By Andrew Humphries
Filipino writer and polymath Jose Rizal described youth as “the hope of our future”, Greek philosopher Diogenes suggested the education of youth was “the foundation of every state”, and Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi said “the power of youth is the common wealth for the entire world”.
As denominations everywhere grapple with a decline in numbers, it’s today’s youth that many church leaders are looking at to drive a resurgence in faith.
In Melbourne’s outer west, Melton Uniting Church is one congregation tapping in to the many benefits a vibrant and engaged youth community can bring to faith organisations.
One young person doing great work there is South Sudanese student Sobur Dhieu, an important member of both the Melton congregation and grassroots community organisation African Youth Initiative.
As one of her former school teachers, Melton Church Council chairman Ian Veal knows first-hand the special qualities 22-year-old Melbourne University legal student Sobur brings to her church and community work.
Like many South Sudanese people who come to Australia, Sobur has had to deal with many challenges.
Born in a refugee camp in Kenya, she was just three when she made the journey with her family to Australia in 2004 to start a new life.
Sobur’s family settled first in Lismore in New South Wales before making the move to Melbourne in 2011, when they became involved with the Melton congregation.
Since then, Melton UC and the many gifts it brings have been a huge part of Sobur’s life.
“Melton was the congregation that my parents came to when we moved to Melbourne in 2011, although at that stage I was a little too young to be heavily involved in much at that time,” she says.
“Then in 2018, the church started a youth group and that really encouraged a lot of us to return to it.
“It was a small group initially, maybe six or seven people, but more and more people started coming and we grew really strong and have started to become a lot more multicultural.”
As the youth group has grown, so has Sobur’s role and she now proudly fills a leadership role within it.
Like Sobur, the Melton church community has also known challenging times.
The congregation currently numbers about 130 people and is growing all the time, says Ian, the result of a great deal of hard work and a vision that began about five years ago.
“That vision was based around a rebuild,” he says.
“It had remained a generally strong church community over the years, but our numbers had begun to dip and, about five years ago, we had to consider an important question.
“We hadn’t reached a stage that might have meant closing, but the question we asked of ourselves was: if we shut the doors tomorrow, who would notice?
“We certainly didn’t want to do that, so the next question was about how do we increase our presence in the area?
“To do that we put on a families and youth catalyst worker and also made the decision to pay our worship leader to also grow that side of the ministry.
“As well as that, we changed our business model to one in which we moved towards finding our own income.”
As part of the changes, a decision was made in 2021 to form Grace Community, an outreach of Melton Uniting Church, and a name, says Ian, which continues to gain traction.
“It was a decision based around shifting away from the norm, so yes, we still uphold the norms of the Uniting Church, but this is something different we wanted to head towards,” he says.
“It’s a name that resonates with the local community and people seem to really enjoy the mix we are offering.”
Among that mix is Grace Community’s South Sudanese members, who have been an important and vibrant presence since its inception.
Within that is a strong youth group which continues to grow under leaders like Sobur, who brings that same drive and determination to African Youth Initiative, a not-for-profit organisation in the western suburbs which aims to reconnect African youth to their communities and empower them to be positive contributors to society.
The work being done by AYI was recognised in September when it received $150,000 in State Government funding to continue its vital community engagement.
For Sobur, that work and what AYI hopes to achieve aligns nicely with Grace Community’s own values.
“Melton Uniting Church has had a long history of embracing people of South Sudanese background in their congregations, so it all fits in nicely together,” she says.
Sobur admits that many South Sudanese people can struggle to assimilate when they arrive in Australia, as they bring with them the emotional and mental baggage of what they and generations of their family have experienced in their home country.
“One of the greatest challenges is trying to navigate the different expectations of South Sudanese culture and Western culture,” she says.
“Part of that is the language barrier many South Sudanese parents face when they try to assist their children in Australia, meaning that sometimes children can fall through the cracks.
“A lot of the parents carry deep emotional trauma from the civil war in South Sudan and, while it’s not always explicit, it means that the relationship between parent and child can be quite fragile.”
Coupled with these issues is a sometimes obvious racism that members of Melbourne’s South Sudanese community face on a regular basis.
On occasion, says Sobur, it’s more subtle than overt racism, but the reality is that South Sudanese people are singled out on a daily basis.
That happens, she says, as assumptions are made about them based simply on their appearance, a fact she knows only too well.
“I can remember going to the local supermarket on one occasion with my brother and cousin,” Sobur recalls.
“We were walking along the lolly section and, as I asked them what they wanted, a lady came up to us and said, ‘you know they have security cameras here if you’re planning on stealing something’.
“Situations like that are so difficult to deal with because you have people making blanket assumptions about you and not wanting to take the time to understand you.
“Then when we read in the media about increased levels of crime, an issue that requires serious discussion, that conversation can’t take place because of those assumptions.”
Sobur is determined to bring the benefits of her legal training to the strong but sometimes misunderstood South Sudanese community.
“While I haven’t decided what my focus will be in terms of practising law, a law degree is going to provide me with so much valuable knowledge and skills to give back to the community,” she says.
“Being first-generation migrants we find that some parents don’t have the strongest literacy skills and so can’t always help their children navigate the system, so a law degree is going to be a very powerful tool in helping people understand the system.
