With help from the Episcopal diocese and a local interfaith agency, a group of South Sudanese refugees has found a home and a welcoming community to grow their small congregation.
On the corner of East Avenue and West Yates Street in East Syracuse, New York, sits Emmanuel Episcopal Church. The quaint building, with its bright white exterior and cherry red doors, is the home to not one, but two distinct congregations. The first, a modest parish of 25 Americans, meets early on Sunday morning, and the other, a group of South Sudanese refugees, in the midafternoon.
Diäŋdït Episcopal Chapel has been worshipping out of Emmanuel Church for three years. The congregation is made up of refugees from South Sudan who pray in their native language, Dinka. Their success has been fostered by the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York and a local interfaith resettlement agency that found them a place to hold services and supported their integration into the community.
Many of the congregants of Diäŋdït Chapel have been in East Syracuse for more than two decades. The first to arrive in the area were part of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of over 20,000 Sudanese and South Sudanese boys who were forced to seek refuge on foot in neighboring countries due to conflict and violence. In 2001, many of these boys were offered resettlement in the United States through a program created by the UNHCR
Shortly after arriving in the United States, the few men who were relocated to the Syracuse area began meeting at University Unites Methodist Church, said Garang Achiek, senior warden of Diäŋdït Chapel. On Sunday afternoons, they would sing worship songs and pray in Dinka after the 10:30 a.m. English service at the church was finished.
“They didn’t have any family here,” said Abiei Gai, Diäŋdït Chapel secretary. “So, they decided to get together and come up with a church.”
There is a large Episcopalian community in South Sudan, said Gai. In 2011, when the country seceded from Sudan, the larger Episcopal Church of Sudan was split in two, creating the Province of the Episcopal of South Sudan and Sudan. According to the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project the Episcopal Church is the second largest in the country, behind the Catholic Church.
After a year, the group moved to St Paul’s an Episcopal church in downtown Syracuse, where group members could worship in a church of their own denomination, said Achiek. While they were at St. Paul’s, American pastors joined them on Sundays to preach and lead services, said Gai. But in 2014, one of their lay readers, the Rev. Mother Amuor Garang, traveled home to be ordained in the Episcopal Church of South Sudan. When she arrived back in the United States, she began leading services in Dinka.
The refugee congregation, which at the time was known as Malek Chapel, spent more than a decade at St. Paul’s. Many of the first men to arrive in the United States got married and started families there, said Gai. The congregation grew to more than 50 members and they began a Sunday school for the children and a Dinka school, to teach new generations their native language.
The Rev. Mother Amuor Garang, left, of Diäŋdït Episcopal Chapel, and Central New York Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe. Photo provided by Garang Achiek
In 2018, a conflict arose between the two parishes surrounding the use of space, which left the congregation looking for a new home. Members contacted the Episcopal Dioceses of Central New York, which began the process of finding them a new space as well as setting up a program for their integration with a new parish in the area.
When finding a new home for this congregation, Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe was intentional about finding a church that would understand the mutual agreement over the use of space, which led her to Emmanuel Episcopal Church in the fall of 2018.
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