It was unlike any Christmas church service I had ever attended.
It was festive, celebratory and noisy. The music, produced by drums, guitars and other instruments I didn’t normally associate with a church setting, was boisterous, and the clothes — people wearing bursts of red, yellow, purple, and other colors — were loud, and the people were as well.
Dec. 25, 2004, was a cold Saturday morning in Mankato, Minn. I was the regional editor for The Mankato Free Press and, since I was divorced, had no kids or family in town, I was covering the story. Other staff members, with homes warmed by family and friends, had asked for the day off and I didn’t blame them.
I had to write a feature for the next day’s paper and had chosen to attend a Christmas service presided over by my friend Peter Norr. He was the leader of the Sudanese community in Mankato and North Mankato and we had gotten to know each other fairly well in the previous 20 months since I started at the paper.
Peter was from Darfur, a region in southern Sudan. He is tall and lean with three distinct scars on his forehead. It’s a custom in the Dinka tribe. The scarification is done when boys and girls are around 13, and they are taught not to show pain as a white-hot knife carves three grooves on their face.
Despite these indelible marks, Peter’s face always was kind and friendly. He stopped by the newspaper office fairly often, and since I was the new guy there, he was passed along to me by staff members who, despite loudly professing their liberal beliefs on a regular basis, were uncomfortable around Peter.
I found him to be a delight. He had a soft voice and a gentle manner, although he was insistent about the need for coverage for his people. There were dozens of Sudanese refugees in the area, brought to America by Lutheran Social Services to escape the deadly civil war in their country.
Many were single women who worked or attended school while raising their kids. Peter often asked me to write a brief story seeking a vehicle donation to help someone who was trying to move ahead in life and adjust to America without dependable transportation. It only took a few minutes to write and it may have helped someone a lot, so I was happy to comply, and to ensure it made the paper, too.
I did other feature stories on the Sudanese as well. I recall talking with some adults once on a bright summer afternoon while their kids ran, jumped and played in a park. The parents spoke clear English with a distinct, and I thought charming, accent. Their children, however, sounded just like other kids in the park, as they raced about, laughing and asking a flood of questions.
None bore the facial markings. Their parents said these were American kids, and would live under the culture of this land, although they still wanted them to celebrate Christmas in their own fashion.
Covering their service was a bright spot for me on an otherwise gray holiday. It provided with a story I needed for Page 1 and a reminder of what the Christmas spirit was all about.
Peter is still working for his people in Mankato. I was unable to reach him for this column, but thinking of him, and remembering the warmth so evident that cold Minnesota morning has brought memories of him and that day surging back to me.
That’s a welcome gift this holiday season.
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