The heavens thundered and the torrential rain poured down, yet they were easily drowned out by the beautiful sounds of joyful worship emanating from more than 300 voices singing in Swahili and English. “Karibu nyumbani”—welcome home —was declared by visiting African bishops, U.S. missionaries and denominational leaders, and long-lost friends becoming reacquainted in their new homeland.
The Wabash Park Camp & Retreat Center in Clay City, Indiana, was home to the first African Immigrants Ministries Welcome Home Conference on Aug. 24-25. The AIM Welcome Home Conference welcomed participants from Texas, Alaska, Rhode Island, Ohio, Kentucky, New York, Virginia, Missouri, Georgia, New Hampshire, Arizona, Iowa, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan and Indiana — as well as Free Methodist leaders from Congo and Rwanda.
Immigrants arrived, eager to reconnect with their spiritual parents and grandparents including Bishop Emeritus Gerald and Marlene Bates along with fellow former missionaries Jim and Martha Kirkpatrick. Denominational leaders proclaimed a loud “karibu nyumbani” to representatives of our larger Free Methodist Church including Rwanda Bishop Samuel Kayinamura, Democratic Republic of Congo Bishop Lubunga W’Ehusha and DRC Superintendent Ildephonse Bitebetebe. Church leaders gathered to learn ways to successfully welcome immigrants into their own churches.
All witnessed a historic event that gave glimpses of Revelation’s vision of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).
Kayinamura expressed appreciation for AIM, which he called “a ministry of healing.”
W’Ehusha reminded the gathering that Jesus came to earth as an immigrant from heaven and moved to Egypt as an immigrant.
“God is a God of immigration. He doesn’t stay in one place,” W’Ehusha said. “Home is where the Father is. And He always says, ‘Welcome home.’”
International Child Care Ministries Director Linda Adams told the immigrants that they arrived in the United States with riches for the American church.
“When you came to us, you were rich in languages. You were rich in family connectedness – you value how much you belong to one another. You were rich in time. You were rich in hospitality, rich in traditions,” Adams said. “You have riches in resourcefulness that comes from having to find your own solution. You were rich in music. But the greatest is that you are rich in faith.”
No matter the identity and background of each person in attendance, the AIM Welcome Home Conference simultaneously grew and shrank our worlds. Our eyes were opened to the beautiful diversity and grandness of God, His church and His people. For those who haven’t ventured far from their respective villages, the conference presented sights and sounds of heaven. Young American adult volunteers learned words in Swahili from giggling children, and then stood in awe as worship through singing, dancing, praying and giving emanated without restraint. Their worlds grew. At the same time, shared stories illustrated how closely we’re all connected, even if thousands of miles and vast oceans may physically separate us.
All of this was possible through the hard work of the Rev. Isaac Bujambi, the regional coordinator of AIM, Lead Pastor Kenny Martin and the team at John Wesley Free Methodist Church in Indianapolis, and the vast human and physical resources of Wabash Park Camp & Retreat Center, which extended outstanding hospitality.
Bujambi told “The FMC Radio Show” that the conference’s purpose “was to provide for our African immigrant families a time where they can come together and enjoy praise and worship, fellowship and an opportunity to hear a great inspirational speaker, and receive valuable training. … It was also designed to help prepare pastors, leaders and congregations to welcome our Free Methodist African families and learn how we as a denomination can assist them in acclimating into our communities and the churches.”
Another purpose was to organize regional responses to African immigrants’ needs.
“We have received thousands and thousands of immigrants from Central Africa,” Bujambi said. “Most of them are Free Methodist Church members from Africa who were in refugee camps.”
Bujambi said Free Methodist congregations in the United States are welcoming the African immigrants, but members are not sure how to overcome language barriers and address the immigrants’ challenges. He said the conference allowed Free Methodists “to share what we are doing in different churches and how we can respond better to the needs of the immigrants.”
Martin said John Wesley FMC’s work with African immigrants led to phone calls from other U.S. congregations seeking help when Free Methodists from Africa connect with local FM churches. He said some areas have appointed assistant superintendents to coordinate ministry to immigrants, and the Welcome Home Conference explored “how can we work together on a national strategy to prepare, because more are coming.”
Martin leads an urban church, but he also expects many immigrants will settle in rural areas, and Free Methodist congregations need to prepare to connect and help because “it drastically changes the church.” When immigrants arrive, Martin said, the first step is “to love them, just show your love.”
But churches also need to connect with AIM or other groups that help churches respond effectively. The immigrants need transportation, education, legal, health and nutrition services, and they may be a target for con artists. Martin said, “We want to put out the word to churches that if you have African immigrants coming, there’s help.”
Conference organizers believed it was important for the African bishops to attend the conference so the recently transplanted Free Methodists could “could hear from their leaders that ‘there’s a purpose for you to be here in America,’” Martin said.
Many of the immigrants served in top Free Methodist posts in Africa, but they may find themselves on the sidelines after they join a church in the United States.
“They are used to being in leadership or serving in the church. They don’t just want to come to your church and sit there,” said Martin, who suggested asking the immigrants to usher, sing or teach a Sunday school class in their native language. “Over the process of time, you want to raise them up as leaders, and we want to build a multicultural church.”
African immigrants may have different expectations about service length and other church matters. There may need to be compromises between immigrants and longtime church members, but the results will be worth the effort.
“This is a great opportunity for the Free Methodist Church to reach our African families who are loyal Free Methodists, who want to participate, who want to get involved, and they have giftings that they will bring,” Martin said.
The conference attracted television news coverage from two stations. In an interview with NBC affiliate WTWO (which can be viewed online at fmchr.ch/wtwo), Bishop David Kendall said, “In a world that is so divided and so fearful, and so often in conflict with each other, it’s a very special — and I think, in fact, miraculous — thing to be together in Christ.”
WTWO reporter Lily Pesavento also interviewed Wabash Conference Superintendent John Lane who said, “These are immigrants from the Congo and Burundi that are now living here in the United States and that are a part of our churches, and so we’re just gathering them together for a time of celebration and praise.”
Pesavento told the TV audience, “For immigrants who follow the Free Methodist Church, they understand that home is where their people are.”
In an interview (fmchr.ch/wthiwh) with reporter Garrett Brown of CBS affiliate WTHI, conference participant Freddy Kaniki said, “Just because we moved from one country to another doesn’t mean that everything is done or things have changed dramatically.”
‘Do It Again’
Together let us all rejoice in the great things God continues to do in and through AIM, the Free Methodist Church, and Wabash Park Camp & Retreat Center. Like the psalmist we declare, “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy” (Psalm 126:2–3).
“Karibu nyumbani!” Indeed, may we all continue to declare God’s welcome, and in great praise and thanksgiving for His work in our midst, exclaim, “Do it again, Lord!”
Kristen Bennett Marble is the senior pastor of West Morris Church in Indianapolis. Jen Finley is the church relations director for International Child Care Ministries. Josh Avery is the lead pastor of Freedom Church in Canfield, Ohio, and the host of “The FMC Radio Show” podcast. Visit fmchr.ch/fmcrswh to hear the podcast’s coverage of the AIM Welcome Home Conference.