By Jeff Brumley
International students who have endured war and disease in their homelands are nothing new at Mercer University. But Abraham Deng can claim that and more: as a child, he survived lion, hyena and crocodile attacks along with starvation and disease – all while evading hostile troops hunting him through 1,000 miles of African plains and jungles.
Deng, 31, is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group made famous by a childhood exodus from war-torn Sudan that landed them in refugee camps before being scattered across the globe. There were about 30,000 in all and almost 4,000 landed in the United States.
And one of them – Deng – ended up at Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology, where he’s currently working on a master of divinity degree.
“He is a remarkable human being,” said Craig McMahan, university minister and dean of the chapel. “It’s extraordinary that we would have someone come through with the kind of challenges he has had.”
Deng is also a religious minority at McAfee because he isn’t Baptist. He’s an Anglican who attends an Episcopal church where he often preaches Sunday mornings.
But denominational differences mean nothing to him.
“When we go to heaven we will not have denominations,” Deng said.
World of the Living Dead
Heaven and denominations weren’t even part of Deng’s belief systems as a child. He was born to a family of sheep and cow herders in an area of southern Sudan where traditional African spirituality held sway.
“I remember very well my parents had a small god and a shrine in the home,” Deng said. He was taught that people entered the “world of the living dead” upon death.
“When I took care of the cattle and sheep, I would look into the sky and clouds and I would think the spirits of my ancestors were all around protecting us.”
Just following the group
There seemed to be very little protecting Deng and his friends and family the day in 1987 when government troops and militias attacked his village, Duk, and others in the region.
The strife was part of an ongoing civil war between Christian and Muslim forces that had begun four years earlier.
Deng was 6 at the time and tending the herds when terrified children began running past him. Within moments he found himself running, too, but not real clear on why.
“I was just following the group, thinking that the war would come to an end and I would return home,” he said. “It did not happen the way I anticipated.”
Author: ‘Such uncertain lives’
The disbelief and confusion Deng experienced was common among his peers, said Joan Hecht, author of the 2005 book The Journey of the Lost Boys and founder of the non-profit Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan in Jacksonville, Fla.
They were forced to flee on foot across great distances while avoiding wild animals, government-backed militias and rebels. By the time the children arrived in refugee camps in Ethiopia, their ranks and faith were often stretched thin.
“They have lived such uncertain lives,” she said. “Almost every Lost Boy and Girl carries scars on their bodies from their journeys.”
‘I saw the limbs’
Deng said his scars are largely emotional and stemmed from seeing a cousin and many friends die from starvation, disease and wild animal attacks.
Lions and hyenas usually pounced at night, when the children learned to walk to avoid daytime air attacks by government planes, he said. “In some instances I saw the limbs of kids eaten by the lions – the heads and the hands and the feet.”
At a refugee camp, Deng met a 16-year-old Anglican evangelist, and fellow Lost Boy, named Barnabas. His teachings about Christ and scripture began to help Deng process the ordeal.
“The Bible became part of my life and I put God first,” he said.
Called to community
To go through all of that and come out a strong Christian on the other side is astonishing to McMahan who, as a career pastor before joining Mercer, is no stranger to hearing tales of hardship and woe.
“But we don’t have to worry about machine guns being shot at us or being mauled by lions,” he said. “His story is an encouragement and poses a challenge for us to live our faith in whatever we consider to be difficult times.”
Deng’s goals also are inspiring, McMahan said. After a likely graduation in December, Deng plans to study to become a physician’s assistant. He plans to take his spiritual and medical training back to the Sudan to serve communities that have neither trained clergy nor doctors.
That’s helped McMahan in his own walk with Christ and how he interacts with other students and faculty in his university-based ministry, he said.
“In my own faith it reminds me … that we are called to be part of communities and to take care of each other,” McMahan said.
‘Why did God do that?’
Deng said he never tires of telling his story because he knows it’s inspiring to others. Also, he said he is called to be a witness to the atrocities and tragedies he witnessed as a child.
Deng said he was drawn to McAfee because of its openness to minorities (about half the student body are non-whites) and different Christian traditions and ideas. The faculty and students “have been like a family to me.”
But Deng said he still struggles with the ordeal he endured in Africa, and is most troubled about why he survived and thousands did not.
Even after becoming a Christian and adopting the name Abraham, Deng said he became angry with God about the squalid refugee camps and the violent deaths he witnessed getting there.
“I was 7 and I said if God is there, why was there so much suffering, why am I separated from my family – why did God do that?”
He has since accepted that he cannot know why those things happened, a fact aided by learning that his mother and other relatives are still alive in Sudan.
He’s also come to believe that questioning God can be spiritually healthy.
“Asking questions of God is not bad because that’s how we find out what God wants from us, and this is how we become closer to God.”