Worshipping in Swahili in Boise: African Fellowship
Calvin Lumumbra Karemera credits his faith — and the ability to suppress sound and horror as loved ones were slaughtered around him — for keeping him alive.
Lumumbra Karemera, who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo and went to Rwanda in the mid-1990s, said Congolese militants twice crossed the border into Rwanda and massacred refugees in his camp. He said 2,000 were killed in one night.
He hid amid the carnage.
“I kept quiet,” he said. “To escape, it wasn’t my intelligence. It was God’s will.”
Lumumbra Karemera, now 27, lived in the refugee camp in Rwanda for 17 years before the United States granted him refugee status and resettled him in Boise in 2013 with his younger brothers. Several more family members joined him last year.
After arriving, Lumumbra Karemera heard that refugees from Congo, Rwanda and Uganda had found a spiritual home at Oasis Seventh Day Adventist Church at 501 N. Curtis Road on the Bench. A church member gave him a ride to his first service. Lumumbra Karemera had already worshiped as a Seventh Day Adventist in Africa.
My younger brother died in Rwanda. There was genocide in 1994. But when you are in trouble, that does not mean that God hates you.
Calvin Lumumbra Karemera, member of Oasis Church Boise.
The service was in English, a language Lumumbra Karemera understood little, so he didn’t follow much of it. But he found comfort in weekly worship with fellow refugees and a congregation that wanted him to feel at home.
“In my country, nobody can smile to strangers,” he said. “Here, everybody smiled. They said, ‘Hey, how are you?’ It was a good thing for me, to help me feel familiar.”
African refugees now make up about half of the 150 to 200 attendees at weekly services at Oasis, said Mark Peel, one of the members delivering sermons as the church searches for a full-time pastor. Seventh Day Adventists worship on Saturday.
Last year, Oasis started holding a service in Kinyarwanda, a language spoken in Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo, following the regular service so that refugees could worship in their native tongue.
Oasis is one of a handful of Boise churches making efforts to attract and accommodate resettled Americans. Among them:
▪ Calvary Chapel Boise, at 123 Auto Drive, holds services in Swahili and French, including African worship songs.
While some congregation members go to Sunday morning, English-speaking services at Calvary Chapel, “The old people and our parents don’t understand anything in English,” said Jean Bangerere, founder of African Fellowship, which meets there Sunday afternoons.
Bangerere founded the Swahili-speaking fellowship to help erase tribal divisions that refugees might have brought with them. “We are in a new country,” he said. “There is a new life. We don’t have to be stuck in the old way.”
I’ve met a lot of friends in this church. We feel like it’s all family. We don’t see people as a stranger. At this church, everyone is welcome. We feel warm.
Chris Katana, Oasis Church Boise member
▪ Vineyard Boise, a nondenominational church at 4950 N. Bradley St. in Garden City, projects Scripture on a large screen in Burmese as well as English during services to accommodate its 150 refugees from Burma and Myanmar. Vineyard also has Karen and Burmese-language services once a month.
▪ Spouses Nick and Laura Armstrong run Glocal Community Partners, a ministry of Cole Community Church at 8775 Ustick Road in Boise. Glocal works to fill the gaps unfilled by Boise’s three resettlement agencies, including linking refugees with community members willing to become friends, taking time to help with confusing paperwork and otherwise help them integrate, Laura Armstrong said.
Glocal operates mostly outside of the church, which has only a few refugee members. Many of the refugees it helps lean on places of worship to connect with their enclaves and to forge relationships with nonrefugees, Nick Armstrong said.
Glocal has trained more than 400 volunteers in the last two years from 24 different churches. I think this demonstrates the general interest there is for the church to respond to the commission to welcome the stranger that is so prevalent throughout the Bible.
Nick Armstrong, cofounder of Glocal Community Partners
“Among the churches we’ve dealt with, we’ve been pleasantly surprised how ready they are to get involved,” he said.
REFUGEES RESHAPE MOSQUES
Incoming refugees have changed the makeup of the Treasure Valley’s mosques, too — even more than its churches, said Said Ahmed-Zaid, an engineering professor at Boise State University.
Ahmed-Zaid, a naturalized citizen from Algeria, writes a religion column in the Idaho Statesman focusing on the similarities in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
One of the Valley’s two large Sunni mosques, the Islamic Community of Bosniaks at 6250 S. Cloverdale Road in Boise, serves Bosnian refugees displaced by the war there in the early 1990s. Services are delivered in Bosnian, with some translated into English, Ahmed-Zaid said.
