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A Kingdom Without Borders

A Kingdom Without Borders

n 2017, SAU announced the implementation of a three-year Strategic Plan. The plan outlined how the university would honor and serve its commitment to students, preparing them to lead lives guided by virtue and wisdom and thereby ensure they embody truth in the multiple aspects of their respective lives. The SAU Concept, first articulated in 1963 when Spring Arbor transitioned from a junior college to one granting four-year degrees, sat as foundation for the plan. Built upon this foundation were the intended roles in which graduates were to serve their communities and the world: Master Learners, Vibrant Christians and Global Participants. All three roles are vital to the mission of SAU. Of the three, the role of Global Participant might be the most far-reaching in its purpose and effect.

The plan defines the role of Global Participant as one built upon the University’s commitment to cross-cultural education, which exposes students to a diversity of cultures and worldviews, in turn granting them confidence in their abilities to pursue their ambitions on new and broader stages. These Cross Cultural Studies (CCS) experiences help lead students to a greater understanding of the Christian faith and its influence over all aspects of life, and they are guided by the Concept’s tenet of critical participation in the contemporary world. Students have their understanding of God’s creation broadened and are emboldened to represent and serve God in multiple cultural contexts.

 For Emilia Martinez ’15, her SAU and CCS experiences were a spring board for understanding and living with people from other nations, specifically Uganda. “Maybe I was so interested in international development work because God put the desire into my heart,” she says. During her undergraduate studies, Martinez (a social work major) took courses that focused on cultural analysis and international human rights — studies, she admits, that were borne out of both her own personal interest and God’s desires for her heart. Martinez’s CCS experience in India further solidified her resolve to work abroad, and her time working in the CCS office highlighted all the students, people and places that benefited from this exchange. So she decided to take her final semester at SAU to Uganda.

In Uganda, Martinez worked to complete her social work practicum, a semester-long internship where she applied everything she had learned, offering support and aid to the community in which she was living. She also hoped to learn about the nation, its culture and its people. Unfortunately, her semester was cut short due to unforeseen circumstances, and Martinez returned to the States to complete the semester at SAU in time for graduation. “I was so disappointed that I didn’t have more time in Uganda to really dig into the concepts I learned while a student. So I began looking into other options as a way to get back to Uganda, and that’s when I discovered the Peace Corps.” Soon after applying, Martinez was accepted into the Peace Corps as a community health volunteer in Uganda, from June 2016 to July 2018.

“A typical day in Uganda is whatever I want it to look like,” says Martinez, “because all volunteers are given the freedom to organize their service in any way that matches the health project framework.” During her time in Uganda, Martinez found numerous ways to integrate herself into the local community, giving her time, talents and witness. “I could start a girls club at a secondary school to discuss issues related to reproductive health and HIV,” she says, “or I could organize households in the community to build hand-washing stations next to their latrines.” The opportunities for community development are nearly endless, in part because volunteers can begin projects which overlap with other volunteer sectors — as when Martinez started a chicken farm with a community group, an activity that technically fell within the agribusiness sector. In other words, every day brings a new set of challenges, opportunities, risks and rewards.

And in these last two years, Martinez has entered into the ebb and flow of Ugandan urban life, receiving invitations to baptism parties, working on feminine hygiene with young girls, making friends and encountering people just living their day-to-day lives. When interviewed, she had merely a few weeks left in the country before returning to her family in the States for a brief time, then jetting off to Bolivia to work as an au pair for a family of European expats. Looking back on her time in the Peace Corps, Martinez sees her SAU experience as instrumental to her success abroad. “I found myself in classes that began the process of and built the foundation for how I understand the world, myself and my faith. My time at SAU was truly a key piece in the development that lead me to where I am today.” It was an experience that taught her to think about the kind of effect Americans have on local peoples and cultures when traveling abroad. “We have a responsibility,” she says, “to simply be mindful of how our very presence in other places can affect them.” In other words, we need to be ambassadors of Christ.

