Lutherans in Minnesota

No line at the Lord’s Table

Liberian Lutherans have significant presence in Twin Cities

Fufu, green bean hot dish, jollof rice, Jello salad, spicy stew, sloppy joes: At
several Twin Cities Lutheran congregations, these mingle happily on the
potluck table, thanks to the contributions of Liberian members. But the
exchange goes much deeper.

A dozen or more area Lutheran churches have a contingent of Liberian
members. Minnesota is home to 20,000 to 30,000 Liberians, most of them
living in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center. Many came to the area to join
family members and follow jobs, and some found their church homes among
metro Lutherans.

Willie Roberts, a Liberian doctor, has become something of an elder
statesman at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Minneapolis, leading
the Liberian fellowship and offering the American members a chance to learn
about his homeland through aid projects, education, and friendship.

Lusienie Fofana came to the United States nine years ago and ended up at
Bethel Lutheran Church (LCMS) in St. Paul because of the members’ warm
hospitality. He was raised a Muslim, so his present occupation stuns his
family and friends in Liberia. He is studying at Concordia University’s Ethnic
Immigrant Institute of Theology to become a pastor. “People want to see
before they believe. They want to see me preach,” he says.

Alfred Flomo’s connection to his home church, Our Saviour’s in Minneapolis,
began in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast. Small packets of supplies donated by
the church were distributed to the refugees; each contained a slip of paper
that included the church’s name and address. The recipients wrote a thank
you note; church members wrote back. And so when some of those refugees
arrived in Minnesota, they followed the little bits of paper to a community of
believers, eventually putting down roots in the church.

The Lutheran church in Liberia has a long history. It was founded in 1860 by
Morris Officer, a graduate of Wittenberg College in Ohio, and grew until the
civil war wracked the country for 14 years. Today, “the ravages of the war
years have crippled the church and have left her entirely dependent on aid
from abroad,” Roberts said.

That aid has come from Lutherans in the U.S., who have raised money for a
hospital that was ruined twice by war; sent containers of school supplies or
medical supplies; helped build nursing staff quarters; and supported teachers
and doctors to work there. And the help continued when Liberians arrived in
this country. “Anytime you knock on the door,” Flomo said of his fellow
church members, “there’s somebody there to find out what do you need.”

If there’s anything Flomo misses in his new church home, it’s time. “This is a
very fast-moving country. On Sunday, we don’t have time for time.” In
Liberia, “the day is set aside for praising God.”

Kent Goodroad, youth director at Our Saviour’s, can attest to this outlook.
While the children of Liberians have integrated fully into American culture,
“There’s a certain Liberian disposition of congeniality and warmth.” Just
stopping by to visit a youth group member, “you can end up there for hours
just shooting the breeze,” Goodroad said.

Fofana decided on Bethel because of the hospitality he found there, with help
finding jobs and dinner at the pastor’s house. Since his arrival, he has
returned the welcome he received — he has made it his business to invite
others to join, and about 20 to 25 Liberians now attend. His outreach
message is simple, and it’s what drew him in, as well: “There is nothing
besides the Bible.” But he also knows there’s a way to deliver that good news:
“We reach people with the Gospel and also a little bit of food. When they are
happy, they will want to come to church. They are not happy, they won’t want
to listen to you.”

For Roberts, life has come full circle. He decided last year to move back to
Liberia, which had a doctor-to-patient ratio in 2007 of 50,000 to 1,
according to former Health Minister Dr. Peter Coleman. And as Roberts’
church home here helps to support Curran Hospital, in Lofa County, another
circle is completed — he has been asked to take a post at Curran.

At River of Life Luth-eran Church (ELCA) in north Minneapolis, the product of
a merger between two churches, Liberians have fully integrated into the
congregation, with the council about half Liberian, and the worship done
more in the Liberian style: “We can’t guarantee we’ll be done in an hour,”
says the Rev. Lee Ann Pomrenke.

There are tangible things the two communities give each other: The
congregation has sent cartons of supplies to Liberia, and done advocacy for
the immigrants in their midst “that otherwise wouldn’t occur to them to do,”
said their pastor. The church’s large sanctuary has hosted Liberian weddings,
funerals, and other gatherings of non-members, becoming a kind of
community center.

But it’s not the exchange of goods or help that binds them, “it’s the
community,” Pomrenke says. Though there are struggles as leadership is
passed from the older generation to a new culture, she’s heard congregants
say simply, “We’re just family now. There’s no line.”

Catherine Preus is a Minneapolis copy editor and writer.

A ministry of hospitality

As their country is struggling back to its feet, Minnesota’s Liberians got a
message straight from the top that they have a role to play in rebuilding their
nation after the civil war. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s “Iron Lady,”
spoke to a robust crowd of Liberians and others at Northrop Auditorium on
April 10. She assured them, “We want you home.” Right away? “No,” said
Alfred Flomo, who moved here in 2003. “We’re not supposed to be in a rush
to get back, unless we have some specific skill to offer our country,” he said.

One skill became evident at the event — hearty singing. The national anthem
raised the roof, as every Liberian knew the words and knew which part to
sing, with men booming the foundation and altos and sopranos wailing out
melody and harmony. Everyone learns the anthem from Day 1 in school, says
Flomo, so there’s no hesitation when it’s time to sing it.

Johnson Sirleaf was in the Twin Cities on a book tour, promoting her
autobiography, This Child will be Great. Her own story of surmounting
crushing odds provides proof that there is hope for her country.

But for those who want to remain in their new home, Johnson Sirleaf is
working for dual citizenship. She thanked Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., for
pressing the U.S. government to grant Liberians permanent status.
She had other words of gratitude, as well. “Thank you to the people of
Minnesota for receiving our people so well.”
—Catherine Preus