenge was the clash of cultures — and many of the Sudanese had moved around so much in Africa. I think the biggest struggle for the Sudanese was homesickness and feeling like complete strangers in a strange country.

The Sudanese brought more joys than they did challenge; particularly, they brought strong family values, a love of children, and a hunger for the Scripture. Some of them were illiterate (even in their own language), which meant using the regular, set liturgy was very important, so that they could join in and participate. Often in Bible studies, things would have to be translated twice for different people.

Many of American communities are also seeing large influxes of immigrants, and congregations and their pastors often feel unprepared to share the Gospel with people from other cultures. What is your advice to them?

One of my seminary lecturers, Dr John Kleinig, once said, “When you show an interest in people, you testify to the fact that they have a God who is interested in them.” People in America or Australia simply need to be prepared to spend time with people and learn to see things from their perspective, and develop a sympathetic understanding of their situation. Time, time, time!

I would suggest you just build friendships as with anyone else, and invite them to church, and start from there. Also, I found the migrants I dealt with just wanted teaching. Sometimes there was a family who hadn’t had their children baptised so I just started there with the catechism, and build on that foundation.

How are books like Luther’s Small Catechism helpful?

It would almost be easier to say: how is the Small Catechism not helpful!! The Small Catechism is so useful that it’s hard even to begin. When I was in Gippsland, I learnt the Nuer language, and it quickly becomes apparent that there really aren’t that many books published at all in Nuer, let alone Christian books. The two books published by LHF (the catechism and Bible Stories for children) and then the Bible and the hymnal were the only four books published in Nuer that I ever saw, apart from some primers for teaching how to read Nuer.

The children absolutely loved the catechism! I used to go around to the families’ houses and teach the kids to memorise the catechism. Many of them had difficulty at school, mainly because rote learning was out of fashion, and perhaps one could say that they were required to “think” first before they had “learnt” anything. However, learning the catechism and reciting it, and then learning what it meant, gave the children such a sense of achievement, that often when they had learnt a section, they would dance around their back gardens doing hip-hop moves and do back-flips off their wheelie-bins (trash cans)! The catechism allowed the children to develop a tremendous foundation and they just got better and better. Also, some children had mobile phones and downloaded the CPH catechism app, and used to learn the catechism while on the bus. We also conducted a youth camp, and did some in-depth studies on the Second Article of the Creed. 

Also, I found that a lot of parents, too, wanted to learn English, and so I used to use the catechism to teach them to read. (When I have been asked advice by pastors about dealing with migrants, I have always told them to get people to teach them to read English using the catechism!) They were quite happy to learn things about the faith at the same time. Many of the Sudanese had an opinion that the only real purpose of reading at all was to read the Bible! (Why read anything else?!)

The great thing about the LHF translations is that we had books in both Nuer and English that corresponded, so we could give the children the English and the parents the Nuer versions, and they could help each other learn.

For me as a pastor, the most valuable part of the LHF catechism was “Luther’s Short Order of Confession” which enabled me to be able to give absolution to people in their own language.

The refugees were genuinely interested in learning about the Lutheran faith because it can be so easily demonstrated from the Bible. In some sense, they are mainly interested in the Bible — and so when Lutheran doctrine is simply unpacked from the Scripture, they are happy to learn more. Unlike my own culture, where post-modern ideas about truth prevail (“What’s true for you isn’t true for me…”), the Sudanese had a very sharp understanding of the authority of Scripture and revered it very highly.

Rev. Van der Hoek has recently accepted a call as a missionary in East Africa. He asks that we keep him and his family in our prayers.

Only with your help can this important work continue. Prayerfully consider how you can help support LHF projects.