Being an ambassador for Christ is something Troy Tabor ’13 felt called to do shortly after accepting Christ in eighth grade, in 1982. In answer to that call, both he and his wife, Lisa, have been serving God over the last 25 years through mission work in Cambodia (their two sons, Dmetri and Alex, both currently attend university stateside). But like too many before him, Tabor initially ignored the call. “I pushed back against it for many years and pursued my plans instead,” he says. After high school, Tabor attended Southern Illinois University, studying radio/TV production and cinema production. But he was unhappy there. “During my second year I hit rock bottom and came to a point of crisis,” says Tabor, “finally surrendering to God’s will.” The following semester, he transferred to Trinity Bible College and studied Bible and missions. There, he pursued the growing call to serve in missions. He also met his future wife, and the two became involved in short-term mission work — he went to Hong Kong, China and Thailand, while she went to the Bahamas. In 1990, shortly after graduating, they married.

The Tabors moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where they served as inner-city youth pastors and as teachers at their church’s school for two years. In the summer of 1992, after applying to serve full-time in missions, Troy and Lisa were appointed as Assemblies of God missionaries to Cambodia. In January of 1994, after months of preparation, orientation and reposition of their lives, they arrived in the field — and right into the middle of the Cambodian Civil War being waged by the government and several resistance factions, including the Khmer Rouge. “We came in as humanitarian and aid workers to run an orphanage of about 120 kids. At the same time, we were doing church planting in a small village and starting to do media projects for outreach, and to help train local pastors.” In 1999 the civil war had ended, the Church in Cambodia had gained a great deal of freedom and the Tabors had switched their primary missions responsibility to media ministry.

Today, Troy and Lisa Tabor serve as Media Ministries Directors for the Assemblies of God church presence in Cambodia. In this capacity, Troy balances a number of short-term projects designed to help other missionaries and Cambodian churches in their ministries. From training videos for new pastors to audio recording of Bible stories for the illiterate, and even full-length evangelistic films, the projects Troy is involved with and produces are far-reaching and meet the numerous needs felt by the Cambodian Church and its congregations. However, there are three major projects that the couple currently oversees: the Strengthening Families project, which seeks to alleviate the suffering and broken family dynamics left in the wake of the Cambodian Civil War; the Cambodia Community Bible Institute, which provides training in scripture and Bible knowledge to lay leaders so they might better serve their communities; and the Nara and Grandpa Choy children’s radio program, which provides children with moral and social training through the relationship shared by the fictional boy Nara and his grandpa, the equally fictional Choy. (Visit to learn more.)

Though Tabor credits the outcomes of these projects and missions to God, he recognizes the role his education at SAU has played in executing God’s plan. In 2013, Tabor graduated from SAU with his Master of Arts in Communication, taking classes remotely via the internet. In fact, his master’s program was so flexible that it allowed him to tailor many of his assignments to meet the needs he saw around him every day in Cambodia. “An orientation and communication course I wrote as a class assignment for SAU is still being used to train new missionaries to Cambodia that come from five different sending nations,” he says. As one of the longest-serving missionaries in Cambodia, Tabor admits that he’s in a unique position to both mentor and disciple new missionaries and Cambodian Church leaders alike. “SAU helped to give me the skills I needed to function effectively in those roles,” he says. It’s also opened up new doors for him. Tabor leveraged his experience, expertise and education to help redesign the intercultural communications program at one of the Assemblies of God universities in the states. He’s also completing work for a new course on Buddhism for Global University and will be guest-lecturing on the subject at a Bible school in Romania next year. The opportunities afforded the Tabors and their Cambodian community are testament to the blessings bestowed when we answer God’s call.

While some people may ignore the call for a time before heeding, others may not even be in a position to hear it yet. Jacob Atem ’08 was once one of those people. He arrived in America in 2002 as one of the approximately 3,700 Lost Boys, adolescent refugees fleeing the atrocities committed during the second Sudanese civil war. A foster family in Webberville, Michigan, took in Atem at the age of 16. He quickly learned English and graduated high school two years later.

