The United States has reasons to be proud after the Beijing Olympics. The 2008 Summer Games treated us to many amazing stories and showcased the finest qualities of our country. In this lesson we will look at one of our Olympic athletes, Lopez Lomong. He and his family have shown that faith and love can triumph over tragedy.
Option of faith
Robert and Barbara Rogers live in Ostico Lake, a town near Syracuse, New York. About fifteen years ago this family began a faith journey that would lead them to touch the heart of the whole world.
A business investment had turned sour. The Rogers were bankrupt. In the midst of this difficult situation the Rogers began to ask themselves how deeply they trusted God. They began to pray more and to act on their faith more boldly.
As part of this faith journey, Robert and his wife Barbara made an option to be more generous with God. They started by being more generous their money, even though they had very little at the time. They began giving 10% of their money to their parish and to charitable causes.
Generosity opens doors
Amazingly, after a year their economic situation began to improve dramatically. They decided to become more generous with their time and their lives. This eventually led them to open their home to others.
In the last eight years the Rogers family has welcomed six teenage refugee boys from Sudan into their home as foster children. They heard about the need of these boys when the “Lost Boys of Sudan” program of Catholic Charities was highlighted at their parish.
Love pays off
Lopez Lomong was the first boy who arrived to their home. This summer he not only qualified for the USA Olympic team this summer, but was chosen by his teammates to carry America’s flag. Let’s look at Lopez’s story.
Lopez comes from southern Sudan, a region of Africa. One day in 1991, when he was only six years old, he was attending Mass with his parents. Suddenly, armed soldiers entered the church. Lopez and all the other children in his church were kidnapped at gunpoint and taken away.
War on southern Sudan
From 1983 to 2005 the government of Sudan (based in the northern city of Khartoum) waged a merciless war on the Christians and animists of southern Sudan where Lopez lived with his parents.
Another motive of the war was economical. Large quantities of oil had been discovered in southern Sudan, and the Sudanese government wanted total control of that oil.
Lopez and his friends were victims of that war.
New war: genocide in Darfur
Later, in 2003, the government of Sudan also turned on the Muslims of Darfur, a western region of Sudan. Many experts believe that once the Khartoum regime completes its genocide in Darfur it will turn again on the Christians and animists of southern Sudan, becoming even crueler.
That day in 1991 Lopez and the other boys in his group were taken in a truck to an unknown place and then thrown into a one-room prison.
Apparently the plan was to kill them slowly. As food they were given sandwiches which were laced with sand. The sand made the food impossible to digest. One by one, the boys started to die.
A few of the older boys from his town figured out what was happening and told Lopez to eat very little of the sandwiches. Then they waited for an opportunity to escape.
After three weeks the boys discovered a hole in the fence. They waited until midnight, then, bringing Lopez with them, they crawled silently towards the hole. Once they made it through the hole, they ran, hardly ever stopping for three days and nights.
Because Lopez was so young, the older boys took turns holding Lopez’s hands as they ran, in order to help him keep up with them.
Somehow, the boys made it out of Sudan. As they entered Kenya, they were detained and questioned. Then they were put in a refugee camp. The camp was run by Catholic Charities.
Life in camp
Lopez lived at the camp from when he was 6 years old until he was 16. The camp was poor, and there was little food: only one small meal a day. But he was alive, and the people who ran the camp were nice to him and the other boys.
Strength in faith
Experts estimate that about 40,000 boys tried to escape the soldiers. Only 20,000 made it out of Sudan alive: some were killed by wild animals, others drowned in rivers, and others were killed by the soldiers. The girls who had been kidnapped also suffered a terrible fate: many were raped and killed or sold as slaves.
In spite of the tragedy, Lopez was convinced that God had a plan for his life. As he said, “That faith was never far away from me. You just have to look high and say thank you for the day… I thought my family was dead, but in the camp I became happy again.”
Discovering a dream
In the relative safety of the camp, Lopez loved to run and play soccer with his friends. One day (when he was 15 years old) he had a rare chance to see television. He saw a race in which American track star Michael Johnson won a gold medal during the 2000 Summer Olympics. Lopez saw Johnson cry on the award platform as the American anthem was played.
Lopez, like any young man, began to dream: “One day I will compete in the Olympics, and I will wear that uniform.”
And like any person of faith, he began to talk to God about his dream.
A year later, Catholic Charities, the organization running the refugee camp, received the OK from the U.S. government to send 3,50“Lost Boys of Sudan” to be placed with foster families in the United States. Lopez was one of the boys chosen.
