African presence growing in local Lutheran congregations
Especially in the north Minneapolis suburbs, diversity is growing in membership.
Fresh from tackling the challenge of integrating refugees from Southeast Asia in the wake of the Vietnam war,
Lutheran churches in the metro area are now working to bring immigrants from African countries into their
congregations. Many in this new influx are refugees from nations torn by civil wars.
Some of these Africans, individually or in small groups, have quietly joined existing parishes. Others, in larger groups,
have struck partnership arrangements with area congregations for use of their facilities for worship in their native
languages and other activities, with full integration in the future the desired goal.
In either case, said the Rev. David Wangaard, assistant to the bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA,
“Many urban congregations count recent African immigrants as members.”
The large majority of these new immigrants have settled in the inner-city, north-side and north-suburban areas of
Minneapolis. The availability of affordable housing there, along with employment opportunities, was the main
attraction for the first African immigrants; and once they settled there, relatives followed them to that area.
Congregations in the ELCA that are working with large African immigrant groups include Zion-Bethlehem, St. Olaf
and Our Saviour’s in Minneapolis and Cross of Glory in Brooklyn Center and Prince of Peace in Brooklyn Park with
Liberians; Zion of Anoka with Sudanese; Bethany of Minneapolis and Christ Lutheran on Capitol Hill in St. Paul with
Ethiopians; Trinity Lutheran Congregation in Minneapolis with Eritreans; and Holy Trinity of Minneapolis with
Among LCMS congregations, the biggest cooperative effort with African immigrants is at St. Matthew in Columbia
Heights, which is the home base for programs for both Sudanese and Liberian newcomers.
Sparking much of the ELCA’s work with African immigrants is the Agora Ministries program, which was launched by the
Minneapolis Area Synod three years ago to reach out to the many ethnic minority groups coming into the area. Under
the leadership of the Rev. Cherian Puthiyottil, the ministry identifies immigrant groups arriving in the area, moves to
meet their immediate material needs, launches worship opportunities employing the language and culture of
newcomer groups, and then connects them with area congregations in building partnerships.
The LCMS Minnesota South District has no similar separate ministry program. But the Rev. Keith Brutlag, pastor of
St. Matthew in Columbia Heights who has led the outreach work with Sudanese and Liberian immigrants there for five
years, also conducts a training program for leaders of immigrant groups which have linked up with several LCMS
congregations in the Twin Cities and a number of others in southern Minnesota communities.
The Minnesota South District now believes half of its mission work in the future will be with ethnic groups, Brutlag
said. And he himself will be leaving St. Matthew shortly to take a new district staff position that includes ethnic and
Most pastors and leaders in congregations which have embarked on efforts to team up with African immigrant groups
express enthusiasm for the way the work has progressed. While there have been and will continue to be challenges,
they say, the movement toward integration has been satisfactory.
But just how rapidly the new Africans can be integrated into Lutheran congregations is a matter on which there is
The 8000-member Zion Lutheran in Anoka, one of the ELCA’s largest congregations, became home to a Sudanese
worshipping community in April. The immigrant group was seeking a relationship that would lead to full integration —
something that hadn’t been possible at two previous church locations they tried, said Sue Hagen, director of
newcomer relations at Zion.
“Their intention, dream and goal — and ours — is to become a fully integrated congregation,” Hagen said. “But the
barrier is language.”
For now, the 150 members of the Sudanese group are holding Arabic-language services from 2 to 5 p.m. on
Sundays. There are many different ways the two congregations can work together until the language hurdle is
overcome, Hagen indicated, but Zion wants to make sure the Sudanese are comfortable before they come together
with Zion members in one worshipping community.
Most of the Sudanese live in Anoka and Coon Rapids, and many are employed at the Vision Ease Lens optical
goods company in nearby Ramsey. They come from two different tribes in southern Sudan, and their Christian
background is in the Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, or native Mission Church of Africa denominations, Hagen said,
but these have not been stumbling blocks to their uniting as Lutheran Christians in the United States.
