Deacon John Cinya has been with people experiencing material poverty and material wealth. Yet he has found that what really brings happiness is connected instead to our spiritual needs. It is grasped by individuals, “but also exercised in the community”. No matter what you have, when you know that the community is around you, when you sing and dance together, “you are happy because you share that life.” And this happiness is contagious; it extends to all our neighbours.
For John, this sense of togetherness has been present all his life in the Catholic Church. His father was in the seminary for a time, and brought his family up in the faith. However, John’s childhood was a troubled time in South Sudan. His first years were in a refugee camp and his father fought in the war. Nevertheless, on returning to his country, he found many ways to participate and build hope in community life.
From a young age, John was “very busy” in church ministries such as the choir and altar serving. In high school he added the parish youth group and became secretary of Young Christian Students. At university he joined the St Augustine’s Catholic Association, and was elected president. His faith and leadership capacities were noted and John was nominated to attend World Youth Day in the Philippines in 1995.
Through this time, John completed a Bachelor of Economics and Social Science, but graduation did not bring prosperity or safety. There was little employment for the Christian minority, and fierce fighting raged in the war. John escaped with a friend by walking for two weeks to another refugee camp in Ethiopia. There he took on a voluntary role to set up a school to educate the displaced children.
After four and a half years, the UNHCR enabled John to resettle in Australia, and he was taken to Hobart. He studied at the University of Tasmania and was supported by a priest who was also a refugee case manager. In 1999, John moved to Sydney, where the numbers of Sudanese migrants were increasing. Many were living in vulnerable situations, coming from refugee backgrounds with little or no English language. Although he was employed as an accountant, John soon felt called to respond to the needs among his community.
Alongside others, John started the Sudanese Student Catholic Community, and organised Masses for the Sudanese people in 2002 that are still ongoing. He started working in Catholic schools to settle children and their families. Cardinal George Pell helped John to found the St Bakhita Centre in Flemington, with classes for things such as English, sewing and gaining citizenship.
So John was very actively serving the community, in employed and voluntary ways. But as a leader, he saw that there was even more he could do to respond to people’s spiritual needs. With the help of local priests, he joined the diaconate program in 2013 under Bishop Anthony Fisher. Studying theology enabled John to better understand the role of the deacon, and the liturgy, in which “everyone has to participate”.
John was ordained in 2019 by Bishop Vincent Long and appointed as Chaplain of the Sudanese community. He serves the people’s pastoral, spiritual, cultural and liturgical needs, and also ministers at the Blacktown parish. He performs baptisms and funerals, visits the prison and hospital, while continuing in Catholic Education. It is a joy to see the growth of students through from kindergarten, to primary, secondary, university and then in the workplace.
For the Sudanese community, John feels that the Church helps them to transition to Australian life while exercising their rich culture. Liturgies include dancing, processions and loud singing, which makes them very lively. Funeral traditions involve the gathering of the community, so the family does not need to mourn alone. And at weddings there are no invitations; everyone is welcome!
In contrast to our increasingly individualistic world, Deacon John values and nurtures community. His ministry, like that of the early Christian church, is truly inspiring to us all.