They gave up those drinks and used the money they saved to create a $20,000 fund—almost three times their goal—that will be used to drill two wells in villages in South Sudan.
And it’s all because of Bol. Bol Deng Malual, 25, is one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan”, one of more than 30,000 young boys who were displaced and/or orphaned during a civil war in Sudan between 1983 and 2005. Thousands of the boys were brought to the United States after years of hiding out and living in refugee camps.
Malual was working at a supermarket in Dallas when he made his first connection with someone from First Unitarian. Deanna Charles met him in 2009 when she went to the market to ask if it would donate fruit for snacks for an upcoming high school band trip. In the weeks that followed, Bol delivered fruit each Friday to the school. It wasn’t until about the fourth week that Charles learned that Bol had been paying for the fruit himself because the store manager had declined to donate it.
Charles vowed to find a way to pay him back. She found that way when she listened to his personal story. Bol’s childhood was violently interrupted by civil war. At age five he fled his village of Ayiet on foot without a shirt, shoes, or provisions. With other boys, he wandered around Africa for three years then spent nine years in a refugee camp in Kenya. He was eventually selected to come to America, arriving here when he was fifteen.
After their meeting, Charles invited Malual to church. He’s attended church on and off for several years as his school schedule permits. He is studying to be a pharmacy technician. In getting to know Malual, Charles learned that his village needed a water well. Women and children were walking at least a half hour to the nearest water source then returning with several gallons of water balanced on their heads.
Charles came up with the idea of raising money for the well by asking congregants to give up something for Lent. It seemed fitting to ask people to give up drinks, she said. “They gave up alcohol, coffee, tea, sodas, and much more.” They also gave up other things—housecleaning services, Brussels sprouts, swearing. And some simply donated money outright.
The fund quickly topped the goal of $7,000, which would have been enough for one well. On Easter Sunday it was $19,000. By the end of April it was up to $20,000. That means that two wells will be possible, one in Ayiet and one in a village a half-hour away.
Charles hadn’t been sure Unitarian Universalists would be willing to give up something for Lent. “We told them they’re giving up something to get something else. People really took to this. It was just so exciting on Easter to see what people had given up,” said Charles. “They saw this as a human rights issue.”
Some of the funds raised will also be used to send Malual back to see his family in November. His first reunion with family members was two years ago. The church helped pay for that trip as well. First Unitarian is working with a nonprofit, Water is Basic [waterisbasic.com] to drill the wells. It hopes to have the first one completed next fall, after the rainy season ends.
Malual has participated in several worship services at First Unitarian, including the one on Easter. “When he speaks it is just transformative,” said Charles. She added that he especially affects teenagers. “I see their eyes get wide when he talks about the war and his long journey to America. He is focused on getting a degree and contributing to society. He knows just what he wants. He just needs a support system.”
Malual is one of around a hundred Lost Boys in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Charles has created an interfaith group, Friends of the Lost Boys to support them by providing mentors, extended family, and assistance with tuition and emergency needs. The group is trying to raise around $100,000 to help put the boys through community college in the next few years.
The Kakuma Refugee Camp, where the boys were raised, emphasized education and told the boys they were the “seeds of Sudan.” Thus they are willing to go to great lengths to graduate, including going without food in order to buy books.
A children’s book about Malual’s life has been written by Nancy Hahn and illustrated by Hamid Ayoub. “One Lost Boy” is available for $25.
Charles said First Unitarian will continue to have a relationship with the village of Ayiet beyond the drilling of the wells. “We’re hoping to adopt it and eventually work toward establishing a medical clinic there with Bol’s help. If people want to make a difference in Africa, this is a direct way to do it.”
Malual said the water well would result in a “modern day transformation” of the village. “The women and children spend a lot of time fetching water now, especially during the drought season, and then the water isn’t even clean. I hope this project will also be a blessing to the church members who have sacrificed to pool their resources and energy to help my people living thousands of miles away.”
He said he was gratified by the amount of money raised. “It is through God’s inspiration and blessing that I have been able to be part of this great church. The caring and support its members have shown to me has been unbelievable.”
Malual said there is a way for other congregations to help. “If there is a chance to build a clinic in my village it would be wonderful. The nearest clinic requires a three-hour walk. Also, education is a major problem in South Sudan. There is no school in my village. The children meet under a tree and try to learn by drawing in the mud. So these are the two goals I have for my village—a clinic and a school,” Malual said.
First Unitarian’s Senior Minister the Rev. Daniel Kanter said that his immediate thought when he heard Malual’s story was, “We have to have others hear this.” In early March he and Malual did an interview format sermon after Malual read his story as a reading. “The most important thing that came out was Bol’s sense of forgiveness for the soldiers [who attacked his village].” Kanter said Malual has participated in other services and has shared his story with the congregation’s children and youth and had a major role in the Easter service.
“Bol is an inspiration to everyone in our church because he never gave up when he was lost, he doesn’t carry a chip on his shoulder because of what he went through, and he has transformed what happened to him into new life for his people,” Kanter said. “Isn’t that an Easter story!”
An abridged version of this article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of UU World (“Church funds wells in South Sudan,” page 37).