Refugees Form A 'Kaleidoscope' of Diversity
Refugees from several countries are discovering a welcoming community in East Texas at Center UMC and in the Kaleidoscope class at St. Luke’s UMC, Houston - Gethsemane campus.
Cadeau is a young refugee from Mozambique. He found St. Luke’s UMC - Gethsemane campus by running after the church bus. The next Sunday, he came to church to sing in the choir. His parents and four siblings followed to worship at the Gethsemane campus.
The Houston Story
According to Rev. David Horton, the Kaleidoscope class at Gethsemane has been blessed over the last three years with the presence of Christians from different parts of the world. About a dozen countries are represented in the class, with the majority from Africa. They have found a loving community at church where their presence, talents, gifts, smiles and faith shine brightly to the rest of the church. And now they have started to invite others to join this community of worshipers.
As lead sponsor of Kaleidescope, Sam Catli adds, “Though they only knew a few English words, many of our international refugees initially only came to worship with their children. The handful of Kaleidoscope members noticed this and invited them to their Sunday school class. Several came somewhat shyly but determined to be part of a community at church. The children and youth directors also welcomed the children with open arms and invited them to their Sunday school classes.”
The Kaleidoscope class continues to grow beyond a few dozen members. “While communication can be a challenge, the class has one common language and that is the Holy Scripture,” Sam explains. The class reads the scripture in English, Swahili and French. Prayers are spoken in different languages. At times, the lesson taught in English is quietly translated by class members to French and Swahili. However, people from Asia, the Middle East, and South America are also present. He adds, “weekend jobs have kept some of the attendees away from church but they come and worship whenever they can. Others have moved far away due to job opportunities, but they still feel they belong to the church community at St. Luke’s and the Kaleidoscope class.”
Kaleidoscope members are beginning to integrate into the church. Notes David, “Cadeau continues to sing at the choir and sister Gloire (Mwangaza) is a teacher assistant at one of the children’s Sunday school class. She recently started singing with the quartet at the contemporary worship service. The father, Mwende, has taken the responsibility every Sunday in making sure that the bibles and the hymnals are in place for the use of the Kaleidoscope class. He also makes sure that the coffee pot is full. Mwende then hurries to join the morning usher team welcoming visitors and members to the worship service with his contagious smile. The alto voice of the mother, Mara, is noticeable as she sings in class the Swahili version of the hymn titled Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.” Adds Sam, “You can feel how proud they are to serve and be part of the church.”
Last year two individuals were selected as co-leaders of the class, one is in charge of membership and caring and the other handles hospitality and volunteer work. Sam says, “We work to make them feel at home by embracing their culture and welcoming children to participate in our class.”
The last 15 minutes of the class is reserved for coffee and cookies and fellowship. Notes Sam, “I believe the lively music and casualness of the contemporary worship service and use of drums is attractive to them. In Africa, Sunday is an ‘all day’ event. We are currently planning an African Fellowship hour after church where they can visit and share joys and concerns. A new baby or a death of a family member in Africa is celebrated as part of their culture. And the new Fellowship Hall will accommodate extended families and friends in such a celebration. A few months ago, we celebrated the birth of three babies.”
Pastor David observes, “What we are seeing in the Kaleidoscope class means more than diversity. It means that Gethsemane is growing healthier. The sheer multiplicity of persons breaks down any barriers to Christian community that we might unintentionally create, and opens up a space for the Spirit to teach us something new about God. The whole church community is better formed in the likeness of Christ when we sit beside an immigrant and listen to his or her story for months or years at a time. I can never be the same after becoming friends with a Congolese refugee.”
Meanwhile, in East Texas
When Tyson Chicken brought refugees to work at the local processing plant Rev. Karen Jones, First UMC, Center said the refugees initially lived in FEMA trailers. “These families were in an unfamiliar environment and kept their doors locked, widows shut and did not have air condition in the trailers,” she explains. “We learned of their situation and need, and our church unanimously felt we should try to respond – although we felt we didn't know how to communicate with Ethiopians very well in East, Texas initially considering the huge language barrier.” Church members found them better accommodations and helped with furnishings, fans, clothing and food. “We had an interpreter to help us communicate, and we invited them into our church community. We took it one day at a time and found they loved our music, and considered the church to be holy ground so they always remove their shoes.” Adds Karen, “I go barefooted when they are in church, and I love it!” At one time the church was helping over 20 of the refugees acclimate to Texas, and they even created worship icons for them that would be familiar to their style of worship.
Adds Karen, “We discovered that we could also help them get boots for work and provide access to computers. Our church was also able to help a few of them with fees and application for citizenship.”
Being hospitable to refugees has been a mutually beneficial ministry for all involved. As Pastor David summarizes, “Every congregation interested in becoming more inclusive to persons of diverse nationalities should know that this is about friendship, not charity. This is not about us helping them. This is about strangers becoming friends.”