Missouri church helps African immigrants put aside tribal differences

Immigrants from all over Africa find a warm place at First Baptist Church in Columbia, Mo., in part because of one man’s experience.

By Vicki Brown

Africa is a large continent, with a variety of terrain — from desert to lush jungle to towering mountains — and a diversity of people and languages — from French to English to tribal tongues. As African Christians immigrate to other parts of the world, they look for the familiar, a taste of home and an opportunity to worship God in their heart language.

Immigrants from all over Africa find a warm place at First Baptist Church in Columbia, Mo., because God spared one man from death in the midst of tribal warfare.

Nene Rwenyaguza, pastor of the African congregation that meets at First Baptist, fled the continent after searching frantically — and in vain — for his wife, Francine, and the couple’s three children. Nene and his family became victims of continuous clashes since 1994 between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, primarily in Rwanda. A Hutu raid on his village in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002 separated the family as Nene and other men tried to lure the Hutus away from the women and children, giving them a chance to run.

ColumbiaWhen Nene returned to the village later, his family was gone. Some villagers told him they were dead. Convinced he had to try to find them, Nene went into Rwanda, then to Uganda and then into Kenya.

Unable to locate them, he secured permission to immigrate to the United States in 2007 and arrived in St. Louis in January 2008. An ordained minister, he continued to pray that God would protect his family and help him to find them.

A month later, he learned his family had been found safe in Kenya, and he started the process to get them to the U.S. as refugees.

Meanwhile, a group of Congolese in Columbia, Mo., had been trying to find a church in which they felt comfortable. Often, though, they didn’t understand enough English, or they were uncomfortable because local congregations do not worship as the Africans had done at home or the doctrines are different, Nene explained through interpreter Dollard Mazimano.

“Some will lose their faith … because the customs or worship is different. It is important for us to worship and praise the way we used to back home,” Nene said.

Dollard’s father had known Nene in the Congo and her aunt is distantly related through one of Nene’s grandmothers. The group asked Nene to come to Columbia and serve as pastor. He also went to work for a cleaning company.

Opening doors

First Baptist opened their hearts to the African congregation composed primarily of members from the Banyamulenge tribe. Former First Baptist pastor John Baker provided some theology books and some training.

Because the language is comprised of a mixture of words from the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi and includes Swahili, people from those countries and Kenya and Uganda can usually understand most of it.

When someone visits the congregation, which meets at 5 p.m. on Sundays, members make sure the visitor can participate in worship. “We have someone sit by you to translate if you don’t understand,” Nene said.

While violence usually does not flare as dramatically as with the Hutus and Tutsis, tribalism sometimes sets barriers between people in African countries. But distinctions blur when people are separated from their homeland.

Reminders of home

Because the Banyamulenge, Rwandans and Burundians share many cultural commonalities and worship styles are similar, tribal distinctions do not disrupt the Columbia group. Even those from other African cultures enjoy and participate in worship because it reminds them of home, Nene explained.

And God intervenes. “Outside culture cannot interfere with the Holy Spirit,” Nene said. “Being in the U.S. helps because people from Africa see what they had been fighting about, and they see more diversity here and that helps them.”

He is careful not to label people or point out different tribes at church. Being part of a tribe is a “huge” aspect of most African cultures. “But it’s not going to take you to heaven …. We have to forgive each other,” he said.

On July 18, Nene and his family finally were reunited after 11 years. The African and First Baptist congregations and the Columbia community have embraced them.

“First Baptist’s kindness is something we will never forget because having a church is so important. We have found love here. So when we worship here, we are taken back home in a way,” Nene said.

“Only God can pay First Baptist Church for all they have done for us.”