Theil T. Theil carries peace about him like he’s wearing an old coat. A sharp mind, love for Christ and organized approach to life round out a man in his early 40s. He is on a mission to deepen his faith and spiritual formation, and prepare his heart to answer God’s calling on his life: to be an advocate for the voiceless in South Sudan.
Born in the northern city of Aweil, in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state, Theil’s story began with life in a Christian home in South Sudan interrupted by displacement and war. His family moved to Al Kalakla in Khartoum, Sudan. Though the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps were far from where he lived, he had relatives who lived in these camps, patches of habitable desert where his people were forced to survive. A front-row seat to witness harsh treatment for his people and the study of Arabic and Islam partially defined his teenage years. Despite what he witnessed, God planted the seed of a budding hope for a better future.
Looking back at those years, there is pain and suffering, but the net result in his life is undying hope, and from it a tested and real faith in what he cannot see. Theil holds on to the strong belief that God is at work in his life and in the life of the men and women who have surrounded him on his path from South Sudan to Khartoum, to a Jihadi training camp, to Syria and on to New Jersey, back to South Sudan, and finally today, living in Annapolis, focused on raising support to begin his residency at Bay Area before returning to his homeland.
As a young man with hopes of furthering his education in Khartoum, Theil faced a tough decision. Young men had to pass through “Public Defense Force” training before they could continue education. In 1995, Theil joined one other South Sudanese in a cohort of 300 to 500 students. He was the only one from a Christian home. For weeks, the young men endured a strict diet of Islamic teaching.
“It was like brainwashing,” Theil said, remembering the long days of studying the Quran. “[They wanted to] change you from your current belief to a radicalization.”
During the last 10 days, they received just enough weapons training to assemble and fire an automatic rifle, but were not well trained to fight. Once he completed the course, he could move on to college, but at any time he could be called up to go to South Sudan and fight.
“This was when I began to think about leaving Sudan,” Theil said, saying simply that he could not return to South Sudan just to destroy his land.
By late 1996, Theil, harboring a hope to leave, had found a role at his local church in Khartoum, called Kalakla Teria Church. He was a youth leader and had found a strong community of believers, an oasis of faith. But the government had other plans. In early 1997, the government bulldozed nine churches in one day, including his.
Pain and sadness at the loss enveloped him. But his faith grew in the crucible. Theil enshrined the experience in a poem he wrote in Arabic, which he later presented publicly to his community as a witness of what had happened, and a testimony of faith.
Theil met with his pastor soon after the church destruction to seek advice. He took another step toward leaving Sudan. He also spoke with his father, who gave him his blessing, saying, “Theil, you know why you are here. You know between right and wrong. Do what is right.”
Once he set his plans in motion, Theil soon found himself in Damascus, Syria, where he spent some time before finally finding a way to the United States. Two charities in New Jersey supported him, connected him with a local family, and settled him into a new chapter in his life.
Theil arrived in the U.S. on September 27, 1998. He did not speak English, but through a translator he caught a sharp lesson. On his second day in the U.S., his host mother drove him to the projects.
“And she says to me: ‘I know this is your second day in America, and everything is just easy. But I want to show you this here. If you don’t have a plan, a goal in America, you may not achieve the dreams you’re thinking about, you may end up in the projects.’ That was eye-opening for me. I never knew that America was like this.
“Then she took us to Rutgers, and said, ‘If you want to achieve your goal in America, education is what you need to realize your dreams and aspirations.’ That was a defining moment in my life, seeing the projects and seeing education.
“I was so thankful for that translator,” he said, before sighing at the weight of the memory.
Soon after that day of deep impression, Theil wrote out a 15-year plan for his life, beginning with an education, which he completed at Rutgers. There were milestones he needed to achieve before 2014. He wanted to learn English, finish college, and find a way to bring his wife Rose, then his mother and his siblings, to the U.S., and finally return to South Sudan.
Along the way, he first encountered Bay Area in 2006, when he met someone who introduced him to a personal relationship with Jesus, beginning with a verse from Joshua 1:8-9: “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (NIV).
He met Jesus and reaffirmed his faith and his life for Christ at that time, memorizing other verses before he decided to be baptized at Bay Area in October 2012.
“That baptism was a defining moment for me,” Theil said while sharing his testimony and path that brought him back from South Sudan, where he lived and worked from 2012 until 2016, to Annapolis, and back to Bay Area where he will begin his residency in February 2018.
Having completed his first 15-year plan, Theil is now in the middle of his next 15-year plan, one that will move him into and through the Bay Area residency, and back to South Sudan, where he will apply everything he has learned since leaving for Khartoum as a young boy. His education, spiritual formation, life and leadership experience, and most importantly his ardent practice of faith will all come together and be used to answer his calling to be an advocate for the voiceless in South Sudan.
His final step before taking that journey back to his homeland is the Bay Area residency, which will begin once he finalizes raising support. Theil is praying for that support. He is also praying for his country, and his people: that every family in South Sudan would have a Bible, and that the country would be led by men and women who fear God, and who meditate on His law day and night.