By the grace of God, the Lord is still using me to proclaim his praise at the age of 75 years. Like the apostle Paul, who said, “what I received, I passed on,” I have been given so much to pass on. Now the Lord has brought a Sudanese man, Khan Turuok, into my life. His desire to serve the Sudanese community both in America and in Africa has led him into the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) program.
Let me take you back 51 years to when I was assigned as a vicar to San Jose, California. I arrived late in August to begin my work at Apostles Lutheran Church. One specific area I was given to focus on was the outreach ministry of the mission congregation, guided by my supervising pastor, David Valleskey. He had a stack of 3×5-inch note cards that seemed over a foot high of names and addresses from a canvass held before I arrived. Following up on all those names would be my task that year. However, before I would make my first call, Pastor Valleskey took me along on an evangelism call. There we visited a couple who had some contact with the congregation. During that visit, pastor turned the conversation to their spiritual life and God’s expectations of them. As he presented the law of God with its full impact, tears ran down their cheeks. What followed was the most beautiful presentation of the gospel, which dried their tears and brought relief to their hearts. I left that house with a personal reflection of how blessed I had been knowing the gospel all my life. I had something I had to share. My time with Pastor Valleskey helped form my faith and ministry.
Some 50 years later, my life and Khan’s life intersected. I visited my home congregation of St. Mark in Mankato, Minnesota, which my father had started. Their pastor, Keith Siverly, had built bridges with the Sudanese community. I wondered if the Sudanese members there had family ties in Rochester, Minnesota, where I am retired. Would it be possible to expand the outreach into Rochester? At a meeting in the church office, Pastor Siverly introduced me to Khan, who had just started his PSI instruction. In the days that followed, Pastor Siverly took a call to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the PSI team asked me to serve as Khan’s instructor.
A special blessing of being a PSI instructor is gaining an appreciation for what the students have gone through to get to the United States. Khan was no exception. War-torn South Sudan was not a safe place for him as a young man. Walking barefoot by night for fourteen days while hiding during the day, he was finally able to get out of Sudan to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. It was the beginning of his journey to America. His wife, Martha, had a more tragic situation. Her family was also living in South Sudan. Her father was a Christian pastor. One day, a warring group came to their village. Her father pleaded to spare his family but take him. She was five years old when she last saw her father. Finally, she got to America, too. Together, Martha and Khan bring a deep appreciation for God’s working in their lives and a desire to share the gospel.
Another special part of ministry is when pastors and wives gather together to share time and stories. This is also a time when we can encourage one another to keep going. Whether over dinner at a restaurant or around a dining room table, my pastor, Stephen Meyer, who is the new chairman of the Global South Sudanese Committee, his wife, my wife, and I have had time with Khan and Martha. Along with instruction, listening, learning, sharing, and encouraging are all part of the PSI program. It’s a long journey. What a blessing it is when Christians can encourage one another!
As there are many facets of the Christian ministry, so our seminary has established a PSI program with a balanced approach. Starting with the first year, training to be an evangelist includes courses on the Confessions, Old and New Testament Bible history, and preparation to present a devotion with law and gospel. Khan and I have also worked on the practical side together. With his ties to the Sudanese community, we have made evangelism calls together in Rochester. In some cases, he has had to do all the translating. Before we enter the house, we ask for God’s blessing, and when we are back at the car, we give thanks for the visit. Since I live in Rochester, home to a leading medical center, we have also had opportunities to make hospital calls together. While on calls, Khan is able to build bridges both to the patients and to ones visiting the patients. He makes sure to get their names and phone numbers to follow up with them. Because of his ability to reach into the community, we are planning a couple of children’s baptisms.
Our congregation has a Good Samaritan Committee to help care for the physical needs of individuals. Khan was able to gather the names of children from four families and get their sizes for clothing and ideas for toys. Christmas gifts were purchased, and Khan then had the privilege of delivering them to these Sudanese families in our community. Khan has expressed great appreciation for how our congregation reaches out and welcomes those from the Sudanese community.
By the grace of God, Khan and I have been able to study God’s Word and share that same grace with others. I pray that God uses our time together to help form his faith and ministry for many years of proclaiming God’s praise!
Marcus Birkholz is a retired pastor who lives in Rochester, Minnesota and currently serves as the supervising pastor for Khan Turuok, a South Sudanese PSI student who lives in Mankato, Minnesota.