We are pleased to have Kenneth Elisapana as our Grand Marshal for the 2017 Hunger Walkathon West CROP Walk. Kenneth has an experience and story to share with us about his journey from South Sudan to America. The following is excerpted from a forthcoming book by Tom Holmes’ titled “The Soul of a Liberal Village.”
“I was born in South Sudan in a small village named Jambo roughly between 1968 and 1970,” said Kenneth Elisapana. He doesn’t know for sure, because birth certificates were not given out in those days in Jambo.
His first day in the U.S. sheds light on what his growing up in Jambo was like. He arrived in the U.S. in 1999 to study at Indiana Taylor University. When he arrived on campus he was taken to the dining hall where there was a long buffet table with many kinds of foods. He took a plate and helped himself to kidney beans and rice.
The man who was running the place came to Elisapana and seeing that he was a new student, asked if he had enough to eat. Kenneth replied that he came from South Sudan where Christians were being persecuted. When the man asked him if he wanted more food, Kenneth replied that he couldn’t afford any more.
“He said, ‘Kenneth, you are a student here. You can eat anything on the table.’ When I went to my room I could not believe that in the world there is food like this, and people live like this. For me this was a picture of heaven.”
“Then I imagined children starving to death back home,” he continued, “and I began to ask God if God really cares. That was a turning point for me, and I still struggle with it today. I tell my kids that if we don’t need an extra jacket, we don’t need it. Why? Because I know this is not real. This is not how our people live in Sudan.”
Elisapana described the context from which he had come. He said that Sudan had once been the largest country in Africa before it was partitioned into North Sudan and South Sudan. Arabs had come to the coastal regions to act as middle men in the slave trade. When the slave trade ended, the Arabs stayed. The north was mainly Muslim and the south largely Christian.
He said that when the British left, it created a power vacuum and the Muslims wanted to make all of Sudan a Muslim state. The Arabs were concentrated in the northern part of Sudan, but it was in the south that most of the resources including oil were found. The fighting became intense in the 1990s. That’s when the news was filled with stories about “the lost boys of Sudan.”
“My father was killed in the war in 1992,” he said. “When I was around 16 or 17 I fled. I was walking without shoes and drinking filthy water from the river. I was in Egypt for almost two years as a refugee.”
One day, while attending a worship service at a church, an elderly woman recognized him. She had been a missionary and had been his teacher back in Juba. She went back to England and told her congregation what had happened. The congregation voted to send money to help him continue his education in Kenya. By then he around twenty, and that’s where he met Judy his wife, who was from the Kokuyu tribe in Kenya. One of the colleges at which he was studying in Nairobi had an exchange program with Taylor, and that’s how Elisapana wound up in Indiana for, he thought, one semester.
“When I arrived,” he said, “the president of the school called me to his office. After I told my story, he was crying. He told me that he was going to help me stay in the U.S. until I finished my schooling. I stayed for two years, majored in sociology and graduated in the class of 2002. They paid for everything.”
Kenneth then received a scholarship to go to Southern Illinois for graduate studies and received a masters degree in public administration in 2004, and was hired by a relief agency in the Chicago area which was doing a lot of resettlement work with the “lost boys” from Sudan and Kenya. Two years later the State of Illinois hired him to do social work, which has been doing since 2007.
Since the drive from Aurora, where the Elisapana family was living at the time, to Chicago was too hard on him, the family moved to the Austin Neighborhood just east of Oak Park. After searching for a home congregation for a time, they felt comfortable with the pastor, Marti Scott, and the congregation and joined.
Since they daughter Helen was five years old at the time and Chicago’s schools had a bad reputation, Kenneth told his pastor that they were considering a move to Oak Park where the schools are rated very high. She replied, “Let me think about it,” and after a few days she said to the family, “Would you consider renting the parsonage temporarily?”
“I still can’t believe I’m living in this place,” he said. “That’s why for me when you talk of God’s hand this is a success story, like how God took Moses from a basket in the Nile River to deliver his people to the Promised Land. This is my story, too.”
Grateful for the blessings they have received, Judy and Kenneth have not forgotten about their countrymen who are suffering. They have a 501c3 not for profit called South Sudan Hope, for which he goes on a mission trip every year.
“This year,” he said in 2013, “we will purchase land on which to build a guesthouse where experts can stay to teach the people about carpentry and welding and brick making. We want to provide sewing machines for tailoring and seeds for sustainable farming.
Here, he experiences people who take the time to listen to his story and understand where he has come from as gifts from God. “They take the time to listen,” he explained, “and for me that is healing, because we can talk through it.”
“It reminds me of God’s goodness,” he continued. “A simple boy from a village who spoke no English, grew up bare foot, had not seen a doctor because there were none where I lived and I’m sitting here where you can get electricity by turning on a switch and my wife and I have two cars.”
Elisapana likes some things about Oak Park, but there are some aspects of the village with which he is uncomfortable. “I must say that District 97 is great for my kids,” he said. “That’s number one. Oak Park is also near where I work. A third reason we like the town is because in the schools and in the churches they accept diversity. The fact that I am from Africa and speak with an accent is OK.”