19 May 2024

Aged 11, and alone, Bishop Jacob found Christ in a refugee camp

Bishop Jacob hopes to use what he has learnt in Melbourne to reach out to the world. Picture: supplied 

By Emily McAuliffe 

3 March 2022

Deng Garang Akech Kuch – later baptised as Jacob – started believing in God because he could see no other way of surviving. Now a bishop, he can’t believe how far his faith has taken him. 

Growing up, Deng was surrounded by a metaphorical darkness every day: one of illness, disease, violence, loneliness, fear.  

Born in what is now South Sudan in 1977, Deng was taken from his family aged nine to live in the Dimma Refugee Camp in Western Ethiopia. He had been recruited to the Red Army during the Second Sudanese Civil War and became one of thousands of unaccompanied minors forced to build a life in the camp. 

Deng was moved to the refugee camp with his sister to pursue an education in line with government orders at the time. Life, he says, was difficult. He was so young and so far from home. Without his parents around, he needed someone to look out for him.  

This turned out to be Jesus. 

“I had a call from God when life was very hard,” Bishop Jacob said.  

“When you are in trouble, when life is very hard, people always seek the face of God.” 

Understanding that God could be a protector and guide, Deng decided to give his life to God. He was baptised Jacob Deng Garang Akech at age 11. 

Read more: Call for government to fulfil moral responsibility to refugees

Later, he would convince his non-Christian parents of the power of Jesus Christ and see them baptised too. His father was in his 90s, when Bishop Jacob convinced him baptism would save him from suffering in his next life. He went on to live to 106. 

“I overcame [my challenges] because of Jesus Christ’s power. Jesus was on my side, and this empowered me to follow him and to make him known to other people from different nationalities all over the world.” 

Jacob went on to join a youth ministry that oversaw the Episcopal Church of Sudan’s songs in the camp, and was then made an evangelist by the then Archbishop of the Anglican Church of South Sudan. 

After escaping to Sudan from Ethiopia when the then-Ethiopian president Mengistu Haile Mariam was overthrown, Jacob then escaped Sudan to avoid ongoing conflict. After fleeing to a refugee camp in Kenya with his family in 1992, Jacob completed primary and high school, but then could not afford to go to university. 

He applied five times to leave Africa, before finally being accepted, and allowed to migrate to Australia in 2006. Here he joined the Anglican Church of Australia, where he began ministering in various parishes under the Diocese of Melbourne.  

He decided to study a Bachelor of Theology at Trinity College Theological School in 2012, graduating in 2016. 

After settling in Melbourne with his family, in 2021 Jacob was called to the ministry of bishop in the Episcopal Church of South Sudan, in the Diocese of Twic East, following the retirement of the first bishop. He was elected and consecrated on 23 May 2021 in Juba and enthroned on 30 May in Panyagoor. 

He credits much of this achievement to his time in Melbourne, saying that he received unwavering support throughout his studies, particularly from Archbishop Philip Freier, and Bishop Kate Prowd, along with the faculty at Trinity College Theological School 

“They have brought me up to the level where I am now,” he said. 

Bishop Jacob said he never planned to be a priest, let alone a bishop. But he knew that this opportunity meant that he could go back and help his people.  

“In a third-world country it’s not very easy, especially in our country. There are a lot of issues … There is suffering, there is violence. … But for the sake of Christ, I chose to go back with that call,” he said. 

“You know what the Bible says? [It says] ‘Seek first the kingdom of God, and the rest shall be given onto you’. There are a lot of challenges [in South Sudan], but by the grace of God, I will manage.  

“By the grace of God, I will get there, and make the word of God fully known … The Anglican Church and the Diocese of Melbourne has moulded me and Trinity College has changed my life. The skills that I’ve built here [in Australia] I will now use to reach out to my people. Not only my people, but I will reach out to the world.” 

Bishop Jacob is firm in both his beliefs and his dedication to serving others as a leader of the church.  

“It is the responsibility of the church to reach out to the poor and sick people. The church should act to tell the truth. It is the responsibility of the church to pursue justice for other people. Through its actions, the church is to welcome the homeless, feed the hungry and care for those in need,” he said. 

“I believe that all people are equal before God, regardless of their race and their background. My theology has been formed from the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. In part it has also been shaped by my life experience as a refugee and an unaccompanied minor in foreign lands, and the suffering experienced in the refugee camps. 

“I did not mind too much in what capacity I would serve God, so long as I am loving him with all that he has done to me, glorifying him as much as possible, being faithful to him. I have a heart to pray for and to serve others.” 

This piece originally appeared on the website of the Trinity College Theological School. 

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