I’m parking my car outside of a vacant sanctuary on the west side of Indianapolis. Weeds are growing up the sides of the building and white paint is peeling off of the walls. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but this structure is the site of a small but thriving church comprised mainly of refugees from the Congo.
I recently met Pastor Emmanuel Musinga, who just started this church in December of 2012.
Concerned about the wellbeing of dozens of newly arriving refugees from the Congo, Pastor Emmanuel says he wanted to establish a place where people who had fled violence and persecution could begin to feel at home.
“I moved to Indianapolis in June of 2012,” he says. “My passion was coming to this city and getting together the Congolese who don’t speak English well, so that they can worship and understand the gospel.”
When Pastor Emmanuel invited me to attend Sunday services with his congregation, I immediately said yes. I feel honored and excited to join for the first time.
Most of the people who attend Pastor Emmanuel’s church are refugees from the Congo, and many of them have endured horrific persecution.
For five years the Congo was locked in a horrendous conflict that claimed the lives of more than 3 million people. This massive war drew to a close in 2003, but today marauding militias and the army continue to terrorize the people of the Congo. Rape, kidnapping and executions are regular occurrences as the country continues to descend into violence.
Once refugees from the Congo arrive in the United States a host of staggering challenges await them as they start their lives over again – learning the language, finding a job and getting an education, not to mention acclimating to the culture.
I’m getting to know a lot of the newly arriving Congolese refugees in our community, and it’s been exciting to watch as they embark on new jobs and enroll in school.
For Pastor Emmanuel, one of the greatest challenges currently is that most of his congregants either can’t drive or don’t own a vehicle. For the first hour of the church service, the same few cars shuttled back and forth to pick up more than 40 people from surrounding apartment complexes.
“Our biggest challenge is transportation,” the pastor told me laughingly. “Right now I’m encouraging all of them to learn about driving permits!”
There was no air conditioning available that day, and with a high in the 90s it was sweltering. Thunder roared outside and rain was falling as everyone finally arrived and the service got underway.
The worship was stunningly beautiful. A talented choir swayed to the music and the dancing and singing lasted for more than two hours. One of the men led the congregation in a traditional Congolese worship dance. He later told me that it is a miracle he can still dance after being shot in the leg before he fled his country.
The sermon was delivered by a visiting Congolese pastor. By the time he stood up to preach, the service had already run over three hours. “I’m going to preach, and then I’m going to be very hungry,” he said amid laughter.
The sermon was about the parable in Luke 15:8-10 of the woman who has 10 coins and loses one. “Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?”
He talked about the parable of the shepherd who loses one of his sheep, and leaves the 99 others to find the one who is missing.
Throughout the sermon a young Congolese woman sat close to me, whispering an interpretation of each sentence in my ear. It was a tedious process. Thankfully the message was a simple one – exactly what Pastor Emmanuel believes the Gospel to be.
“We are always looking for God, searching and searching and sometimes wondering if we will ever find him,” the pastor concluded. “But we forget that God never stops searching for us.”
I felt a drip of water run down my face at that point, and realized for once that it wasn’t sweat. I haven’t been in church for years, and I didn’t come with high expectations. But something about the warmth of the congregation and the loving message made me feel more at home than I ever expected.
Maybe it’s because we are all refugees in some sense, I thought later. We’re all running from somewhere, from something. And sometimes we all need a fresh start.
The pastor of a local Baptist church just gave Pastor Emmanuel a place where the congregation can meet for free, so I won’t be returning to the abandoned un-air conditioned building on the west side.
But Pastor Emmanuel just visited me at my office a few days ago and he says his church is my church now, so I have to come back. I smiled and told him I’m planning on it.
Kristin Wright is a columnist and contributing writer at ReligionToday.com, where she focuses on global human rights issues. Kristin has covered topics such as bride trafficking in North Korea, honor killings in Pakistan, and the persecution of members of minority faiths in Iran. She has visited with religious minorities in Pakistan, worked with children at risk in Mumbai's “Red Light” district, and interviewed individuals on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kristin recently returned from Turkey and the Syrian border, where she covered the plight of refugees fleeing the conflict. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.