St. Cloud man lends helping hand to Sudanese ministry Harvey Johnson’s telephone used to ring every day, sometimes several times a day, and he often heard requests such as “Can you drive me to the doctor?”, “How can I fix my car?” or “Can you help me fill out some papers?” Johnson, a member of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Cloud, was active in their African ministry for five years and he provided all types of assistance to the members of their Sudanese community. Sudan is the largest country in Africa and is located in the northeast part of the continent, with Egypt as its neighbor to the north. Sudanese immigrants began arriving in Minnesota in the 1990’s. They came as refugees from the civil war in southern Sudan, which resulted in millions of people being displaced from their homes and more that two million deaths. Many of the new immigrants eventually moved to the St. Cloud area with the hope of getting a job in the meat packaging industry. By 2005, several were worshipping at Bethlehem. Today, there are about 75 members. In 2007, Bethlehem hired James Puotyual, a former refugee, to oversee the African ministry and to hold church services in Nuer, one of the languages spoken in southern Sudan.. Sudanese worship services are held at Bethlehem twice a month, and on other Sundays, worshippers can wear headphones and listen while Puotyual translates the English service to Nuer. Johnson, 85, spent his entire career working for Northwestern Bell telephone company. He first became involved in the Sudanese ministry in 2006. He had past experience working with refugees from Guatamala and Hondurus and he has a strong belief that persons new to this country need to have someone to offer a helping hand and to act as an advocate. “They have a tough road. We have no realization of the obstacles they face when they come here,” Johnson said. He believes that if the telephone rings and somebody asks you for help, you had better have a pretty good reason not to help them. “You know, when my grandparents came here from Norway and settled in North Dakota, they had a hard time. They settled in the Yankton area, and they lived in a shelter, more like a cave, until they could build a house. It was hard for my grandparents but somebody helped them,” he explained. Many of the new Sudanese immigrants have limited or no English-speaking skills. Their children go to school and they learn the language there but many of their parents struggle with it. Johnson thinks the children have a hard role, acting as translator for a parent who barely knows the language. “It puts kids in an uncomfortable position, taking the lead and explaining things to the parents.” Johnson and other members of the African Ministry Board helped make arrangements for them to attend adult English as a Second Language (ESL) classes so they could become more fluent in English. Johnson familiarized himself with the Minnesota driver’s license manual and began instructing many individuals so they could get a permit and eventually, a driver’s license. “Getting a driver’s license is essential,” Johnson emphasized. “I worked on that for a long time.” He made posters with large drawings of several city blocks complete with turn lanes and road signs and bicycle traffic and he would ask his student to role-play driving from one destination to another using toy cars. “I used a lot of visuals so we could act it out,” he said. He also worked with students by giving them behind-the-wheel practice using red flags to help them learn to parallel park. Nyachieng Gatbel was a young bride new to the United States when she became one of Johnson’s students. She had limited English skills which made instruction challenging but she was very grateful for his help and dedication. “Harvey is a good teacher,” she said. J Johnson isn’t certain of how many of his students passed the permit test and eventually got their driver’s license. He knows of 10 people who have their license now but there could be a few more. Johnson has taken many people on grocery-shopping trips and he admits that offering his help, but not his opinion, could sometimes be challenging. “I wish I could pick out their food. It bothers me to see them buy so much processed convenience food. It’s full of sodium and not very healthy.” He drove individuals to appointments ranging from doctor visits to job interviews to immigration services in the Twin Cities. He made many trips to the Smile Center in Big Lake where the Sudanese were welcomed as new patients and they could get dental services. Johnson helped the Sudanese complete job application paperwork and he also would bring them to the job interview. Nyandit Rika and Nyadeng Gew got jobs working at the Gold’N Plump plant in Cold Spring. Johnson remembers a time when he would bring people to the Gold’N Plump plant for a job interview. “Now they use Work Connection to do the hiring. If they get hired, they work for Work Connection for a trial period and if successful, they can be hired by Gold’N Plump.” Johnson admits that he may have gotten a bit pushy at times with the staff at Work Connection. “I was just trying to be their advocate and help them get a job but I suppose it’s hard for the staff too. There are a lot of people looking for work,” he said. Johnson typed up a detailed list with the names of all the members of each Sudanese family, complete with addresses and birth dates, if known, and other tidbits of information such as employment status or whether they passed their driver’s test. He carried the folded sheets in his back pocket and referred to it frequently. “My memory is a little short,” he said with a chuckle. He also carried a weekly pocket calendar with him and the days of the week were filled with names and times of appointments. A lot of people who get involved in the Sudanese ministry are amazed at how freely they share their possessions including their home or their car. If someone is new to the community or is temporarily without a home, they will move in with others for as long as it takes for them to get out on their own. “The Sudanese are more community-minded than we are,” Johnson explained. “You think of the huts and the open fire and the cattle nearby and the people gathered together. They help each other and they share what they have. Our culture is so different but we need each other and we can learn from each other.” This spring, Johnson resigned from the African Ministry Board after five years. He has stepped back from the ministry in order to spend more time with his wife, Gladys, and his extended family. He is glad to see others stepping in to fill some of the roles which he had. He is still willing to offer his help if asked but the phone doesn’t ring so often anymore. “It’s good that they are becoming more self-sufficient. There is real progress,” he said. The Sudanese community expressed their gratitude for Johnson’s ministry by honoring him recently with a worship service at Bethlehem. Following the service, the women served a meal with meat and vegetable stews and a spongy, sour flatbread called ingera. On that Sunday, individuals stood up to thank Johnson for his help and friendship. “We need people like Harvey Johnson. He does a lot for African people,” said Lay Minister James Puotyual. Johnson responded simply, “I have enjoyed this work.” After years of service, Johnson may have stepped down from the board and all of its activity, but he still carries with him the pocket calendar and folded sheets of paper with the list of names. It’s hard to break old habits and, after all, you never know when the telephone might ring.
Answering the call