A house of their own: Congolese refugees launch African church in Missoula
When Hategeka Gilbert and Joel Kambale arrived in Montana from the Democratic Republic of Congo in late 2016, neither knew just where to start their new life.
Their English was poor if they knew it at all, and even the grocery store was foreign. It was early in Missoula’s refugee resettlement efforts, and for those who came seeking a new beginning, navigating life in America didn’t come easy.
“The arrival was difficult,” said Gilbert. “I don’t know how to start and I don’t know what to eat. But I found my friend Joel Kambale. He helped show me how to use the grocery story, how to go to the office.”
More than two years after reaching Missoula, one through Tanzania and the other through Uganda, the two men are now working to soften the landing for other refugees, especially those from the Congo.
In early April they launched the Universal Revival Church. It marked an effort to celebrate and preserve their African heritage and provide something familiar to their Congolese peers. But over its first month, it has grown into something more.
“We shared the wish that all the refugees be united,” said Kambale. “It’s hard to live here in the USA, especially as refugees, and we feared being deported. That’s why we try to make the Congolese together so we can speak one language. We sought a respectable congregation, because that congregation of all Congolese would be united.”
Kambale estimates that more than 100 Congolese now live in Missoula, and their service has grown to roughly 50 congregants in its first month. During the two hour Sunday service, held at the Public House in downtown Missoula, the two aspiring pastors provide other Congolese families a home away from home.
Seeking solace through religion comes in many forms, they said, and familiar practice can bring comfort to families facing the challenges of resettling in a foreign culture.
“In Africa, we can go to church wearing our skirt – it’s tradition,” said Gilbert. “Before, our people were complaining they didn’t understand what they (pastors) were saying. They can’t understand what they are preaching about. But when we are preaching in Swahili, they understand.”
Gilbert cites the book of Matthew: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teach them… ”
Attending other services around Missoula, they saw children baptized as infants, the sacrament offered to all ages. In Africa, children weren’t baptized until the age of 12 and taking the sacrament didn’t happen until 16.
It’s their belief that one must know God to willingly accept the baptism.
“That’s why we decided to start this church that we could bring people in, teach them about the Bible and whoever is going to accept it, we baptize him,” said Gilbert. “The reason why we started our church was to bring people together and keep our culture natural. We found the people here have their own traditional culture, which is really different from the one we had in Africa.”
By taking steps to launch a new African church – the first in Missoula since the creation of the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1920s – the two men have emerged as leaders in their growing community.
As such, they’re not naive to American politics, and the fear of being uprooted due to political trends hasn’t diminished. Their peers also face challenges unique to refugees – overcoming the language barrier foremost among them.
But slowly, with community support, a growing congregation and their own outreach efforts, they believe life has gotten better. Last year, members of their community went so far as to stage a play to better share their story.
They called it, “When One Becomes Many.”
“We had the experience when we first get here, there was some people that had a hard time accepting us,” said Kambale. “When we played that play, trying to educate people about refugees and show them they are people who suffer in refugee camps before they come here, they understand better.”
Jen Barile, the resettlement director at the International Rescue Committee’s office in Missoula, has been impressed with the progress made by the Congolese community, though she’s not surprised.
Members of Missoula’s refugee population have proven to be a productive bunch, landing jobs and taking a range of classes, from English to financing. Some have started their own business while others have mastered the art of public outreach, looking to raise both support and awareness within the community.
“It’s amazing to see folks finally feeling settled and integrating into the community,” she said. “To start their own congregation is pretty impressive, and I know it’s something that’s really important to them.”
But struggles remain, though they’re not insurmountable as Kambale and Gilbert have proven. The two recently met with Missoula Mayor John Engen, simply to keep him abreast of their plans and progress.
“They’re understanding how local government works, and it all demonstrates that they’re really integrating, they’re fitting in and they’re feeling comfortable enough to make those spaces for themselves,” Barile said. “That helps them be leaders in their community, which is really important. Things have changed from when we first opened our doors, and those barriers are being reduced.”
Kambale and Gilbert are both working to earn their anointment as Pentecostal pastors. They’re also working to lift up members of the Congolese community.
In the near future, they hope to offer members of their church weddings and baptisms, as well as a place of comfort and familiarity. They also hope to see more Missoula residents in attendance.
“At this moment we do not have our own church,” said Gilbert. “But if we get support from other organizations and other churches, at some point we could have our own church.”