Church merges three congregations and African refugees
The 112-year-old Fowler United Methodist Church (UMC) has stepped into a future of growing in multi-ethnic understanding with 25 percent of its congregation being African refugees.
Their culture and music are now part of the Sunday morning worship service. The church also offers a Sunday evening worship in Swahili, led by Maria Mwange, who studied ministry and became a Methodist lay pastor while in a refugee camp in Uganda.
Her gratitude to God in all life helps infuse the ministry of others.
While many older members no longer live in the neighborhood, the congregation sees its future as offering a multi-cultural witness of worship and service in a low-income, transient neighborhood in the Garland District of Spokane.
In 2016, Fowler welcomed Maria's family and members of two other UMC churches.
In April 2016, Marie, her husband, Myani-Tito Mugombela, and five of their children from Congo came to Spokane after living 10 years in a refugee camp in Uganda.
In July 2016, Central United Methodist in downtown Spokane announced it would close in November. So a group from Burundi, who had been worshiping there for nine years, joined Fowler because many lived nearby.
Also in July, Trinity United Methodist in Northeast Spokane arranged to sell its building, closed and merged with Fowler.
"Now there are 246 on the rolls, and the average worship attendance is 85," said Glenn Kennedy, who is a three-quarter-time pastor.
Serving with him is Sue Robinson, quarter-time certified lay minister, assigned there three years ago to serve in the neighborhood where she grew up.
Pastor Marie leads Sunday evening services in Swahili for about 15, but many in her family and the other Africans also attend Sunday morning worship in English.
Also, Etienne LeRoux and Sarah Briggs, an English-speaking couple from South Africa, are on staff to lead the youth. They came to Fowler because a church member met Sarah's parents when she was working with the U.S. State Department in South Africa.
The African children make up two-thirds of the younger children in Sunday School and half of the teens. Five teens are in the confirmation class.
"Neighborhood youth are also drawn to the church," said Glenn, pastor there since 2007, after 11 years at Covenant United Methodist, nine each at Greenbluff-Mead and Cashmere-Monitor, and three in Nez Perce, Idaho.
"We are blending our cultures," he said. "We are getting used to new customs."
For example, the African members have an Injili Gospel Choir. They sing every week.
The other Africans include an extended family with three married brothers, a mother, father and two teen boys, plus 12 children from Burundi. The grandfather as a child had seen his family slaughtered and ran through the night into the jungle, crossing a crocodile infested river into Congo.
Marie told of her path ministry, with her daughter, Marcelline, translating for her. She grew up in a family of nine in Congolu in North Congo. Her father had a good job at a hospital until he died in 1984, leaving the family in poverty. She was 17. She had gone to primary school and high school and was near earning a certificate to teach, but had no money to finish school after her father died. So she moved to Goma in 1985 and married Myani. She did not see her mother or siblings again. Her mother died in 1996 when war started.
When Marie and Myani fled war, killing, rape and theft in Congo to go to Uganda, they took their children, Rebecca, Grace, Patrick and Margaret. Christelle, Mary, Marcelline and Sampson were born in Uganda. Patrick came to Spokane in 2015 to work. Grace and Rebecca stayed in Uganda.
In Congo, they lived in fear, Marie said. If she went to the market, she might be raped or killed
"God helped me. I prayed every day. One day I went to church with three of my children and saw many soldiers. Several surrounded me. I had no money, just bed sheets and diapers. They put a gun on my head. I felt the world would end. I asked God to help me, worried what would happen to my children if I died."
When a soldier started to pull the trigger, Marie said, "You are a parent like me. You have children." He let her go to the church, saying "Today you can live."
She praised Jesus and the Holy Spirit for taking her out of trouble.
The Mwange family stayed in the church overnight and went home in the morning. The pastor gave them money to take a bus to the Ugandan border. Knowing someone at the border, they were able to walk into Uganda. The pastor and other church members also went. That was in 2005.
In Uganda, the family went to church often. She and Myani grew up Catholic. At 10, she helped poor and elderly people and felt God was calling her.
The camp in Uganda had food—but not enough—and housing was in insect-infested tents. There was no school and no water to bathe.
Christelle needed treatment and went to a Christian hospital. Marie visited and prayed for people in the hospital. She also made and sold jewelry to pay for the hospital. People from the church also gave money, sugar and salt. She said God taught her to trust.
In 2006, Marie became a pastor in the Shekinnah Church. She did studies, began to be a pastor and preach, and was licensed.
She did more training from 2008 to 2012 in Kampala. U.S. and South African pastors came to teach. She and Myani-Tito both earned diplomas to be Methodist pastors. In 2008, she was assistant pastor of a church there.
In 2015, Christelle needed more treatment than she could get in Uganda. World Relief arranged for them to come to Spokane. A doctor flew with them because Christelle was on oxygen. She had open heart surgery to repair her heart valve last year and is healthy and active today, said Marie.
"God changed our situation with coming here," she said.
Marie works at the Queen of Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant. Myani works in the laundry at the Kalispel Resort and Casino.
Every year since coming, she has been adamant about holding a service and preaching on March 8 for International Women's Day.
"It gives me hope," said Marie. "Women help, and God encourages us through difficult situations."
After 25 years as a hospital chaplain, Sue wants to give back to the neighborhood where she grew up. She does outreach through a day camp and summer carnivals.
The church has a food closet and assists families at Willard Elementary School with Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets.
"It's not easy to connect with neighbors. Many work, are older, rent and are transient," Sue said.
Glenn, who lives at Deer Park, grew up on his family's ranch in Fruitland Valley near Lake Roosevelt. He left at 18, attending three colleges and graduating in psychology in 1968 from Seattle Pacific College. After four years of church youth work he went to seminary, completing his degree at Princeton Seminary in 1975. He plans to retire in June.
He sees the African and Anglo members growing together in a shared ministry.
"We are moving beyond a we-and-them mindset, especially the children and youth," he said.
"The African members' lives are full. Parents work multiple, low-paying jobs but make time for their children. They have little time to socialize, but are faithful about church life," he said.
Glenn said he has learned from Marie and her family about praise and gratitude.
"Marie is grateful to God for all of life. Being associated with her and her family has deepened my sense of gratitude for God's everyday gifts of life," he said.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April, 2019