Surprised by love
When he first arrived to live with the Rogers family, Lopez could not believe it. It was too good to be true. Robert and Barbara were only kind and helpful to him. He couldn’t believe this was going to last. He thought a mistake had been made. He thought he was going to be sent away or be treated as a servant.
Home for the heart
As the permanence of the charity and concern of his new family began to sink in, Lopez cautiously started to think, “Maybe this is a house. Maybe this is home. This is somebody who will take care of me.”
“One night I decided to tell them my story, how I was separated from my family and things like that. That was the day I was able to open my heart and say, ‘These are the people I trust. This is my parents, the people who will take care of me here.’”
Drive to show thankfulness
Lopez was enrolled at the local high school. He immediately loved it there. It seemed as if everyone wanted to help him. He resolved to show his thankfulness for all he was receiving.
Lopez joined the track team at his new high school. He was so dedicated that he was quickly made team captain. During the next three years he led Tully High School to state titles in several individual events and in team competition.
Coach Jim Paccia saw how Lomong’s drive inspired his teammates. “Lopez’s drive was internal. All the other guys on the team realized that and they stepped it up…”
In fact, his high school friends nicknamed him “Booker”, because his intensity reminded them of WWE wrestler Booker T.
On the Olympic chase
In college Lopez continued training hard, impressing his college coach as well. In 2007, Lomong became division I NCAA indoor champion at 3000 meters and the outdoor champion at 1500 meters.
This summer his times improved even more, and he was able to qualify for the Olympics.
He immediately called his foster parents, Robert and Barbara Rogers, to celebrate and to thank them. He especially wanted to thank them for their prayers and their witness of faith. He told them, “When you put God first in your life, anything is possible.”
In the months leading to his qualifying, Lopez had also become a member of Team Darfur, a coalition of athletes who want to raise awareness about the genocide being committed by the government of Sudan.
The U.S athletes had been advised not to make political statements in Bejiing, but a few days before the start of the Olympics they found out that China had revoked the visa of Joey Cheek, the head of Team Darfur. When word got out that Lopez Lomong was interested in carrying the flag, the other athletes voted for him unanimously.
Celebrating faith, family, and freedom
As Lopez’s story became known throughout the world, it became obvious that the U.S. athletes had chosen a true hero. Here was someone who had been deprived of everything, and yet had triumphed through faith, family, and freedom.
Lopez Lomong did not win a medal in the Olympics, but he did symbolize the greatest values of our country and our faith. These are values that can help our world. We have every reason to celebrate them.
“For you are my hope, O Lord; my trust, O God, from my youth.”
“You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.”
“Hide me in the shadow of your wings”
“The source of Christian joy is the certainty of being loved by God, loved personally by our Creator.”
(June 5, 2006)
“Christian faith deserves the historical merit of having inspired in men and women, in a new way and with new depth, the capacity for sharing also inwardly the suffering of others.”
(June 9, 2008)
“The prayerful person is never totally alone for God is the One who in every situation and in any trial is always able to listen to and help him or her.”
(June 9, 2008)
309: There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil.
312: In time we can discover that God in his almighty providence can bring a good from the consequences of an evil, even a moral evil, caused by his creatures.
2204: The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of communion, and for this reason it can and should be called a domestic church. It is a community of faith, hope, and charity.
1818: The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; …it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment.
Saints and Heroes
St. Josephine Bakhita
(Entered heaven in 1947)
Josephine Bakhita was born in Darfur, Sudan in 1867, during another time of strife and violence. When she was only nine years old, she was kidnapped and sold into slavery. She was beaten and whipped many times during those years. Then an Italian businessman took her in, intending to free her eventually. He was a good man, and she began to experience a peaceful life working for the family. When they returned to Italy, they took her with them. During a time when the family was out of Italy, Bakhita and the man’s young daughter went to live as boarders at the Canossian Sister’s Institute in Venice.
There they were taught the Catechism, and Bakhita learned it well. She was amazed to have finally met the God she had long believed in, the one she “had experienced in my heart without knowing who He was” ever since she was a child. “Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself: Who could be the Master of these beautiful things? And I felt a great desire to see Him, to know Him and to pay Him homage…” She was received for baptism, the happiest day of her life. Afterwards she could often be seen kissing the baptismal fount and saying, “Here I became a daughter of God.” Her love grew so much that she decided to stay with the Canossian Sisters and dedicate her life to serving the God whom she had come to love.
