CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (BP)–Nearly a decade ago, a group of Sudanese refugees sought safety and religious freedom in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, after fleeing persecution in their warring homeland. Now, five dedicated Sudanese men have received diplomas in Christian ministry through the Southern Baptist Seminary Extension program.
The refugees had become Christians while still in Sudan following the influence of missionaries from several denominations. In the midst of a civil war, they were persecuted for their beliefs and sought asylum in the United States.
They began arriving in Cedar Rapids in 1992 and continued coming until 1996. As they heard about other Sudanese Christian refugees in the city, they sought each other out. First they met for worship in a local ministry center and then looked for a church where they could expand.
That’s when Immanuel Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids became involved.
“We offered them a place to worship,” said Ed Gregory, a former pastor of Immanuel and now the associate executive director and missions team leader at the Baptist Convention of Iowa. “I was pastor at the time and they asked us to meet with them as they worshiped.”
Gregory and Edward Roustio, a church member with a theological background, spoke to the Sudanese through an interpreter each time the group met for worship.
The church also provided basic English classes to the refugees, starting with about 30 Sudanese of all ages — children and parents. Several church members helped the refugees meet other needs, such as securing employment, purchasing groceries, passing driver’s tests and paying rent.
“After several months the pastor and I started teaching just the men,” Roustio said. “Others taught the women and others the children. After teaching them the basics about English — nouns, pronouns, etc. — the pastor thought we’d have some kind of book to study. Instead of some other book, we’d use the Bible. We ended up teaching more Bible than English, and it was evident some of these men were really interested in Bible study.”
Gregory said the men wanted to learn more about the Bible and also how to be pastors, but they couldn’t go to seminary because they had families and much-needed jobs in Cedar Rapids.
“Their original dream was to go back to the Sudan when the opportunity was available and actually begin churches and be pastors in their land,” he said.
Gregory and Roustio searched for a way to answer the request of the Sudanese and found the basic Seminary Extension curriculum to meet the need.
The SBC’s Seminary Extension is a ministry of the six seminaries supported by the Cooperative Program, and since 1951 it has been providing college-level educational opportunities for students who have not been able to attend a regular institution of learning. Seminary Extension is based in the SBC Building in Nashville, Tenn., and offers courses by correspondence, on CD ROM, the Internet and in more than 400 extension centers across the country.
Seminary Extension offers more than 100 courses in basic and diploma levels covering such areas as biblical studies, theology, church history, missions, music and Christian ethics. The program does not offer degrees, but it does offer certificates and diplomas.
Seven years ago, Gregory and Roustio began teaching Seminary Extension courses to the Sudanese men. After the men passed certain classes, they received certificates. Then because of job transfers and other reasons, some of them moved away over the years. In 1999 Gregory was called to be the associate executive director of the state convention, so Roustio, now 94, continued teaching five men who were committed to earning diplomas in Christian ministry.
“It took them a lot longer to complete the courses because of the language barrier, but they persevered,” Roustio told Baptist Press. “Every workbook and every textbook was in English.”
The five Sudanese men received their diplomas in a graduation ceremony at the church June 1 in the presence of about 100 family members and friends.
“I’ve seen them grow spiritually,” Roustio said. “I’m convinced that they have a divine call to go back to Sudan to teach and preach the Word of God…. They have a real burden for their people, even those in the northern part who persecute and have killed thousands of the Sudanese.”
In the midst of persecution, it is common for persecutors to kill the man of the household and leave the women and children with no one to care for them, Roustio explained. But the five Sudanese who now have seminary diplomas nevertheless want to return to their homeland as soon as the door opens, he said.
“They are that interested in getting back there to win their people to Christ,” Roustio said. “They have been trained to train others once they get there. We’ve taught them to do like the Apostle Paul to set up a main strong church like Ephesus and from there send out people in every direction.”
Gregory spoke to the group on the day of their graduation. He reminded them that missionaries had come to their land and first presented the claims of Christ to them. And in America, Roustio was sent to them, he said.
“So go and do likewise,” Gregory told the five.
A few of them have met with their associational missionary with the intent of starting a Sudanese congregation in Cedar Rapids.
“I was moved to tears that they have seen a God-given dream come true,” Gregory told Baptist Press. “We concluded by saying, ‘We are proud of you; we thank God for you; we celebrate this milestone with you, but we say to God be the glory.”
Gregory said the Sudanese are so appreciative of the chances they’ve been given. Their expression is “by the grace of God we will do this,” and he has seen them accomplish much by the grace of God.
“We’re so thankful for their perseverance,” Gregory said. “They stuck by their faith in their homeland where persecution drove them out. They could have just settled in America and sat on their faith, but they took the initiative to train themselves for ministry.”
For more information about Seminary Extension, visit www.seminaryextension.org or call (800) 229-4612. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: A PICTURE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT.