Former ‘Lost Boy’ finds home as Episcopalian priest

By: Kristen Kerr

He once fended to save his own life in the tropical regions of Africa. Now he looks to save others—both physically and spiritually.

Today, the Rev. Gabriel Garang Atem serves as a priest for the Sudanese community at the All Saints Episcopalian Church in Salt Lake City, Utah.

From South Sudan to Utah

Orphaned during South Sudan’s civil war in 1987, Atem and some 20,000 Sudanese boys fled to Ethiopia to avoid serving in the northern army or the possibility of death. Barefoot and without clothes, the boys walked thousands of miles. Wild animals, river drownings and rebel soldier attacks loomed as constant dangers. Hunger, dehydration and exposure to the elements also proved hazardous. Atem remembers elderly people directing them along the way.

There in Ethiopia, he began to learn English in a United Nations program, tracing ABCs on others’ hands or in the dirt. Civil unrest spread to Ethiopia and the Sudanese government found out children were on the other side of the border.

“They began bombarding people; we were under protection every single night and day,” the Rev. Atem said. “Life was not as good as it is supposed to be.”

Atem then journeyed south to Kenya in 1992, where he gained refugee status and lived for nine years. He continued to develop his English skills and absorb whatever knowledge he could.

The UN began relocating refugees to different parts of the United States in the early 2000s after an intense, multi-step interview process. Atem was required to perform tasks such as writing down his life story, sharing how long he had been a refugee and whether or not members of his family remained alive.

Atem was relocated to Richmond, Virginia, where he lived as a resident of the country for a few years. He worked for TYCO INC., a company that created building materials, as a machine operator and trained new employees. The post-9/11 economy forced business to Canada and since Atem could not leave the U.S., he decided to move to Salt Lake City in 2004.

Within two weeks, Atem found a job in Utah. He began attending school a year later at Salt Lake Community College and earned an Associated of Arts degree.

“I make it home; I haven’t gone anywhere since,” the Rev. Atem said.

The All Saints Church welcomed Atem and 15 other “Lost Boys” of Sudan with open arms. The Rev. Atem recalled the kindness of the congregation as they started a new life in a new place. Church members offered transportation to Sunday services and school, as well as help to secure employment.

In 2002, All Saints created the Sudanese Education Assistance Fund to help provide materials such as books, fees and supplies for those seeking a GED, associates or bachelors degrees. The fund has raised more than $100,000 for these efforts.

“We have been received since we came to this country, especially by the Episcopalian Church here in Utah,” the Rev. Atem said.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Spiritual strength

Christian missionaries and church attendees exposed Atem to the Episcopalian faith in South Sudan. As he moved from country to country, Atem carried his faith with him always. He and other “Lost Boys” found places to worship, often under trees after the sun went down to avoid persecution.

“This has continued with us and within me to be able to carry on, having a spiritual part of life,” the Rev. Atem said.

Even as a teenager, the Rev. Atem was known for preaching the word of God in his native language, Dinka. Upon arriving in Utah, he soon became involved in the Sudanese Youth Group as a team leader. He continues to organize community programs such as Sunday School for youth and children and has since translated the Bible and hymnals into Dinka for the 250–member Sudanese congregation at All Saints.

“It has been a source of strength and it has been a good thing,” the Rev. Atem said. “It has been a good life to share with many others. It shows there is significant change in how we can do more.”

A humble man, the Rev. Atem sits comfortably in a dark suit and brown leather shoes. His low voice generates a calmness as he describes the hardships he has endured. He speaks thoughtfully and is quick to credit his spirituality as a determining force of survival.

“Though my life and history have been kind of difficult, wherever I went, I feel that I have something I can share with my brothers and sisters, especially how God helped me and many others into a situation whereby today I can do good things for myself and many others.”

The Rev. Atem puts his own words into action, devoutly serving the Sudanese community of All Saints by leading worship services and visiting families and individuals in need.

On Dec. 5, 2015, he was ordained a deacon at the Cathedral Church of Saint Mark and began leading services for the Sudanese community in the Dinka language. Almost a year later, the Rev. Atem was ordained a priest at All Saints on Oct. 1, 2016.

A fellow priest at the parish, the Rev. Trace Browning enjoys working with the Rev. Atem and described him as “very generous and always willing to help and serve others.”

“Gabriel is a person of great faith,” the Rev. Browning said in an email. “I believe that it was his belief in God, and his trust in God, that got him through those times.”

Education and interfaith dialogue

Now a 39-year-old man and father of twin 3-year-old boys, Atem and Kuir, the Rev. Atem continues to see hope.  Like many other Sudanese families, the Rev. Atem and his wife, Mary Alek, are doing their best to raise their children in an evolving environment.

“Because we suffered for a decade and God kept us alive, their future will be brighter than any of our futures,” the Rev. Atem said. “I’m happy and we’re doing our best in our family to grow up and make this life a better life for us.”

His extended family remains scattered across the world. The Rev. Atem and some of his cousins helped one sister resettle in Australia, where she lives with her husband and three children. Other cousins, uncles and in-laws currently live in refugee camps in Kenya, Uganda and on the border of Ethiopia.

“We hold them in our prayers. And those here who have friends or family members are better [off] than those who do not have people here,” the Rev. Atem said.

Having focused on improving his English and learning as much as possible throughout his life, the Rev. Atem believes education and communication build a foundation for interfaith dialogue.

“Education is the key to every human’s life. That will connect you with many people,” the Rev. Atem said. “If you are not educated, how will you be able to communicate?”

Interfaith conversations and understanding others’ beliefs helps us get to know them and their backgrounds, the Rev. Atem said. From there, we know how to change the world.

“That kind of communication and outreach to each and every individual is very important to all of us as Christians,” the Rev. Atem said. “This is how we are able to know exactly what we can do as people who are still alive and how we can think about others.”