Their spiritual leader, Mawien Ariik, who studied the theology of the Coptic Christian Church in Cairo, Egypt, is taking
courses at Luther Seminary to become a licensed lay minister, the Zion leader explained.
Pastor Cherian, as the leader of the Minneapolis Synod’s Agora ministry is called, has worked closely with the Zion
and Sudanese leaders in establishing their partnership. Raised and ordained in the Orthodox Christian Church in
India, he also holds doctorates from Oxford University and Luther Seminary. And he is a strong advocate of a
speedy process of integration for the African immigrants.
“I am very much goal-oriented,” Cherian declared. “I believe in only one church.”
The Agora director doesn’t think it will take longer than 10 years for the African immigrant groups to blend in and
become fully united with American partner congregations.
Unlike the Scandinavian immigrant groups, who took several generations to unify, the current African newcomers must
learn the English language quickly if they are to survive, he explained. In the case of Zion, Cherian said, the
Sudanese, although they speak Arabic, are actually “fluent” in English since that was the nation’s language in its
days as a British colony.
Other factors that will speed the unifying process at Zion, he said, are that Sudanese children are already being
integrated into the Sunday School and youth programs, some Sudanese men are taking part in joint Bible studies
and reading Scripture at Sunday morning services, and family-to-family connections are being established.
“I’m not waiting for it to happen,” Cherian asserted. “You need intentional effort. That’s what I am doing because
that is the only way we can make our church a diverse church.”
At Prince of Peace Lutheran in Brooklyn Park, the 3600-member ELCA congregation launched a partnership with a
group of 30 to 40 Liberian Christians living in the area a year ago. Pastor Cherian has also worked closely with this
The Rev. Ron Prasek, pastor of Prince of Peace, said he believes the Liberian congregation, which has been given
space for a Sunday afternoon worship service, is growing. And he is optimistic that the process of integration is
moving ahead, citing the fact that about a half-dozen of the Liberians are now attending the congregation’s third
Sunday morning worship service as well as their own in the afternoon.
However Cherian acknowledges that a division not unfamiliar in work with African refugees has cropped up. A splinter
group, whose members became dependent on a Pentecostal, charismatic organization for support while they were in
a refugee camp in Ghana, wants to continue that connection.
They will be breaking away from the other Liberians, who want to continue with Agora and gradually become part of
the Lutheran tradition. Cherian says he will continue to work with both groups and find a new location for the
Pentecostal one, believing the rift can eventually be healed.
At Cross of Glory Lutheran in Brooklyn Center, the move to create a partnership with several Christian immigrant
groups of different cultural and denominational backgrounds began two years ago when the Rev. Jerry O’Neill
became senior pastor.
The aim has not been to meld the groups into a single congregation unified by agreement on Lutheran theology.
Rather it has been to bring under one roof several groups that agree on basics of the Christian faith and concentrate
on outreach efforts in a rapidly changing community.
The 1600-member almost all-white Cross of Glory congregation continues to worship at two Sunday-morning services.
Victory Chapel, an outgrowth of the United Church of God in Christ in Liberia, which has a Pentecostal orientation,
brings its 50-plus members into the sanctuary for worship at noon on Sundays.
Faith Healing Home of the Lord, a prayer fellowship of Liberian immigrants, meets at the church on Friday evenings.
And the Minneapolis Hispanic Seventh Day Adventist Church, made up of Hispanic immigrants, mostly from rural
Mexico, holds its services on Saturday morning.
“It was pretty obvious from the start that we weren’t interested in just providing space,” O’Neill said. “We wanted to lift
up a vision of what the Church can be — Lutherans alongside Liberian Pentecostals and Hispanic Seventh Day
Adventists in a worshipping community here.
“It’s a partnership where we support each other in what we’re doing individually and do certain things together. We
express the unity we have in Christ through periodic joint services, service projects, mission trips and the like.”
Bishop Albert Reeves, leader of Victory Chapel who was a prime architect in building the United Church of God in
Christ into one of the largest indigenous Christian churches in Liberia, was added to the Cross of Glory staff last
spring as the coordinator of the activities of the partner groups.
