During our service as missionaries, our board approved one trip for missionary children who were in college to visit their parents on the field. We were living at Mweya in south central Burundi when our son Bill came for his visit. When he arrived, he walked into our house, hung his cap on a peg inside the back door and said, “It is good to be home!”
I said, “Bill, you have never seen this house in your life!”
He replied, “Aw, you know what I mean.” He was home.
In these years, the Free Methodist Church in North America, both in the United States and in Canada, is experiencing something new: Some of our “children” from all over the world, second and third generation fruit of our missionary outreach and growth, are coming home. You see, in central Africa —Burundi, Congo and Rwanda — Free Methodists have seen amazing growth and expansion. The total area Free Methodist membership (membership not attenders) is over 430,000. Sadly, the region has suffered awful wars and political changes, which have produced tens of thousands of refugees from one country to another, shifting here and there, often spending years in refugee camps.
Substantial numbers of these, through immigration channels, are finding their ways to America. Since Free Methodists are so numerous in the central Africa area, if those coming are Protestant, there is a good likelihood that they are either Free Methodist or that they at least know of us. To their credit, many of them make a serious effort to search for and find a Free Methodist church. (We have about 40 groups of these immigrant folks scattered across the U.S.) According to refugee agencies locally, another 5,000 are in process to come from central Africa to the United States. We are in close contact with the local agencies so if some of our people (or others looking for a church home) come our way, we will find them and make sure they find us.
In responding to our local situation in Indianapolis (John Wesley Free Methodist Church where we have about 40 African immigrants in six families and Aldersgate Free Methodist Church that also has many immigrants attending), African Immigrants Ministries has been organized to assist. This ministry is working not only in the local church but, thanks to help from two conferences and the Board of Bishops, is now reaching out to churches in the central United States that are receiving such groups and asking for counsel and help. The Rev. Isaac Bujambi, a pastor and leader from the mountains of eastern Congo, is the coordinator.
As retired missionaries, my wife, Marlene, and I see these developments as opportunities “wonderful in our eyes” (Mark 12:11). They give us the joy of applying Hebrews 13:2 about providing hospitality and, in our case, repaying some of the warmth and loving welcomes we found in central Africa during our decades of service there. For the Free Methodist Church – USA, they also, in my view, represent “obligation” because they are the extended fruit of, in the case of central Africa, 80 years of missionary life and investment. In our family experience, when the children come home, we welcome them. In our local church, the arrival of these folks has been a wonderful experience for us and our people. (Sometimes I ask the Africans now becoming Americans, “Do you feel loved here?” “Oh, yes!” they respond joyfully.)
Sure, they have needs. Sure, they stumble over the new culture and language, but they are wonderful loving and lovable people, working hard and getting a grip on English and life in America. These folks new to us are starting churches in some places across the U.S., strengthening congregations in others, and generally becoming wonderful additions to our movement. In our local church, one (a graduate of Hope Africa University’s business department) is assistant treasurer, another (a high school student) works on the sound board, and another (the father of a family) is in training to be an usher. Still another teaches a Sunday school class in Swahili.
Overall, they bring something of the flavor of the spiritual energy of the African church and inject this into local churches.
And, you know, when the family comes home, it is blessing.
Gerald E. Bates was a Free Methodist bishop from 1985 to 1999. He also served as missionary to Burundi, rector of Hope Africa University and president of Spring Arbor University. He resides in Indianapolis and attends John Wesley Free Methodist Church.