Survive or Thrive

She didn’t ask all the “proper” questions from our baptism liturgy.  No talk about rejecting the evil powers of this world, resisting injustice, or serving as Christ’s representatives in the world.  No, all Rev. Marcia Elders asked was, “Do you believe that Jesus came and died for your sins?” Dunia, Omari, Atondji, Vumilia, Byoko, and Kalumbulwa earnestly said “Yes,” and I wept.  It all comes down to this, doesn’t it?  Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior?  When we say “yes,” everything else follows. 

In the fall of 2010 Marcia, who is the pastor at South Wyoming UMC, received an email from Jessica Gladden, a volunteer from Lutheran Social Services.  She wrote to several United Methodist congregations in the Grand Rapids metropolitan area, “We have a family coming from a Tanzanian refugee camp to Grand Rapids, and they insist on being part of a Methodist congregation.  Are you willing to welcome this family to your church and help them resettle here in Grand Rapids?”

In the past Marcia had received other requests to sponsor refugee families.  Although she desired to diversify the congregation and had a passion for outreach and mission, Marcia had always responded that South Wyoming UMC was not ready.  After all, they were a tiny, country congregation in an area outside Grand Rapids that 6 years ago suddenly found itself surrounded by a stunning and almost overnight transformation from rural to urban, from cornfields to a hospital, YMCA, restaurants, major businesses, and housing developments.

The congregation knew that in order to thrive as well as survive, they had to reinvent themselves.  It was change or die.  Choosing to live, they sold their 108 year old building and prime property to CVS Pharmacy, built a brand new debt-free facility a quarter mile away, and began to create a new vision and mission. 

After nearly 5 years in their new building, the congregation had more than doubled in size.  This time Marcia felt God’s nudge and wrote back to Jessica, “We’re a small but welcoming congregation.  We’d love to help.”  Mkabe (Charles) Ilutelo and Monika Wabala and their 7 children, ranging in age from 6 to 28 years old, came to South Wyoming UMC the next Sunday and haven’t missed a Sunday since. 

When 6 of the 7 children were baptized on March 4 (Charles, Monika, and the oldest child, Fatuma, had already been baptized in Tanzania), the rest of the congregation’s children came forward to participate.  20 children sat on the steps, with the youth bringing in pitchers of water. (9 years ago there were just 3 children.)  A basin and 6 yard sale mugs, one for each of those to be baptized, were displayed in the chancel. 

Marcia explained to the congregation that the Tanzanian children and youth wanted to be baptized the African way in Lake Michigan, but she suggested that March was probably not the best time to do that!   So she invented a new mode of baptism.  Marcia had each youth lean over the basin, filled the mugs with water from the basin, and poured water over their heads 3 times, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Atondji, who is severely impaired, screamed for joy, the children were enraptured, the congregation clapped, the Holy Spirit moved across the face of the baptismal waters, and God was present. 

Charles, Monika, and Fatuma also joined the church that day, transferring their membership from the Free Methodist Church of Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Kasulu-Kigoma, the United Republic of Tanzania.  The entire family then sang an African song for the congregation.

Sponsoring a refugee family is a long term and daunting commitment on the part of a congregation.  Most families have experienced great trauma, with deep emotional, spiritual, and physical wounds.  They arrive in a foreign country with no money and jobs and often without any English skills.  They are completely at the mercy of the refugee organization which brought them to the U.S. and the sponsoring congregation. 

During the sermon on March 4 Charles gave his testimony through an interpreter.  But first he insisted that his wife come and pray over him.  Monika spends all day Saturday in her “prayer closet,” fasting and praying in preparation for the sabbath.  I could not understand the words of her prayer, but it didn’t matter.  I got it.

Charles began by saying, “I salute you in the name of the Lord.”  Charles explained that he and his wife left their native country of the Congo in 1996 because of war and ended up in a Tanzanian refugee camp where they lived for 15 years.  They experienced many hardships and health crises in the refugee camps, with 2 of their children becoming very ill.

One night God spoke to Monika in a dream and said, “Your family has had great troubles.  I will take you to a God country.”  A short time later a letter came from the United Nations Refugee Commission granting them permission to come to the United States in September of 2010.  Charles said, “I am so happy with how the American people and The United Methodist Church have treated and accepted us because there is so much difference between living in Africa and living in the United States.”

