In a church parking lot in this Washington, D.C. suburb on a clear spring day, rescued circus animals, including lions, tigers, camels, even a kangaroo, lounge in cages and pens as parents bring their children to listen to a Bible lesson from Jim Lavender Jr.
Lavender is a former circus ringmaster who became a pastor 35 years ago, and the menagerie is part of his “Thank God for Kids” ministry, which uses animals to bring a Christian message to children.
The proceeds from this particular unique fundraiser support Abukloi, an organization co-founded by 32-year-old South Sudanese expatriate Angelo Mangar Maker, who came to the United States in 2001 after fleeing Sudan’s civil war and spending years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya.
“It was very, very difficult when I watched my mother and two brothers being executed before me. It was difficult and the long distance from South Sudan to Ethiopia wasn’t easy too... Being a refugee was not something that anybody wanted to be," he said.
Lavender was deeply moved by Maker's story.
"There’s nothing, nothing," he said.
"In addition to that, there’s the oppression. And the fact that girls don’t have a chance for education. That’s got to be fixed. In some small way, if I can help, that’s what I want to do."
Lavender decided to use his crowd-pleasing exotic animals to support Abukloi, which is Sudanese for "We can" and has set itself the task of building an educational and vocational training facility in Rumbek.
More than 1.5 million children and thousands of adult volunteers have attended “Thank God for Kids” events throughout the United States, according to the group’s promotional materials.
While they raise funds to help children in South Sudan and build awareness of Abukloi, Lavender and his circus animals are also helping to give American children a glimpse of what life is like on another continent, Maker said.
In South Sudan, children "see animals - goats, cows, chickens - around their house. But American children don’t see that, so we just need to bring to them to see different perspectives," he said.