Bombs blasted, machine guns bulleted, grass-roofed homes blazed with intentionally set fires, and nine-year-old James Lual Atak ran for his life. The civil war that ravaged Sudan in 1987 separated many children from their families in just this way. The young boys who walked – and survived – unfathomable distances and terrain, and made it to the nearby lands of Ethiopia and Kenya became known as the “Lost Boys”. Left behind by society, they rank among the world’s forgotten orphans of war.
James experienced both sides of war, and then discovered a new way to live. First, he was conscripted as a child soldier, forced to run through the bush carrying his machine gun like a baby, and sent to the frontline as bait to shoot down the enemy, so the older “real soldiers” would live to fight to the end. Unlike many others, a general eventually set him free, and James made the long journey, along with thousands of other Lost Boys, to Kenya.
As one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, James watched other children die, even as he struggled to become one of the survivors.[i] He eventually made his way to Nairobi, Kenya, where a man named George William helped James receive an education and learn about Christianity.[ii] While in Kenya, James and his girlfriend each applied for visas as they dreamed of marrying and relocating together, if one of them was granted the coveted opportunity to escape.[iii] Despite the hope of a new life with his beloved, James felt burdened – so many children were still suffering what he had once endured, and few or none were receiving help.[iv] As James prayed earnestly for guidance, his name appeared on the list for an American Visa, his girlfriend’s on the list for an Australian one. However, instead of accepting his visa and pursuing the life he had planned, James bravely decided to follow the plan God placed in his heart — to return to his country and alleviate the suffering he could.[v] His girlfriend went to Australia, and James returned to Sudan by himself without funds, resources, or a plan for where these would come from. He trusted God’s plan and started to gather orphans and teach them with the one textbook he had in order to make a difference in his country.
A young girl named Kristina had lain across her father’s grave in despair. A few men had helped her bury her father, but did nothing more. “There are simply too many orphans to worry about this one,” she heard them say before leaving her behind. Days passed. Having nowhere to go, Kristina stayed at the gravesite. Hungry. Alone. Then a man walked up. He asked her what her name was, where her parents were: “I told him they were dead and I was alone.” The man offered his name, James Lual Atak, and then said the words that would change her life. “Come follow me. I will take you to New Life Ministry (NLM), and if you will follow the way I teach you, you will grow strong and you will not be alone anymore.”[vi] Kristina would learn, unlike the other men she encountered, James Lual Atak does worry about the orphans.
Kristina was not the first orphan to be rescued by James Lual Atak. When Kimberly Smith Highland, President of Make Way Partners, first met him in 2005, James had 153 orphans under his protection in what was at the time considered the Sudan; he was caring for them as best he could — while teaching them to read and write from one textbook.[vii] Together, James and Kimberly committed to do whatever it took to keep those children safe, and Make Way Partners became James’ and New Life Ministry’s sole funding partner. Thirteen years later, NLM is now home to 750 children, has a ministry for widows and former sex-slaves, and operates the region’s only high school.[viii] James also led Make Way Partners to build two other orphanages, schools, and clinics throughout Sudan and South Sudan, using the same successful model of indigenous leadership.
Today, New Life Ministry (NLM) is home to Darfur Muslim orphans and Southern Sudanese Christian and Animist orphans.[ix] James does not discriminate among those who need his help, and his compassion does not end with children. When they first met, James asked Kimberly if she’d go with him to where he knew Darfuris were hiding from the Janjaweed, and dying in the bush. [x] Fearing his motives, Kimberly asked why.[xi] “Because they’re dying out there, we have to take them some of [our] food and water and medicine.… The only real peace for my people is the love of Jesus. We have to be Jesus to the Darfurees, and take them food and medicine and help.”[xii]
Some would look at the accomplishments of caring for so many children in the face of war and inhumanity and say, ‘good enough.’ Yet, James still works tirelessly to create new ways to help his people. In addition to establishing NLM’s high school, James dreams of founding a training college to launch the next generation of leaders.[xiii]
Because he followed his faith and deep convictions, James was able to provide not just a home and education, but also hope, inspiration, and purpose for a little girl named Kristina — and for many others. And now, she explains, “[My favorite thing about being at NLM is] James Lual Atak, because he is teaching me how I can help more orphans like me.” [xiv]