Lana Smith sits with her friend, Chol Thbek, at a picnic table at Whittier Park./Photo by Steve Young
Alcohol, the young man tells Lana Smith, is like the pull of the lion.
It’s like when he was a child, he is telling Smith, who is a counselor at Avera Behavioral Health but on many days is just a friend who likes to sit with him at Whittier Park here in Sioux Falls.
He is remembering when he was a boy growing up in South Sudan, when he and his siblings were hiding in the bush, when they were watching their parents being murdered by the Sudan soldiers from the north, and when they were too afraid to return to their village.
And then the lions came, and now they had another problem. The big cats were grabbing children in their teeth, pulling them screaming away to their deaths.
“Now, that’s what alcohol is like to him,” Smith explains. “He drinks to forget. But the more he drinks, the more alcohol takes over his life. He’s losing his family because of it. He’s losing his job. It’s killing him, giving him death. And so this pull of the lion is still on him, only now it’s alcohol.”
Smith has heard many stories like that at the park, where she has been going since May to spend time with Sioux Falls’ homeless Southern Sudanese population. Many call her “Mom” now because she brings them something to eat, maybe a Bible verse or two to encourage them, and perhaps some assistance in earning their citizenship or securing a job.
Their connection really began at John Morrell & Co., where Avera Behavioral Health was providing an employee assistance program for the meatpacking plant, and where Smith was going once a week to counsel workers.
She gave her card to many of them and encouraged them to contact her if they needed help. She’d see them at a monthly gathering of congregations in community called All Nations City Church. Eventually, one of them did call and ask her for help.
He really needed medical help, he told her. He was sweating and scared and having heart palpitations. So Smith and her husband met him at the park and took him to the emergency room. The hospital had seen him before, Smith said, and had told him the medication he needed, but he never made the connection that there were places he could go to get help securing the meds.
And that’s how Lana Smith the counselor became Lana Smith the friend.
Soon after, she started going back to Whittier Park to check on the man, to bring him food and Bible verses and to make sure he was doing all right. Other homeless Southern Sudanese men saw this, too, and they yearned for her evangelism and her kindness.
“Their common thread is they are all Sudanese men who ended up on the street,” Smith said. “They have alcohol problems, and it’s primarily because they suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and are self-medicating with alcohol.”
Now she routinely goes to the park and sits at the picnic table, connecting with as many as 15 of the men. Many were child-soldiers in the Sudanese civil war. Most still struggle in dealing with the trauma they experienced.
In Smith, they finally found someone who would listen to them. Because of that, they have become very protective of her.
“Anybody that seems a little aggressive or rude, those guys would say, ‘Get out of here. This is our spiritual mom. Leave her alone,’ ” Smith said.
Chol Thbek, one of the 15, does call her “Mom.” She is looking at ways to help him earn his citizenship so he can fly back to East Africa to see his family and know that he can then return to Sioux Falls
“For 16 years, I have not seen my mom or dad,” Thbek said. “When I lost my job at John Morrell, she never turned her back on me. She helps me all the time. So you see, when somebody takes care of your life like she does, they become your family. She is part of my family.”
Smith said she’s just trying to build relationships, trying to establish trust so that in working with others across the community who are in a position to help, perhaps they all can make an impact on these lives.
Maybe they can end the pull of the lion.
“I just feel like God put it in my heart to help these guys, and I can’t seem to let go of it,” she said. “They ask me, ‘Why are you helping us? Why are you coming here?’ My answer is, ‘God sent me to help you, and I don’t know why and I don’t know what to do. But I’m here to try.’ ”