Refugee Churches in Grand Rapids Are Thriving, Leaders Say

Judy Klein, Michigan Conference, Lake Union Herald, and Adventist Review
Refugee Churches in Grand Rapids Are Thriving, Leaders Say
Michigan Conference secretary Justin Ringstaff (left) said that the Elwell company dedication was well attended by members and guests. “It took over half an hour for everyone to sign the dedication book,” he said. [Photo: courtesy of Michigan Conference]

April 2022 has been an exhilarating month for two refugee congregations in Grand Rapids, Michigan, United States. 

Elwell and Golden Gate, both born out of Grand Rapids Central Seventh-day Adventist Church, were dedicated that month. Elwell was dedicated as a church on April 9, and Golden Gate dedicated as a company on April 30.

Michigan Conference executive secretary Justin Ringstaff attended the Elwell dedication, which was well attended by members and guests. “It took over half an hour for everyone to sign the dedication book,” Ringstaff said. Golden Gate was also full on April 30, with more than eighty people in attendance.

The significance of these two churches is not the numbers but rather the journey the members have taken to form their respective congregations, church leaders said. Elwell church and Golden Gate company are mostly composed of former refugees.

Bob Stewart, director of Immigrant and Refugee Ministries for the Michigan Conference, explained that both groups of Kinyarwanda-Kirundi-speaking refugees started out as a branch Sabbath school out of the Grand Rapids Central church. Most refugees do not speak English when they first arrive to the U.S., and thus, refugees often create their own Sabbath schools so that they can speak and worship in their language. 

According to Joel Mpabwanimana, North American Division (NAD) consultant for Kinyarwanda-Kirundi church plants, despite the possibility of a language barrier, the refugees’ number-one concern is finding a place to worship the God who has brought them safely from war-stricken countries. “When refugees arrive, their first task is to find a church and worship, despite the possibility of having to sit through a service they do not understand,” he said.

Of the two refugee congregations in Grand Rapids, which is a central location for refugees, one of them, Elwell, is the largest Rwandan church in North America, according to Bernard Rumenera, pastor of the Elwell church. Mpabwanimana commented that Kirundi refugees follow family. If a refugee family lands in Oregon, for example, and their extended family is in Grand Rapids, they will move across the country to be with them.

From Group to Company to Church

Stewart was lead pastor of the Grand Rapids Central church before accepting the call to Refugee and Immigrant ministries for the Michigan Conference. While he was lead pastor, the branch Sabbath schools at Central church soon had enough members to qualify as a group, and eventually the groups attained company status. He noted that a company is not an official church entity. Membership is kept through the conference, not at the local church. Stewart explained that the status of a company congregation is like parents giving their teenage child some money to see how they will handle it.

There is a process to see if the congregation is viable, Stewart said. “We’re looking for stability and good organization and good process. They need to have a mission focus” and to be “training their members to witness and share.”

Pictured is one of 12 choirs that the Elwell Seventh-day Adventist Church has formed. [Photo: courtesy of Michigan Conference]

Companies can grow fast or slow, depending on the individual group. For Elwell, the process took about three years. Golden Gate is not yet an official church, although they are well on their way, having just achieved company status, Stewart said. The timeframes for both Elwell and Golden Gate are about average for a typical company, he added. However, for a refugee company, this is exceptional.

When refugees first arrive, he explained, “they were used to doing things differently than how they are done in [the U.S.].” Thus, running a church can be a learning process, especially when it comes to the paperwork and behind-the-scenes work needed.

Stewart also mentioned the Acts model in the Bible. The apostle Paul would come and start a church, but when he left, the “people took it upon themselves to keep [the church] going.” Many churches would fall apart without a pastor or leader, or without being an “official” church. Elwell and Golden Gate have demonstrated the ability to push through. “There needs to be a sacrifice from the people” to move from company to a church, Stewart said. These sacrifices often have a lot to do with leadership or the lack thereof.

One of the most significant aspects of transitioning from a company to a church is acquiring a building. Often, one building cannot comfortably house two Seventh-day Adventist congregations. The Elwell church had what Stewart called “a bit of a miracle” during their church-hunting experience.

Bob Stewart, director of Immigrant and Refugee Ministries for the Michigan Conference, explained that two groups of Kinyarwanda-Kirundi-speaking refugees started out as a branch Sabbath school out of the Grand Rapids Central Seventh-day Adventist Church. [Photo: courtesy of Michigan Conference]

As the company was looking for a church building, a member from the Central Adventist church connected them with a 500-member Christian congregation that was planning to sell their building. Unfortunately, there was another offer on the table, an offer that was much more than the Elwell company could afford.