Leaders of the groups meet monthly to hear updates on the ministries of each, plan joint activities and decide how to
spend the financial contributions the ethnic groups make to support the joint ministry.
In a new collaborative project being launched this fall, Cross of Glory and Victory Chapel are adding a cross-cultural,
intergenerational Sunday School session as a new option following Cross of Glory’s traditional 10 a.m. Sunday
School hour. And
adding a bilingual (English-Spanish) session two afternoons a week to Cross of Glory’s preschool program is also
Cross of Glory has worked closely with Agora Ministries in establishing its multicultural ministry program, and O’Neill
finds Pastor Cherian’s vision of rapid integration into one congregation “stirring.”
But while there is no language barrier with the English-speaking Liberians, O’Neill can’t see blending the different
preaching and worship styles nearly so quickly as
“We’re in our infancy here,” O’Neill says. “We’re not looking at a merger down the road at this point. We’re
concentrating on just working as partners, doing a better job of outreach.”
He adds: “We do see the value of maintaining some clarity about the traditions we bring to the mix. But we feel we
are enriched on the occasions we come together for worship, prayer and education. We’ll be better for the distinctive
contributions of each.”
At the St. Matthew LCMS congregation in Columbia Heights, Pastor Brutlag also is skeptical about the possibility of
rapid integration of the African immigrants with whom his church is working into full membership in the parish.
The 800-member St. Matthew congregation worships in the main sanctuary on Sunday mornings, and a
50-60-member Sudanese community meets at a different location in the same building. Grace International, a
75-member Liberian fellowship, has offices at St. Matthew but now worships at Peace Lutheran in Robbinsdale.
St. Matthew maintains a full-time leader for each of the two immigrant groups on its staff — Paul Kueth, a Sudan
native, and Isaac Williams, who is from Liberia. Both have been certified as deacons by the Minnesota South District
and are mentored by Brutlag as they invite new refugees and guide their worshipping communities.
The St. Matthew congregation and the Sudanese group hold quarterly joint worship services, and the Americans and
Africans also have periodic cross-cultural social events. In addition, St. Matthew assists the two refugee communities
by distributing donated commodities and monetary gifts to assist in the resettlement process to them as well as
assisting them in obtaining medical care and finding jobs.
“It’s been a goal of mine that we begin this process of integrating into a blended kind of worshipping community so
that the elements of worship reflect Caucasian and ethnic styles,” Brutlag said.
But the concern that arises is the clash this would bring about between the children of the immigrants, who have
integrated rapidly in school and on the playgrounds and are ready to do so in the church, and their parents, who
want to have some sort of autonomy, particularly in the area of worship, the pastor said.
Brutlag is now convinced that integration will take place only when today’s immigrant children become parents
themselves and will want their own kids to be part of a blended congregation.
It’s clear that Pastor Cherian’s vision of rapid integration of the African immigrants into American congregations is
more optimistic than the views of some pastors dealing with the issue at ground level. However a number of them do
share his impatience with people who insist that meshing congregations must wait until refugee groups subscribe to
every jot and tittle of Lutheran doctrine.
“We aren’t here to convert them,” the Agora leader said. “We share the unique Christian love we have. If we share
that with them they will come to us and become a part of us. We have to love whatever they are. My concern is how
can they become more Christian. If they become Christian, they’ll have no problem becoming Lutheran.”
Cherian’s conviction that sharing the love of God in Jesus Christ is the key in reaching out to immigrants and that this
message of love carries universal appeal leaves him with no hesitation in extending his mission across not only
denominational lines but to other faith groups.
He is now beginning work with a group of 28-30 Somalis — easily the largest African immigrant group in the Twin Cities
but one which has been regarded as somewhat off limits because of its generally deep commitment to the Islamic
“I love them,” Cherian says. “My story is good for them. I want to share it with them because I believe in it. Because I
love them, I share my excitement with them.”