Like anyone packing to go on a long trip abroad, Noah Hillerbrand is worrying about just what to take.
He needs his UV water-cleaning pen, plus mosquito nets and malaria pills, a mini-solar panel for when he’s beyond the electrical grid, dehydrated food, picture dictionaries, and extra strings for his guitar.
The 19-year-old is most definitely not going on vacation, nor is he heading to college. The Wilmette teen put off study at the University of Richmond for a year, in order to travel almost 7,200 miles across the globe, to a bustling, one-street town that sits just about a mile from the White Nile River in the fledgling nation of South Sudan.
Hillerbrand has no set itinerary when he gets there. But he knows he will work with a man he admires greatly: the Right Rev. Bishop Joseph Garang Atem, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Renk. The name was given simultaneously to the town, the northern South Sudanese county in which it lies, and the bishop’s diocese.
For six months, Hillerbrand will work with the man he refers to as Bishop Joseph, teaching English to high school students, traveling around the parish as the bishop’s assistant, and doing his part to further the “Raising Fences for Renk” project sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago.
He will be the first layperson from the Chicago diocese to travel to South Sudan to further that project — a deceptively simple $35,000-$40,000 effort to build eight-foot-high metal fences around 25 acres of arable land outside Renk. Once so protected from human and animal marauders, the land can feed more than 100,000 people a year; incredibly important since Renk no longer gets supplies from traditional routes closed off by South Sudanese independence from Sudan.
Serving in Renk and helping to raise awareness of the fence project, funding for which is well underway, is a far cry from hiking the Appalachian Trail. That’s what Hillerbrand once thought he wanted to do after graduating from high school. It goes beyond many of the service trips that the 2013 New Trier Township High School grad investigated at the school’s Gap Year fair.
“A lot of these trips may be great, but I felt that I was going to lack something,” he said as he prepared for his Oct. 25 flight from O’Hare to Nairobi, Kenya, from where he’ll head to South Sudan’s capital of Juba, then to Renk.
“A big part of this trip is trying to show other youth in Chicago, kids in New Trier, that it’s possible to serve in a big way even before you graduate from college ... and the second thing is that service is a lot easier than people think it is.”
Hillerbrand is cheerfully down to earth and, like many teens, seems uncomfortable about expressing the charitable or spiritual impulses that helped form his decision.
But he is happy to point to Winnetka’s Christ Episcopal Church, which he and his family have attended since they moved to Wilmette from Atlanta in 2008, as the wellspring for his mission.
Christ Episcopal places a large emphasis on music, with multi-generational choirs. The musical ministry was important to his family and to Hillerbrand, who plays guitar daily and who plans to take his guitar with him.
“Music has always stayed important as a way of commitment to the community,” he said.
After the family joined Christ Episcopal, Hillerbrand became even more deeply involved in that community. It was his dad Eric who first suggested he meet with Bishop Joseph last fall, when he made one of his many trips to Chicago.
“My first thought was that it sounded really cool, but I thought I’d probably find something else to do,” Hillerbrand said. “But when I asked Bishop Joseph what I could do there, right away he said, ‘Teach English.’ There was no hesitation, and he said he could find plenty for me to do. That was when I felt this was something important.”
Hillerbrand’s mother, Jenny Smith, supported the move, too, although Hillerbrand conceded that “she’s scared to death.”
That, too, is understandable. Renk is near the Sudan-South Sudan border, and tensions still run high, although Hillerbrand said danger from military or militia action isn’t big near Renk.
Christ Church congregation members helped Hillerbrand raise the $15,000 he will minimally need simply to live and teach in Renk for the next six months.
The Rev. Christopher Powell is Rector of Christ Church. He said Oct. 17 that Hillerbrand “is a remarkable young man on many levels. He thinks about issues and ideas that most people his age might not.”
Powell also said Hillerbrand’s trip is important to the fence project: “Prior to Noah going, this was a cause, a good cause, but we all know there are an infinite number of good causes. Now we have one of our own there, and that puts a face and a name to it.”
Christ Church choirmaster Richard Clemmitt also praised Hillerbrand, saying, “He’s such an amazing guy. He has this wonderful easy-going demeanor, but he’s the sort of person who’s willing to work really hard to accomplish something good. There’s great excitement and pride and joy in what he’s doing. It’s inspiring to the rest of us.”
Hillerbrand finds inspiration from a book by Episcopal priest Jesse Zink, who served for two years in a South Africa slum neighborhood’s medical clinic.
The book Zink wrote about his experience ”really spoke to me,” Hillerbrand explained. “When he first arrived, he didn’t know the language, he wasn’t trained to do anything at the clinic. He had to be content with being with these people. He called it a ministry of presence. Realizing the ministry of presence is something that I’ve kind of trained my trip around.”
To learn more about Hillerbrand’s mission, visit its Facebook page, BE-renk. Information on Renk and how to donate to the mission is available through the Christ Church website, www.christchurchwinnetka.org. Information on the fence project is available through a separate Kickstarter project aimed at raising money for a documentary about the mission: www.kickstarter.com/projects/1964273742/be-renk-a-young-man-a-fence-and-feeding-thousands. More information is available by contacting Hillerbrand at firstname.lastname@example.org.