Elwell church members saw that God was looking out for them, for when the Christian church found out that the group looking to purchase their church was a refugee group, they ignored the other offer and accepted the Elwell company’s offer of just US$280,000. “For a church [building] of that size, that’s a steal,” Stewart said.

The Elwell company moved in and filled the church. There are now 400 to 500 members, Stewart reported, not counting young children and unbaptized teens. “When all the families were counted,” Rumenera said, “it was about 1,100 [people].” He further commented that they are planning to grow the church’s membership.

The Golden Gate company was also able to acquire a building to house their worship services. Currently, they are renting from another church. Wilson Sembeba, stand-in pastor for the Golden Gate company, said that, like Elwell, their church building is a miracle. When he called the pastor of the church they now rent, he was told there were four other interested parties. “I prayed for four days,” he said, until the pastor called back with the news that they were being given the chance to rent the church. “God told us to do this,” the other pastor said.

Interestingly, the other pastor had not even met Sembeba face-to-face. “They still don’t even know who I am,” he said, laughing. Sembeba and his members believe that it was the Lord who opened the doors of the church they now call home.

Refugee Church Growth

Church planters and church leaders have data that show how refugee churches grow significantly faster than other churches.

One reason refugee churches grow so fast, Stewart explained, is that the members are very family oriented; they live right next to each other and are outside all day with their friends and relatives. The American way of life, consequently, is a culture shock to many refugees. Families in America appear to live more secluded from their neighbors and relatives. For Rwandan refugees, church is not only a place to worship God but also a place to fellowship with family, friends, and like-minded believers.

But that’s not all, Stewart said as he shared another compelling reason refugee churches grow so fast. “To be honest with you, they’re a little bit more on fire than we are. They believe in getting every member involved.”

And the Elwell and Golden Gate churches do have every member involved, even if it is just singing in a choir — Elwell has 12 choirs. Golden Gate is especially noteworthy for its acceptance of all refugees, no matter what language. Some speak Swahili, others speak French, but there is always an English translator so all can feel welcome and understand the worship service. In addition to its inclusive environment, Golden Gate has already conducted several evangelism campaigns. The company is planning one for the fall of 2022 and praying for a thousand guests.

Leaders of the Golden Gate Adventist company, pictured here receiving a plaque commemorating their transition from group to company status, is not yet an official church, although they are well on their way, leaders said. From left to right: Bob Stewart and Golden Gate leaders Wilson Sembeba, Yosef Imam, and Benjamin Mugisa. [Photo: courtesy of Michigan Conference]

Golden Gate also participates in door-to-door evangelism, despite many of the members, including Sembeba himself, being nervous about conducting door-to-door ministries in America. They chose faith over fear and have ministered to more than 400 homes in the vicinity of their church.  

Rumenera and Sembeba both also minister to refugees around them, whether they are church members or not. Members or non-members alike get more involved “when they can see Jesus in what you do,” Sembeba said. Rumenera and Sembeba both are on call for their members, whether it is driving them to a doctor’s appointment or helping someone find out which medicine to buy if they are sick, as well as going on general visitations. Sembeba bought a fourteen-passenger van, which stays close to the church, so that he can transport his members where they need to go. When people see Jesus in you, Sembeba said, “they can also see that you care for them.” The refugee churches truly practice putting others before themselves.

Sembeba and Golden Gate have begun a Zoom video-conference meeting for Kinyarwanda-Kirundi speakers, with an option to call in via phone. The ministry began in 2010 but is continually growing. Attendees join from all over the U.S., and some even connect from African countries. “They just go on the phone,” Sembeba said, “and they can speak and pray in their own language.” The meetings are held seven days a week.

The other main reason for refugee churches’ growth is that thousands of Adventist refugees, according to Mpabwanimana, are still in refugee camps in other countries. He explained that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will only let in so many people per year. Thus, refugees must continue to live in crowded camps.

Despite the challenges, the Adventist Church in the refugee camps is growing, Mpabwanimana reported. People are more likely to search for God during difficult times. Some, he said, spend the night in prayer, pleading with God to bring them and their children safely to the U.S.

And when they arrive in the U.S., this faith can be seen in membership numbers. “This is what I experienced when this war was happening with all these refugees,” Mpabwanimana said. “People embraced faith, became faithful to God … and the churches were full.”

The original version of this story was posted by Lake Union Herald.

Judy Klein, Michigan Conference, Lake Union Herald, and Adventist Review