Thousands of miles from their homeland, a group of about 30 South Sudanese women gathers on Tuesdays in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. Meeting in each other’s homes, they pray for their war-torn country and its people, share about their lives and study the Bible together. Rebecca Riek, who came to Canada from South Sudan 16 years ago, helped start the group in 2007 and continues to lead it.
“In my country we are 64 tribes,” she explained. “The two largest tribes started fighting, and it has affected all the people of South Sudan. They’ve become enemies.”
Riek’s group is intentionally intertribal, bringing together people whose families have experienced years of civil war — both when Sudan was one country (before South Sudan’s independence in 2011) and also since South Sudan’s civil war began in December 2013. About 400 South Sudanese families now live in Kitchener-Waterloo, a culturally diverse community of around 300,000 people, Riek said. Tensions between tribes in South Sudan can carry over into immigrants’ lives in Canada, but Riek’s group works to redefine those relationships.
“We try to just talk about peace, love, unity and Christ,” she said, noting that the group is also interdenominational. “We don’t have to talk about siding with our tribe. It’s working, and it is growing in numbers. It’s not only Bible study; it’s also like a healing program.”
Riek has found support for exploring her call to ministry and leadership through Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s (AMBS) Journey Missional Leadership Development Program, which she joined in the fall of 2017. The two-and-a-half-year distance-friendly certificate program — designed to serve as a starting place for Anabaptist pastoral and theological education for Christian leaders — includes an undergraduate-level online curriculum, biweekly meetings with a mentor, and one or two Weekend Learning Events on or near AMBS’s campus each year.
“The program is opening a new door for my life now,” Riek said, “especially a spiritual part of my life, especially in terms of knowledge about who Mennonites are and where they started, because I was wondering how come I connected with the Mennonite Church.”
“I kept thinking, ‘Yes, God is calling me, but where am I going to start?’” she continued. “But now God is putting it all together. Journey is like a journey with God. It’s not just a name; it’s a real-life story for me.”
Riek learned about Journey in January 2017 while attending an AMBS Pastors Week focused on intercultural congregations. Her friend Rebecca Yoder Neufeld (a 1981 AMBS graduate) had organized a diverse group of people from their church, First Mennonite in Kitchener, to go. After hearing about Journey from Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, AMBS Dean of Lifelong Learning, Riek was immediately interested and talked to Yoder Neufeld about applying.
Riek did wonder how her speaking English as a third language would affect her involvement, while Yoder Neufeld was concerned about the time commitment for Riek, who works full-time as a personal support worker for people with brain injuries and part time at a retirement home, in addition to parenting six children, ministering in her South Sudanese community and volunteering at First Mennonite. Riek said, though, that joining Journey was the right decision.
“I was surrounded by a lot of people and by love,” Riek said. “People pushing behind me, left and right they were telling me, ‘You’ll be alright, Rebecca.’ When you feel somebody supporting you, you are always willing to do it.”
As Riek’s Journey mentor, Yoder Neufeld said she has been inspired by getting to know her at a deeper level.
“We already had a friendship, but doing this together and driving seven hours to Indiana and back together has given me a wonderful opportunity to deepen that relationship and to be inspired both by Rebecca and by the whole Journey group when we go to the Weekend Learning Events,” she said.
Yoder Neufeld has been active for many years in bridge-building roles, serving as a pastor of Hispanic ministry at First Mennonite in Kitchener, working with refugees, doing immigration advocacy, and serving as interpretation coordinator for Mennonite World Conference. She’s currently retired and enjoys tending to intercultural relationships at First Mennonite. Even though the Journey course material isn’t new to her, for the most part, Yoder Neufeld said it has been good to review. She and Riek also both appreciate the diversity of cultures, professions and backgrounds represented by the Journey participants.
Because of Yoder Neufeld and Riek’s close spiritual work together, the pair asked to preach together at First Mennonite. The process of preparing a joint sermon that respected each of their preaching styles was a rich experience, Yoder Neufeld said. Riek’s seven-year-old son, Isaiah, had also asked if he could lead a prayer with the children, which he did wonderfully, she added, and a feedback group the two had organized was very positive about Riek’s leadership that Sunday.
Yoder Neufeld said, “When Rebecca and I debriefed that later, she said, ‘You know, what matters is not the compliments; what matters is whether people actually heard the message about prayer and whether it made a difference in their lives.’ That to me was also a strong signal that she was clear that this was not about her, but about the message that God wanted to give the congregation. To me that was one of the rich fruits of all of this.”
Yoder Neufeld also added that being able to talk freely about cultural differences with Riek has contributed to her intercultural ministry at First Mennonite: “Learning from Rebecca about appropriate and inappropriate ways to relate to African culture — not that all African cultures are the same — and hearing more about her own life have helped me to be more equipped to come alongside other African women in our congregation.”
Riek recommended anyone feeling a call to ministry or church leadership to find out more about Journey, complimenting Yoder Neufeld as her mentor, the course instructors and the AMBS staff she has interacted with at the Weekend Learning Events.
“When I come back here,” Riek said, “I feel I went for vacation, talked with God and came back full of the Holy Spirit, refreshed to start all over again. It’s a beautiful program.”