By his own best guess, Atem was six when his parents were murdered by the Northern Sudanese Arab militia. He was looking after a calf with his cousin when his village was attacked, and the boys fled to the woods where they hid with other escapees for a week before beginning a treacherous months-long walk to neighboring Ethiopia. Along the way, Atem’s group endured bombings, starvation, dehydration and lion attacks. After five months, they made it across the border. There, Atem was baptized as a Christian and changed his name from Thon to Jacob. But he couldn’t stay. One night in 1991, shortly after the Ethiopian government was overthrown, thousands of refugee boys were forced to leave at gunpoint. Over 2,000 boys would lose their lives in what would later be known as the Gilo River Massacre. Atem and his fellow lost boys endured another eight months in the Sudanese bush before finally stumbling upon the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya. Atem lived there for almost a decade before arriving in America and into the care of his foster family.

Atem found himself enrolled as a freshman at SAU in 2004, in part thanks to an alumni effort. The journey of Sudan’s lost boys had made national headlines, and many charities and organizations were eager to help this disparate population of dispossessed youths succeed in their new lives in America. They wanted to give them a chance. Atem was approached by SAU alumni who knew the difference an SAU undergraduate experience could make. He received aid as an international student and chose to major in premed biology. “Spring Arbor gave me a chance,” says Atem, “chance and education, chance to know who I am in Christ. I wouldn’t be here without SAU, and I am grateful. I am grounded in faith and have a true and genuine relationship with Jesus Christ.”

At SAU, Atem experienced the antithesis of his childhood: a welcoming community of faith, full of mentors and friends ready to invest in his life. “They were the best years of my life,” he says. “I tried to soak in Christ, have relationships, build a vision. I had great teachers who poured themselves into my life, who encouraged me to do my best and do it for Christ. I came to truly know who I was.” And with that knowledge came the call. Atem knew he had survived the horrors of the previous decade for a reason: Make sure nobody else has to experience that. Just as people at SAU had paid forward their expertise and good fortune, so would he. Before graduating, Atem began planning what exactly that looked like. He envisioned a health clinic in the region of Sudan he was once forced to flee, bringing health and hope where it was once lost. He wanted to redeem the place that had been his home. With the receipt of a $20 donation to his cause, the seed had been planted.

Soon that seed sprouted and grew when Atem co-founded the South Sudan Healthcare Organization (SSHCO) with Lual Deng, another lost boy he had met. After graduating in 2008, Atem enrolled at Michigan State University and was awarded his Master of Public Health the following year. In 2011, he began working on a doctorate in public health at the University of Florida, driven by his passion to help others. During that time, he married and began a family, conducted research as a graduate student and continued to operate and grow SSHCO as its president.

In 2017, Atem successfully defended his dissertation and was awarded his Doctor of Philosophy. By that time, he had also raised $800,000 toward building a clinic in the village of Maar, his hometown. Over the years, he had stumped at churches, universities and other forums, sharing his story and entreating those in attendance to aid SSHCO in its public health and education endeavors. Since its creation, the clinic has provided unprecedented levels of healthcare to the people of Maar and the surrounding area. Up to 3,000 patients a month are treated, everyone for less than five dollars a person. Moving into the future, Atem hopes SSHCO will provide resources and funding to South Sudanese individuals who wish to pursue careers in the medical field and ensure wider access to healthcare across the country.

“We Christians are to position ourselves into any sort of leadership that will make an impact,” says Atem. “Just saying ‘I am Christian’ is not enough, not enough to get you through the world. Be diligent in your work, be a steward of the earth. Be grateful where you are. I was grateful when I was at SAU, a small Christian school. But my education there mattered. It gave me a foundation that will last forever.” Like Tabor and Martinez, Atem embodies the generosity of spirit Christ modeled when he gave of himself to the poor, the sick, the destitute, the untouchable. In Christ’s teachings, we see a Kingdom without borders. These SAU alumni, like their professors and mentors, are actively working to realize that Kingdom, God’s Kingdom, on earth, as it is in heaven.