Christian Congolese refugees in Wichita wanted to worship so much after they got here that some of them met for prayer in laundromats.
First Presbyterian Church members from downtown Wichita decided to see what they could do about that.
Starting the first Sunday in December, they gave the refugees Room 204 in their complex on North Broadway. There’s so much room at First Presbyterian that both the Congolese and the U.S. congregations hold worship services in separate rooms at the same hour on Sundays.
“I don’t even know how to explain our gratitude,” said Jacquesbal Kitwanga, a leader in the Congolese refugee community in Wichita. “Everywhere else we looked for help, people closed their doors to us.
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I don’t even know how to explain our gratitude.
Jacquesbal Kitwanga, a Congolese refugee
“These people did not close their doors. They opened their doors and gave us a beautiful place for prayer.”
Millions have died and many thousands have fled the civil wars that have gutted civilized life in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past two decades.
“It’s deep-rooted ethnic strife and warfare for a long time there,” said Marla Schmidt, the field office director for Episcopalian Migration Ministries-Wichita. “It’s not safe for our Congolese families to go back home.”
The ministry has brought 148 Congolese refugees to the Wichita area since 2014 and has worked with them to find housing, job training, jobs and schools for their children, Schmidt said. Most of them had spent years in refugee camps in Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa, Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya or Malawi, she said.
All of them were vetted by investigators before they came to the U.S.
“They all got the highest level of federal security checks,” Schmidt said.
There are 50 to 60 adults and 20 to 25 children in the group of Congolese that will now attend church at First Presbyterian, Kitwanga said.
“There is no way to survive or to provide a good education for our kids in the Congo,” Kitwanga said. “People are fighting; there is shooting, shooting, shooting every day, shooting all over.”
He left the country several years ago, bringing three of his seven children with him.
How they met
First Presbyterian runs programs that help the needy, including an August effort that gives backpacks filled with school supplies to children.
At the August backpack giveaway, five Congolese families came in. They looked around – and asked to see the pastor, said the church’s mission committee moderator, Mary Knecht.
“They said, ‘We are meeting in laundromats or any other place where we can find space,’ ” Knecht said.
The church invited the Congolese to a church gathering.
They are proud people and hesitant to ask for help.
Mary Knecht, First Presbyterian’s mission moderator
“Our congregation was very touched,” Knecht said. “The Congolese are proud people and hesitant to ask for help.”
But it was clear to church members that there were needs, and not only for room, Knecht said.
So the church gave them a large meeting room, as well as providing transportation, clothes, gasoline cards and coats.
“The Congo has a hot climate, so for many of these people, the winter weather was quite a change,” Knecht said.
The church even gave them the means to make music.
“We use pipe organs, violins and cellos, so we knew our worship experience would not be meaningful for them,” Knecht said. “They like to sing and dance and play big fancy drums – which we provided.
“We feel compelled to do this because our Lord was sent out as an immigrant after he was born,” Knecht said.
“Do unto others,” she said.