She spent the remaining fifty years of her life as a religious sister. There she edified and encouraged everyone by her inextinguishable joy and her eagerness to serve always and everywhere. She also loved to promote the missions to Africa, desiring that many of her countrymen come to know the goodness of God’s love. (Source: CollegeCompass.org)
St Charles Lwanga and Companions, The Martyrs of Uganda
(Entered heaven in 1886)
Charles and his friends died for their fidelity to Christ. Most of them were members of King Mwanga’s royal court in what is now part of Uganda, in East-Cantral Africa. Charles and his friends had become Christians under the influence of missionaries to sub-Saharan Africa. Even when the missionaries had to leave the area, the Christians continued living and spreading their faith. But King Mwanga noticed that, although the Christians were faithful subjects and servants, they didn’t fear him as much as the non-Christians did, and they refused to be victims of his lewd parties. He and his henchmen tried to entice some of the Christians to abandon their faith, but they wouldn’t. That’s when the executions started. And they snowballed until twenty-two of them were arrested, tortured, and hideously executed.
These Ugandan martyrs were so dedicated to prayer that they were known not as “Christians” but as “Those-who-pray.” And such was the title by which King Mwanga condemned them. Today the Catholic faith is flourishing in Uganda and many other parts of Africa, thanks in part to the power of these martyrs. (Source: CollegeCompass.org)
Animism – A non-Christian belief system that attributes souls or spirits not only to human beings but also to animals, plants and other things (from the Latin word “anima” which means soul or life).
Charity – 1) A profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person; kindness, respect, and generosity towards others. 2) God’s tender regard and concern for all human beings. 3) Devotion to and desire for God as our supreme good.
Foster child – Child having the standing of a specified member of the family, though not by birth or adoption, and receiving the care appropriate to that standing.
Freedom – 1) Being able to act, move, use, etc. without hindrance or restraint, confinement, or repression. 2) Spiritual capacity to choose the most noble option.
Generosity – 1) Willingness to give or share; unselfishness. 2) Generosity is also one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. It is sharing God’s goodness with others and responding to God’s love with the gift of self.
Genocide – The systematic killing of, or a program of action intended to destroy, a whole national or ethnic group.
Hope – Trust in God; confidence in God’s goodness; confidence in the future.
Love – 1) Kindness, respect, and generosity towards others. 2) God’s tender regard and concern for all human beings. 3) Devotion to and desire for God as our supreme good.
Trust – 1) Confidence in the goodness of God and in the goodness of his plans for us; faith. 2) Reliance; confident expectation, anticipation, or hope.
- What problem started the Rogers on their faith journey? Can difficulties always lead to a closer relationship with God? What is necessary for a difficulty to lead us to God?
- Is it easy to trust God when there are difficulties and suffering? What do difficulties teach us about our lives?
- Both the Rogers and Lopez Lomong showed trust in God in the midst of suffering. Is trust in God, Christian hope, just a mind game or is it based on something real? What do you think it is based on?
- In what ways does Christian hope help us to deal with suffering? In what ways does Christian charity help us to deal with suffering?
- After his first couple of months in the United States, one of the boys whom the Rogers took into their home was asked what he found the most amazing in the United States (He had already visited Disney World and several important cities). He answered, “Parents.” Do you agree with this statement? Why do you think it might be true? What other things do you think are amazing about our country? Do you think parents get enough credit in our country for the good that they do?
- Can you think of any other examples of the power of family that was highlighted in the Olympics? How can having a strong family help someone be a better athlete and a better person?
- Can you think of any other examples of faith shown by Olympic athletes?
- What do you think of the decision by the U.S. athletes to choose Lopez Lomong as the flag bearer? What virtues does this decision show? Does it highlight some of the Olympic values? Which ones?
- Is there anything you can do to help draw attention to the plight of the people of Darfur and of southern Sudan? What might you like to do?
Debate (Choose a theme.)
- Should teenagers give 10% of their money to Catholic and charitable causes?
- Why does God allow evil in the world, such as the genocide in Darfur?
- Are Christians whimps? Why does Christ ask us to turn the other cheek? Is it right for a Christian to fight a war against evil?
- Investigate about some of the charitable initiatives created by former “Lost Boys of Sudan”. Choose one and hold a fundraiser for that charity.
- Organize a “Fast for Sudan” overnight with your friends (just guys or just girls!). Get sponsors for every hour you will fast. Fast for 24 hours. Have games, competitions, and activities during the fast to make it fun for everyone. Give the money raised to one of the above charities.
- Email or write to your congressional representatives. Encourage them to do all they can to bring pressure on Sudan to stop the genocide in Darfur.
- Find out about the refugee camp that Lopez lived in. See if you can sponsor a child or adult there.
Resources used for this lesson
Lost Boys websites:
- Website of Jok Kuol, former Lost Boy of Sudan.
- Website of John Dau, former Lost Boy.
- Alliance for the Lost Boys.
- Documentary film.
Stories about Lopez Lomong