They are separate, but they are one in faith and humanity.
That is the message the Rev. Jock Tut Paleak shares in Nuer, the language of Sudan, and in English, the language of the majority at Lincoln’s First Presbyterian Church.
Recently, the two cultures united in worship and celebration as Paleak, a Sudanese refugee and ordained minister, officially became “parish associate for Sudanese Ministry” at First Presbyterian Church.
“Pastor Jock,” as he his often called, has transformed a once dwindling Sudanese ministry into a vibrant program reaching far beyond the doors of the church, into the homes and institutions where Lincoln’s Sudanese live, said the Rev. Sue Coller, pastor at First Presbyterian.
Over the past year, Paleak has revitalized a Sudanese ministry that had shrunk from four congregants to more than 70 attending Sudanese services on any given Sunday, Coller said.
“He also has a passion for teaching the Sudanese kids Nuer, so they can communicate with their parents who don't speak English, and he is looking into the high number of Sudanese youth in the criminal justice system,” Coller wrote in an email.
He works tirelessly, leading late-night Bible studies after his 3 to 11:30 p.m. shift as a school custodian. Sometimes, those studies continue until 2 or 3 a.m.
And then he’s back at church by 10 a.m. the next day, calling on Sudanese refugees, offering assistance and discerning what he can do to help so many in the Sudanese refugee community who live in poverty.
Ministry is a calling Paleak, 46, discovered while living in western Ethiopia after fleeing war-torn Sudan in 1987. He was just 17 years old.
“In October 1983, our town (Nasir, South Sudan) was attacked by rebels and our schools were completely ruined,” Paleak said. “I spent three years in liberated areas where there were no schools at all. During that time I learned the Nuer language in the local churches.”
Once in Ethiopia, he began attending school and joined Gambella Bethel Church, a mission of the Presbyterian Church of the United States.
In 1994, Paleak relocated to a Kenyan refugee camp and discovered a passion for ministry.
When he came to the United States in 1996, he began the Sudanese Presbyterian Fellowship at Woodland Presbyterian Church’s Chapel in Nashville, Tennessee.
“There I have developed a passion to share with the Sudanese refugees the good news of God’s love for them and help nurture their spiritual development,” Paleak said.
In 1999, he moved to Gallatin, Tennessee, and started the Sudanese Fellowship with Hendersonville Cumberland Presbyterian Church. During his 12 years at Cumberland Presbyterian he attended Memphis Theological Seminary, as well as Western Kentucky University. He was ordained in 2003.
He moved to Nebraska in 2013 in search of a better-paying job to support his family and cover his wife’s emergency medical expenses following a miscarriage.
He began attending Sudanese services at First Presbyterian.
What he found was a ministry in trouble.
“I found that they are the most devoted Christians but went through a spiritual leadership crisis for years," Paleak said. "I found some of them left to different denominations and some chose to stay home (rather than go to church). But, through the help of the Holy Spirit, I will try to send them the positive message to win them back to their original church.”
Coller said First Presbyterian was struggling to retain its Sudanese congregation in 2015 because of conflicts with the former ministry leader. When the church and Sudanese leader parted ways, the church wasn’t sure how the ministry could continue.
“Then Jock appeared and introduced himself,” Coller recalled.
He asked to purchase prayer books in Nuer. He started Bible studies for men and women and language classes for children and youth.
He visited Lincoln’s Sudanese families in their homes. He talked openly of the ministry’s past leadership struggles and of his own mission to unite the church community and the larger community of Lincoln.
Many Sudanese refugee families live in poverty. Language and education barriers make it difficult to find good-paying jobs. Sudanese children, who know only the American lifestyle, often clash culturally with their parents and elders who still primarily speak Nuer. The younger generation is more comfortable speaking English.
And so, Paleak preaches in Nuer at Sunday services -- sometimes mixed with a little English.
He teaches Nuer to Sudanese youth.
He helps their non-English speaking parents better communicate and understand their own children.
He focuses on the needs of the Sudanese community -- physical and emotional. Then he turns to the Bible, using God’s word as guidance for these families.
“The Holy Spirit speaks to me … The Holy Spirit told me to come to the church,” Paleak said.
“He (Jock) was definitely a God gift," Collersaid. "When we dismissed the previous leadership we had no idea what would come next. … Then we met Jock within a week. He was a healing force. It not just in the Sudanese church but in the Sudanese community which had become a little fractured."
He also is bridging a cultural divide between the refugee community and the First Presbyterian Church community.
“We are the members of the same church -- First Presbyterian Church,” Paleak said. “I believe that our shared Christian values, worship and service will bring us all together.
“God brought me here for a reason.”