Never Without Hope: Alumna Rebecca Deng
In November 2000, Rebecca Deng (M.A. ’11) stepped off a plane in Grand Rapids, Mich. She was a 15-year-old unaccompanied refugee minor from Sudan, and she was entering the cold reality of a Midwest winter. The brown, lifeless landscape was shocking, but when it snowed three days later, she admits she wondered if the world was ending.
Those first few months were hard as she adjusted not only to a new climate, but also to a new culture. She spoke little English and found herself unable to fully communicate what she was feeling or experiencing to anyone.
And while she wasn’t able to name it then, Deng eventually gave voice to the violence and pain she encountered in her early years. Today, she uses her work as a partnership associate for the Trauma Healing Institute of the American Bible Society to give hope to others working through trauma.
A Lost Girl
Born in 1985, Deng’s family was loving and supportive. “It was just a really beautiful life,” she explained. But as the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005) worsened, her village was attacked. In 1992, her family was forced to flee their home, and her mom died on the run. Deng went to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya with her uncle. Her dad and her grandmother would both pass away shortly after, and she would spend the next eight years living as a Lost Girl of Sudan.
“Life in the refugee camp was really hard,” Deng said. “It was hard physically and also it was hard mentally.” But while she had no formal education and was often without enough food, Deng was never without hope.
“We would go to church and play, and that is where I became a Christian,” she said. The church was also where she began to learn about the universal language of pain as people shared their suffering and collectively cried out to God.
A Different Path
In the fall of 1999, a man approached her uncle about marrying Deng. Because she was still young and the man had no means for a dowry, they decided to wait a year. But the following November, Deng was on her way to the United States.
At first, she didn’t tell her uncle she had applied to the program that would eventually connect her with Bethany Christian Services and arrange a foster home for her in Holland, Mich. She thought he might try to stop her from leaving the camp and her potential marriage. But when he found out, her uncle gave his blessing. He understood Deng’s heart and saw her potential, so she boarded a plane and said goodbye to her family, her community and her home.
Deng says she remembers the one prayer that resonated with her that day as the plane departed. She asked God again and again that the people waiting for her on the other side—people she had never met—would know and love Jesus.
“And He did answer that prayer. My [foster] family were believers,” Deng said. With their patient support she eventually started to thrive.
After high school, Deng earned a bachelor’s degree in international development. She furthered her education at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, earning a Master of Arts in Ministry Leadership.
Deng knew she wanted to spend her life serving others, and, she added, “My degrees really helped me to start to make sense of my life and my past.” As she studied the issues faced by developing countries, she became more and more convinced that Jesus is the ultimate answer people need and we are called to participate in His redemptive work.
That truth was solidified throughout her time at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. She started to put her knowledge to use in the real world through internships and overseas work. “I really liked the challenges my professors gave me about being intentional and figuring out what I wanted to actually do with what I was learning.”
Her education continues to be a big deal to Deng, whose cousin used to tease her. “He would say, ‘If you get lucky you will only go to maybe the sixth grade,'” Deng said, “So having a master’s degree is an incredible dream. I know God helped me get here.”
A Universal Language
After completing her master’s degree, Deng married her husband, Jordan, and the couple moved to Washington, D.C. for a while. Deng was working in her field, and she accomplished a lot, including developing a working document for USAID’s outreach to the diaspora of Sudan and South Sudan. “But I struggled a little bit there,” she said. “I knew something was missing.”
Living within that tension, Deng eventually heard about the American Bible Society—a nonprofit that strives to get God’s Word into the hands of people around the world. She started consulting for their Trauma Healing Institute—an organization that combines the best practices from mental health with truth from Scripture. The Trauma Healing Institute trains and equips churches and other organizations that help people engage with and heal from the wounds of trauma from war, domestic violence, natural disasters or other events—a needed reality for so many and something with which Deng readily connected with.
“The program just really captured my heart,” she said, and it wasn’t long before she joined them full time.
On some level, everyone understands pain. And Deng believes helping victims of trauma name their suffering is important as they learn to talk about and mourn their hurt and their loss. As people’s questions and experiences are validated, they are able to more fully see who they were created to be in Christ. “We strive to point the world to Christ through the work we do in trauma healing and be a witness to what God is ultimately doing,” she said.
In the process, Deng feels victims are being called back to their true selves. “You are part of God’s creation,” she said, “and you can contribute back. You have a gift that I do not have. So I see that as a justice calling: to call people back to their truest selves.” Deng wants trauma victims to know their work and their stories matter.
In a lot of ways, Deng’s work has moved her toward her own healing. She was an orphaned refugee. She was a Lost Girl of Sudan. Today she is a wife and a mother. She is a compelling storyteller, a college graduate and a partnership associate with the Trauma Healing Institute at the American Bible Society.
But of all the names and labels she holds, the one that matters most to Deng is that she is loved.
“I want people to know that, in spite of the things that have happened in my life, my God loves me so much,” she said.
It remains her passion to make sure others know they are loved like that, too.
Find More Alumni Stories
For more stories of how Cornerstone University and Grand Rapids Theological Seminary alumni are excelling as influencers in our world for Christ, read the latest issue of the Alumni Journal.