The triumph of Lopez Lomong

main24The media run so many of those tear-jerking profiles of hardships Olympic athletes overcome that they lose their effect after a few days. But there's at least one story that resonates deeply. Lopez Lomong, a Sudanese "Lost Boy" and a member of the anti-genocide group Team Darfur, certainly suffered more than most in his 23 years. The entire story of the Lost Boys is filled with religious ghosts. Considered the most badly traumatized children of war ever examined, the 27,000 boys were displaced or orphaned during a civil war that killed millions of people. Most of the boys came from the Christian region of Sudan and were persecuted by those in the largely Muslim northern Sudan.

Lomong's story in particular is an amazing triumph and also full of religious angles. He was kidnapped while attending Mass and frequently talks about his faith and God's plan for his life. It was somewhat surprising to see how many stories completely neglected any discussion of Lomong's religious background. This beautiful story by Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, using the hook of Lomong's selection by teammates to carry the United States flag in the opening ceremony, ever-so-slightly references it:

During a Sunday morning Mass 17 years ago, the 6-year-old Lomong, along with about 100 other children, was taken at gunpoint from his parents, driven away blindfolded in a truck and dumped in a cramped, windowless, one-room prison full of boys. There, they were fed millet full of barely visible sand, which prevented proper digestion, and, within days, gradually led to the death of boy after boy.

"They would go to sleep and never stand up again. 'Tomorrow will be my day,' " Lomong said. "But I had three angels." They were slightly older boys who told him to eat just enough of the death gruel to stay alive, but not enough to kill himself. After three weeks, the older trio discovered a hole in a fence. At midnight, crawling while guards talked, stopping when they fell silent, then crawling until they were outside the compound, the four boys began to run. "That is where my race started," Lomong said.

Despite one boy holding each of his hands as they fled, Lomong nonetheless battered his legs on so many trees and thorns "that's why they still look like such a mess . . . We ran for three days and nights. They would hide me in a cave while two of them went to get water. They would fetch some back for me in a big leaf."

When the four boys fell asleep at night, they made sure to keep their bodies pointed in the same direction that they had been running "so that we did not run back in the wrong direction toward the guards or run in circles," Lomong said. Finally, they were arrested at the Kenyan border -- penniless, unable to speak the local Swahili -- and taken to a refugee camp.

For the next 10 years.

At the refugee camp, they only ate meat twice a year, on Christmas and Easter. In 2001, a couple in the United States became his foster parents. You can almost sense some more ghosts. And indeed there are. The refugee camp was run by Catholic nuns and the foster parents were motivated to adopt because of their faith in Christ. Despite the light touch from most in the media on the religious angles, there are some accounts out there that explore how much Catholic charity was involved in helping Lomong. This USA TODAY story from 2007 details some of that.

Leave it to the Religion News Service to publish a really interesting and in-depth profile of Lomong's Catholic foster parents Robert and Barbara Rogers. Here's how it begins:

Robert Rogers was intrigued seven years ago by the advertisement in a church bulletin seeking foster parents for "Lost Boys" from Sudan.

"This looks interesting," he told his wife, Barbara, at the end of Mass at St. Leo Church.

He still remembers her reaction: "You're out of your mind."

They ended up opening their home and lives to six Lost Boys. It's a very touching tale and reporter Maureen Sieh does a great job of packing the story with details about the Rogers' religious motivation:

Barbara said her faith grew stronger during the difficult financial challenges and in the last seven years when she and her husband opened their home to the boys.

"When he was going through all those financial troubles, I kept asking him what's his plan, and he said, `I don't have a plan. I'm trusting God.' I said, `That's not good enough.' That was pretty testing. I know my faith has grown stronger since and with these boys, I know God is certainly watching out for them."

Just a great story and a good example of how religious motivation determines so much in life. I wish more reporters could discuss these religious issues as well as the RNS team does.

Photo via Lopez Lomong's Web site.

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