The other large mosque, the Islamic Center of Boise near the intersection of 28th and Stewart streets, serves as a catch-all for non-Bosnian Muslims, said Ahmed-Zaid, who is one of four regular speakers at weekly services there. At one point, the mosque counted members from 44 countries, Ahmed-Zaid said.
“We have to do [services] in English,” he said. “It’s the only common language we have.”
The Islamic Center of Boise had about 50 members when Ahmed-Zaid moved to Boise in 1996, he said. Few were refugees. As conflicts erupted in the Middle East and elsewhere, the mosque received a steady flow of refugees from a growing list of countries, he said.
Today, it has 150 registered members but draws up to 200 to worship each week, filling the space and prompting the mosque to buy land for a larger mosque on Christine Street, off Ustick Road next to Hillview Methodist Church.
The mosque is Sunni, the predominant sect of Islam, though it has some Shia members, Ahmed-Zaid said.
A smaller Shia congregation meets at the Imam AlMahdi Islamic Center 4243 N. Cloverdale Road.
The new Sunni mosque is under construction and should be finished by the end of 2016, Ahmed-Zaid said. It is already planning interfaith activities with Cole Community Church, King’s Glory Lutheran Church and Hillview.
“[Hillview] has been great neighbors,” Ahmed-Zaid said. “I’m glad to have a welcoming church there, even if some of their members still look at us with a suspicious eye.”
FOCUS ON FAITH
Bridge building also happens at the mosque, Ahmed-Zaid said. With members from different countries and different schools within Islam, speakers focus on topics that unify members and shy away from politics or hard-line interpretations of the Quran, he said.
For example, many members opposed the Iraq invasion in 2003, feeling that it had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks upon which President George W. Bush built his case for war. But Kurdish members who lost loved ones in Saddam Hussein’s violence against the Kurds supported removing the dictator from power.
We have people from four continents: Africans, whites, Asians. Now, a typical Muslim in Boise is a blond-haired, blue-eyed, Slavic type.
Said Ahmed-Zaid, speaker at the Islamic Center of Boise
Speakers deliberately avoided talk of the invasion, Ahmed-Zaid said. “Everybody has to come in and live under the same roof,” he said. “We don’t mix politics and religion.”
However, people do speak out against acts of terrorism committed by Islamic extremists, Ahmed-Zaid said.
“These are criminals and thugs committing these acts,” he said. “We try to wake up the conscience of our youngsters, to say this is as far away from Islam as possible.”
Chris Katana was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but he had spent nearly his entire life in a refugee camp in Rwanda before resettling in Boise in 2012.
Like most African refugees, Katana, 22, did not have a car to drive to church. Like Lumumbra Karemera, Katana converted to Seventh Day Adventism before resettling here. His sister, who was already attending service at Oasis when he moved to Boise, reached out to other church members on his behalf. Soon, one of them started picking up Katana for Saturday services.
Katana said the congregation made him feel welcome. Though his English was more advanced than that of many refugees, he struggled to keep up with speakers. The addition of the Kinyarwanda classes gave the refugees a venue for deeper Scripture analysis, he said.
“It’s really good for us, especially for my parents and the older members who can’t speak English,” Katana said. “In the English service, they can’t get anything. When it’s in our language, we can ask questions or talk about anything.”
These churches that have an open invitation where refugees feel welcome can be a touchpoint for gaining new friends, to increase their surface area. That can be hard for refugees, who generally don’t have many means to initiate contact.
Nick Armstrong, co-founder of Glocal Community Partners
Another refugee, Rebecca Kamariza, began a new life in Boise in 2014 after her husband and two children were butchered by Rwandan rebels.
Kamariza, who attends services at both Cole Community Church and at Calvary Chapel, said she struggled to adapt to life here. She fights anxiety. She was confused by conventions that were foreign to her, such as mailing checks to pay bills. One check went to the wrong destination.
She said life became easier after she met women in the Widow’s Connection group at Cole Community Church. The women took her in, helping her learn how to adapt to America. When she and all her fellow tenants of Glenbrook Apartments were ordered to vacate last year, one of the Widow’s Connection members, Karen Kuklinski, let her move in for five months while Kamariza searched for a new apartment.
Kuklinski said the fact that both women are widows helped them become friends.
“I had the opportunity to learn about what a good man her husband was,” she said. “We could share that life experience of how hard it is to lose your husband.”
Kamariza thanks the widows — and Kuklinski especially — for making her feel less alone.
“Those women are my family,” Kamariza said. “They are my everything.”