South Wyoming UMC had no idea how God would transform them in the process of working with this 9 member African family.  Most refugee organizations do a great job of finding housing for their families and enrolling the children in school.  But after 4-5 months that support ends, and churches are pretty much on their own.  As Marcia put it, “That’s where we saw a huge need with filling the gap between arriving and acclimating, thriving rather than surviving.  The special needs of our family (Dunia and Atonji, who is severely impaired) have been a challenge as well, which makes me think that every refugee family is going to have special needs.  The needs may not be as apparent as those of our family, but time will make clear whatever the needs are.” 

The first Christmas in 2010 saw congregation members helping with practical things such as kitchen items, furniture, and clothing.  The greatest challenges, however, were the language barrier and the need for jobs.  One Sunday shortly after the family arrived, Marcia met a regular visitor named Anne, who was standing in line at coffee hour after worship.  Learning that Anne and her husband were homeschooling their 2 granddaughters, Marcia suggested that Anne might consider teaching English to Dunia once a week during the day.  Anne and Jerry became South Wyoming UMC’s first “cultural brokers” and have spent countless hours helping the family with medical issues, school, housing concerns, transportation, English, and job searching.   

Today Jessica Gladden, a skilled social worker, is a regular at South Wyoming UMC and leads a new non-profit organization called Thrive: A Refugee Support Program (  Created by the church, Thrive supports local refugees in adjusting to life in their new country while keeping the best parts of their own culture alive so that they are able to be physically and emotionally self-sufficient.

Thrive provides its own programs but also connects refugees to services in other agencies that they would otherwise not be able to access.  One gap that Thrive identified was the lack of any ESL (English as a Second Language) programs on Sundays in the metro area.  Every Sunday morning the church bus now picks up refugee families for ESL instruction at the church, and some of those families have begun attending worship as well.

During his testimony Charles did not simply share the story of their family’s journey to a new life in the United States.  More important, Charles wanted us to know that 6 of his children received new life that very day through baptism.  He cited how John the Baptist said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one is coming after me who will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit.”  Charles said, “After my children were baptized I was happy to remember those words.  I pray for them and for my church that they may be baptized with the Holy Spirit as well, be born again, and receive new life.” 

As Marcia’s husband, David, led the band and congregation in singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” he said to the congregation, “Do you see how much God loves us, to give us this gift?” 

Who is the giver, and who is the recipient?  Who has received new life?  Charles, Monika, and their family?  Jessica Gladden?  The South Wyoming congregation?  God?

  • I have a hunch that Charles, Monika, and their family will not just survive but thrive.
  • I have a dream that the refugee organization Thrive will not just survive but thrive.
  • I have a feeling that South Wyoming United Methodist Church will not just survive but thrive.

Charles closed his testimony with these words, “I am so happy with my life in the United States.  The Bible says do not stop doing good.  When you do not use your heart, you are not on the path.  Do not lose heart and despair.”  Sounds like thriving to me. 

  • What will it take for you to thrive, not just survive?
  • What will it take for your church to thrive, not just survive? 
  • What will it take for our world to thrive, not just survive?

            The key may very well be that simple question, “Do you believe that Jesus came and died for your sins?” Something to think about on your Lenten journey.


P.S. Thrive is available for conversation with any church thinking of sponsoring a refugee family, with any refugee in any situation, and with any business thinking of hiring refugees. Thrive will support them.

4 thoughts on “Survive or Thrive

  1. Wow, what a great account! Reading it, I felt so UNITED METHODIST. It had the elements of Salvation in Jesus, solid social work, global emphasis, total church in ministry, and being in the position of learning from those we serve. And, it feels good to be ‘A God Country.’

  2. Yes, this is very affirming! This is “doing church” in the best way. Challenging, stretching, using our gifts and resources selflessly, never saying “No” to the leading of the Spirit. May we all catch fire and burn this brightly!

  3. What a sweet, precious story! Way to go, South Wyoming! Thanks for sharing, Laurie. I always appreciate it when you highlight the extraordinary in our local churches.

  4. Laurie, We were able to share your blob with our leadership last night and when the the comments were read, we had “adult” goosebumps. The affirmation of Thrive is so important. The need for volunteers grows and in that short break, we thanked God for the care of our neighbors and us. Back to work!

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