The Bridge From Dayton to the Congo

Dec 26, 2016

Immigrants have shaped Dayton, Ohio recently. There are immigrants from over 100 countries who call it home and the city declares itself "Immigrant friendly." We go to to Grace United Methodist Church in Dayton, where, in the last months, dozens of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo have been welcomed into the church and worship in Swahili. Community Voices producer George Drake Jr spent time with the congregation.

Every Sunday, refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo worship and sing within the walls of Grace United Methodist Church. It started when they just showed up, one Sunday this past September.

"I was actually helping out during the service, I was reading some announcements, or reading a psalm, or a prayer, something, I don’t remember. But I do remember looking out across the sanctuary and seeing three faces there I didn’t recognize," says Aaron Hill, Grace Church’s Director of Urban Engagement. After the service, he and Pastor Sherry Gale went and introduced themselves, and then the word of mouth began.

Week-by-week, Pastor Sherry says their Congolese attendance numbers grew, “The next week, I think, there were like twenty of them. Then I started to realize, ‘Oh my gosh, they really want to be here. This is serious. This is cool.’ And then, you know, the next week there were thirty or forty.”

"By the fourth week, we basically had around seventy or eighty Congolese just arriving, kind of, throughout the service, and sitting in the back, very quiet, and then they would leave after the service," says Hill.  "And so we gathered together, the staff and I, and we said ‘Wow. We need to have a conversation with these folks and see what’s going on, and how we can welcome them into our place of worship.'"

The refugees within the Congolese congregation themselves have different backgrounds. Many fled the conflicts of their own countries, while trying to find opportunities elsewhere.

"Some of them are Rwandan, some of them are Burundi, some of them come from other countries -- but eventually they were all settled in the Congo for one reason or another. And then in the Congo, of course, there’s much war and conflict, so at some point, they were housed in refugee camps," says Hill.

Lead pastor, Lucelu Lukendbonja Emmanuel gives a sermon
Credit George Drake Jr. / WYSO

The congregation’s lead pastor, Emmanuel -- whose full name is Lucelu Lukendbonja Emmanuel, moved from refugee camp to refugee camp since 1996 until making his way to the U.S.

"From Tanzania, Tanzania, Mozambique, Mozambique, I lived 12 years," he says. "Here in the U.S.A. it’s 3 years, now… From my country to America, it’s 20 years. I lost 20 years before I came here."

While he’s no longer living with war, and has a steady job, life here is still hard. Aaron Hill told me that on top of raising 4 kids, and his responsibilities to the congregation, Emmanuel and his wife both work at Honeywell sewing together firefighter’s uniforms in 12-hour shifts. 3pm to 3am, 6-days-a-week.

"I cannot live without a job," says Emmanuel. "I work hard, and I don’t have time to sleep (laughs). I sleep few hours. This is problem I have: I don’t have time to… to rest."

Most of the Congolese congregation gets to church each Sunday by a bus that’s on loan to Grace by the YMCA preschool housed in the church. The bus picks up each and every person at their homes. It’s this sense of bending-over-backwards that make some people, like a Dayton English as a Second Language teacher I told this story to, worried that the church is being taken advantage of. Pastor Sherry disagrees.

Son of the lead pastor Emmanuel, Amisi, holds a Swahili bible
Credit George Drake Jr.

"I don’t have a sense that that’s the case at all. I’ve been more concerned about whether we would be taking advantage of them because we’re so excited and maybe putting them in a spotlight in a way they don’t want to be."

On signs all around the church are its motto: “Grace is for everyone!” Pastor Sherry says in a time when hate crimes are on the rise, and refugees -- regardless of where they’re from -- are a political issue, it’s even more important to recognize differences and be more inclusive. So, it’s that sense of bending over backwards that Sherry prides herself and Grace for the most.

"I just think it’s really important that we learn to come together across all kinds of differences," she says. "In our city, in our country, in our world. I… I can’t… I’m not in the Congo, I can’t be there and make peace happen there, but what I can show is right in my own back yard -- how we can live in peace. And, if everybody does that in their back yard, we’d have a different world."

You can learn more about Grace United Methodist Church and their Congolese services at http://graceumc.com/