February 17, 2015

50 Congolese Refugees Show Up at Philadelphia Church

Columbia Union Visitor; , assistant editor, Christian Record Services for the Blind;
and , news editor, Adventist Review

The phone call surprised the Ebenezer Adventist Church in Philadelphia.

The caller represented the Nationalities Service Center, an agency that assists the U.S. government in resettling refugees, and he said he had 50 people from the Democratic Republic of Congo who were looking for an Adventist house of worship.

The refugees — a fraction of the 1,583 Congolese Adventists who resettled in the United States last year — had asked to be connected to a Seventh-day Adventist church upon leaving their war-torn homeland in Africa. The U.S. agency had determined that the Ebenezer Church was the closest to their new home in Philadelphia.

Ebenezer church members sprang into action.

The church secured the assistance of a man who speaks Kinyarwanda, the native tongue of the Congolese, and obtained Sabbath School lessons in Kinyarwanda. It also purchased translation equipment, transmitters, and earphones to interpret worship services into Kiswahili, which many of the refugees can understand.

“The church has rallied around these families,” said Crystal Drake, wife of Ebenezer pastor Charles Drake, who is spearheading the efforts. “They have given so much in clothing and household goods until we had to ask them to stop.”

The refugees' arrival at the Ebenezer church may seem unusual, but the story should replay itself in other churches as Adventists reach out to a growing community of refugees in their neighborhoods, said Judy Aitken, founder of ASAP Ministries, an independent Adventist organization that works with refugees.

“God is calling on us to reach out to refugees who are destitute and are coming to us,” Aitken said.

Congolese refugees singing at the Ebenezer Church. Photo: Columbia Union VisitorIn the United States, a total of 1,826 Adventists were among the 70,000 people granted refugee status last year, according to data from the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

Eighty-seven percent of those Adventists —1,583 people — came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, followed by Cuba (100 people), the former Soviet republic of Moldova (40), Myanmar (36), and Ukraine (34). An additional 51 Adventist refugees arrived in the first six weeks of 2015, including 35 Congolese.

Africa accounts for roughly a fourth of all refugees to the U.S., with the largest percentage of nearly half coming from the Middle East and South Asia. The larger proportion of Adventists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo may be linked to the fact that the church has a quarter million members in the country of 77 million.

More than 3 million people have been displaced by years of fighting between government forces and rebels, and 50,000 Congolese refugees alone are expected to settle in the United States by 2018.

While the government might come calling at times, Adventists should take the initiative to learn about refugee needs by visiting the local office of the Red Cross or Save the Children, Aitken said.

“Investigate and find out what refugees are coming to your cities and what you can do,” she said. “Then you can volunteer.”

She said that her daughter, a counselor in Albany, New York, volunteered at a refugee center and quickly adopted a family from Myanmar, taking members to the doctor and arranging for food stamps at social services.

But the understaffed refugee office gave her more refugees than she could manage, and she turned to other Adventists for help, including a pastor from Myanmar who also lived on the U.S. East Coast. The pastor ended up moving to Albany and opening a church for the refugees. Today, 80 to 100 people worship every Sabbath in the church, rented from a group of Adventist African Americans.

“I thank God when all Americans — no matter what nationality — can reach out to the people in their community,” Aitken said. “This is the work of Jesus.”

Congolese Refugees by Religion 2014

Religion Female Male Total Cumulative Total Total %
Bahai 2 6 8 8 0.16%
Baptist 30 45 75 75 .46%
Catholic 486 404 890 890 17.36%
Christian 155 175 330 330 6.44%
Jehovah Witness 49 55 104 104 2.03%
Methodist 74 58 132 132 2.57%
Muslim 90 90 180 180 3.51%
No Religion 1 5 6 6 0.12%
Other Religion 9 6 15 15 0.29%
Pentecostalist 530 487 1,017 1,017 19.83%
Protestant 386 375 761 761 14.84%
Seventh-day Adventist 807 776 1,583 1,583 30.87%
Unknown 14 13 27 27 0.53%
Total 2,633 2,495 5,128 5,128

Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, Office of Admissions - Refugee Processing Center
Calendar Year as of 31-December-2014

Adventist Refugees by Country 2014

Nationality Total
Burma 37
Burundi 2
Colombia 2
Cuba 100
Dem. Rep. Congo 1,583
Eritrea 1
Ethiopia 3
Kazakhstan 1
Moldova 40
Republic of South Sudan 4
Russia 17
Rwanda 2
Ukraine 34
Total 1,826

Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, Office of Admissions - Refugee Processing Center
Calendar Year as of 31-December-2014