“I have always wanted to make a difference because I want there to be long-term change and that can come through diverse voices.”
Ian says Grace Community has an important role to play as an outlet for so many youths who want to make a positive contribution to their community.
“It’s about learning acceptance of each other,” he says.
“You often hear on the news that youths in some of our south-eastern and western suburbs are constantly in trouble, and that is one of the things we have tried to stop with what we are doing here.
“We find so many of the young people who come to Grace Community are very learned and have a real drive to bring something better to their community, and that is something we are really driving as well.”
As AYI secretary, Sobur is heavily involved in a host of programs aimed at helping young members of the African community, in conjunction with Grace Community.
“We have designed a lot of programs for children, young people and women,” she says.
“We have a kids’ fitness program which runs twice a year for six weeks each time, with a fitness and workshop component around setting goals, being collaborative and working together as a team.
“It’s a program combining physical aspects with how we work together to be stronger as a team.”
A women’s fitness program also runs twice a year and, in the process, is helping to break down some difficult stereotypes faced by women of South Sudanese background.
“As part of this program the women are given free gym membership and access to a personal trainer, as well as a debriefing period and the opportunity to ask questions,” Sobur says.
“This is really important because it’s helping to overcome the stigma from a cultural background around young African women going to the gym.
“From a cultural perspective it’s boys who are really encouraged to play sport but traditional views on femininity and gender roles tend to restrict what women can do.
“Without a program like this African women wouldn’t be able to look after their own health and wellbeing.”
Another project is a community program which started last year, giving members the chance to connect over art.
“Art has really positive benefits for mental health and is a calming activity,” Sobur says.
A 10-week program in conjunction with the Western Bulldogs AFL club focusing on culture, community and personal development is also making a real difference, this time for 13-15 year-olds.
“It’s designed on an early-intervention model, so rather than waiting for young people to become disconnected, it gets to them early and teaches them life skills and helps them to realise their potential,” Sobur says.
“Community youth forums are also helping our young people to have a say on what issues they feel are relevant in terms of education, employment, mental health and youth justice.”
As part of their partnership with Melton’s South Sudanese community, Grace Community is supporting initiatives to make a difference in South Sudan itself.
One fundraising project in a region of South Sudan that many members of its Melbourne community are from will mean that residents no longer have to walk for four hours each day to collect water.
As Sobur reflects on her life almost 20 years after leaving Kenya, she is grateful to call Australia home.
She knows, too, that in Grace Community she has found a second home that allows her to fully explore her faith and open her eyes to what is possible.
It’s a gift she never takes for granted.
“It means so much to me because African people like me live in this strange bubble where we feel strongly connected to our culture because of the shared way of living and shared challenges that we face, so we tend to band together a lot,” Sobur says.
“But having a community within Melton Uniting Church that is so welcoming and caring and really tries to understand who we are, and how we can join forces to make our whole community stronger, is so special.
“They see our strength and our potential and it feels really good to be understood, loved and valued.
“There is a great sense of love and support and we will never take that for granted.
“My faith has been strengthened so much because of that support and the wonderful mentorship I have received from so many people.
“We talk often about how we can grow the church, not just in numbers but in the depth of our faith.
“I see a community that in time is better, because of what we have put in place, and has made a real impact on people’s lives.”
Good sports court success
As the Matildas took Australians on a roller coaster ride of emotions during the soccer World Cup in July and August, we were once again shown the power of sport to make a difference in our lives.
For South Sudanese members of Melton Uniting Church’s Grace Community, one sport is also making a huge impact on their lives, but it isn’t soccer.
It’s basketball that has Grace Community members riding a wave of success and feel-good emotion.
Minister Rev Rose Broadstock says Grace Community is a success story in its own right and a great example of the special qualities South Sudanese members bring to their faith and worship.
“As most people would know, South Sudan has experienced a terrible century of war and murder of men, women and children, which continues today,” Rose says.
“However this small community has settled here, and really grown and developed a strong group of young people.
“There are about 30 young people who have a Sunday morning study during church, and a discipleship learning group during the week.”
And it’s the basketball teams, says Rose, that continue to offer so many opportunities to Grace Community’s younger members, many of whom sometimes struggled previously to see a future.
“We have already listened in church to stories from a couple of our young people who have found a place to belong and a faith, and have managed to move away from drugs and alcohol which is rife among these young people who sometimes struggle to feel they have a future,” she says.
For Ian Veal, basketball has provided a wonderful example of what sport can do for the self-esteem of young people when they embrace its many benefits.
Ian attends their matches every week and is blown away by what he sees both on and off the court each time.
“We’ve got two teams involving young people, some of whom come from complicated situations,” Ian says.
“I’m just loving watching them because so many of these people have been on the edge, situations like jail and things like that, but their mates have got them out of that and into team sport.
“These were young people in real danger of falling through the cracks, and these basketball teams are pulling them out of that.
“It gives you a whole new perspective on what can be achieved.”
And it can’t be achieved, says Ian, without acknowledging who makes it all possible.
“Before and after every game we sing ‘Jesus, lover of my soul’,” he says.