Across generations, cultures, and continents, two strangers were united by their common faith and a shared spiritual home, Starmount Presbyterian Church.
Gai Ajak Riak narrowly escaped the horrors of war in his native Sudan and immigrated to the United States in 2001.
Katherine Poole, a native of Greensboro, returned here with her family in 1957 after having lived briefly in Richmond, Va.
The two met when Riak came to the United States and settled in Greensboro 11 years ago. Poole, a volunteer for Lutheran Family Services and member of Starmount Presbyterian, became one of his sponsors.
“When Gai first came to our congregation, he was a man with a mission,” Poole said. “He was going to get a good job, an education and start a family. He has never wavered from the goals he set for himself.”
Riak, born into a farming family in the city of Bor, remembers vividly when war broke out in 1983. Even as he was encouraged by his father to seek refuge — escaping into Ethiopia in 1987 — he always returned to his family in Sudan.
“When I left Ethiopia and went back to Sudan in 1991, the enemy was still dropping bombs,” Riak said. “So I traveled to the Kenya-Sudan border and stayed there for several months. Then I went to Loki and on to Central Kenya.”
He traveled barefoot, with no water and little food, and was threatened by wild animals, he said.
He eventually arrived at a refugee camp in Kakuma in northwest Kenya, where he was able to go to school.
“God just protected me,” he said.
Upon moving to Greensboro in April 2001, Riak immediately embraced his new community and life.
He joined Starmount Church, where Poole and the entire congregation eagerly welcomed him and continue to support him through life’s challenges.
“My being here was a plan from God,” he said. “I always knew that.”
Starmount has a personal commitment to Sudan, in part through the relationships it has built with Riak and four other former “Lost Boys” of Sudan, who joined Starmount after settling in Greensboro. The congregation has since welcomed members from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ghana.
“The church is evolving as a community in its diversity and its generosity,” Riak said.
“Since I first came here 11 years ago, there has been a lot of development, especially in the area of technology,” he said. “But even though the church is changing, the Bible doesn’t change. The caring of the people stays the same.”
Poole said the congregation’s outreach to the refugee community — including its sponsorship since the mid-1980s of refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam, Somalia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Colombia, Sudan (now South Sudan), Hong Kong, Congo, and Darfur, Sudan — has brought Starmount’s members closer together.
“It has been our mission to help these families to become self-sufficient,” said Linda Anderson, who also volunteered with Lutheran Family Services and serves with Poole on Starmount’s Mission Committee. “It has been a blessing to all of us who have worked with them.”
“The qualities that brought me to this church nearly 60 years ago are still very much in evidence today,” Poole added. “This is a caring congregation with a heart for mission.”
In addition to its work with refugee families, Poole said, Starmount also addresses a wide range of local, national, and global issues — including hunger and homelessness — through its regular support of initiatives such as Family Promise, Greensboro Urban Ministry and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.’s Two Cents a Meal/ Pennies for Hunger offering.
To honor the church’s 60th anniversary, Starmount is expanding upon its already active mission by collecting 6,000 pounds of nonperishable food as a gift to the community.
“This amount represents Starmount bearing fruit ‘a hundredfold’ over our 60 years of living out Jesus’ teachings,” said the Rev. John L. Odom, Starmount’s pastor since 2006. “We will distribute bags containing 25 pounds of food to those in need on the Saturday of our celebration.”
Riak applauds the effort. In his position with the North Carolina African Services Coalition, he helps refugee families get adjusted to life in the U.S., including access to housing, food and social services.
“Life here isn’t what they thought it was going to be,” he said.
Riak became a citizen in 2006, recently returned to college to get his degree and is supporting a wife and two young sons.
“I was blessed by God to do something,” he said. “I don’t have many things, but I have energy, vision, and determination. God kept me alive for a purpose. If I have any way to help, I will.”
The Rev. Emily Odom is associate for mission communications of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Presbyterian Mission Agency. The Rev. John Odom, pastor of Starmount Church, is her husband.