New Americans from a small African country find a home in a small Lutheran congregation
Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer (LCCR), Minneapolis, has a new staff member, thanks to a generous gift from another ELCA congregation, St. John’s of Minneapolis. Mady Ekue-Hettah serves as liaison to 24 LCCR members who have immigrated from Togo during the past decade.
The warm relationship between LCCR and the Togolese community began in 1997 when a neighboring Roman Catholic parish, Christ the King, sponsored a refugee from Togo who rented housing owned by LCCR. Paul Amla later introduced some Togolese friends to LCCR. An LCCR member, Dorothy Rossing, helped one immigrant family get on its feet, and three Togolese people began worshiping at LCCR. When the Rev. Mary Albing became LCCR’s pastor in 2003, she asked the Togolese visitors if they’d like to join. Two joined that year and a third in 2004.
At a 2006 meeting, LCCR’s Peace and Justice Committee agreed to begin making small loans to Togolese immigrants. The decision was made after Rossing asked if the congregation had some “spare money sitting around” somewhere. One of the Togolese had asked her for a loan and she had no personal funds available. A Muslim family was seeking funds for airfare for their children, who still lived in Togo and had just gotten their U.S. visas.
Albing remembers, “My first reaction was that we had no spare money sitting around. But I’d just been reading about the work of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and the process they used for making micro-loans. … I thought, ‘Why not?’ ”
Rossing and Albing worked with the committee to find resources online for grant writing and simple loan forms. They met with representatives from the Togolese Community of Minnesota, an organization of immigrants from Togo who, along with the congregation, would screen applicants and vouch for them. Grant requests, mostly to local ELCA congregations, plus internal fundraising, resulted in a loan fund that has reached $27,000.
Albing credits the response of neighbor congregations for helping the loan fund take off. “The success of this effort really was due to the support of several south Minneapolis Lutheran congregations,” she says. Bethlehem, Edina Community, Good Shepherd, St. John’s, and St. Peder’s (all ELCA) gave generously.
Beginning in February 2007, Inge Bash, another LCCR member, worked with Rossing to make the loans and keep track of dozens of borrowers. With just a few exceptions, borrowers have diligently repaid their loans. Bash and Rossing emphasize to borrowers the importance of paying off their loans so that other Togolese can enjoy the same benefit. “It really is a wonderful thing. It’s like recycling. We’re trying to be green, aren’t we?” Rossing says with a smile.
How the loan fund works
The fund operates with a maximum of $2,000 per loan, and most requests are for that amount. Currently all of the fund is out on loan. Loans are interest-free and are made without regard for religious affiliation. The outcome has been a warm relationship with the entire Twin Cities Togolese community.
LCCR has also funded airline tickets for several Togolese young persons to complete family reunifications.
Six Togolese were LCCR members by the end of 2008. Seventeen more joined in 2009, and a newborn was baptized in December. Togolese now number a full ten percent of LCCR’s baptized membership.
While the immigrants typically speak several languages, they are all fluent in French, but not English. Most have some English, but often it’s their fourth or fifth language. Several are in school and working on gaining citizenship. Most individuals have low-paying jobs; many more than one. Their ability to join in worship and other parish activities is limited. It adds up to a situation requiring more resources for LCCR’s ministry with Togolese to be effective.
Says Albing: “Our inability to communicate well is a big obstacle. It’s difficult for members to connect with one another, even difficult to explain our process for becoming congregation members. Communication barriers created confusion for some of our earliest visitors. We also didn’t understand the scope of our new members’ daily-life concerns. And we really wanted to integrate all LCCR members into a single community, not an ‘us-them’ relationship. We desperately needed help.”
Enter the Rev. Mark Hallonquist and St. John’s Lutheran. When Hallonquist learned of the need, he approached St. John members, who agreed to provide a year’s salary for a part-time liaison. Among several interviewed for the position was Mady Ekue-Hettah. She was 17 when she arrived in the U.S from Togo. A graduate of Minneapolis’ South High, Mady is now a senior at St. Thomas University majoring in French and public health.
Since Mady began her work at LCCR in October, changes have come. Worshipers now routinely hear the second lesson read in French by a Togolese member. In November Togolese and non-Togolese members joined in a potluck — “a wonderful combination of traditional African and American dishes,” says Albing. Mady keeps in touch with the Togolese community in many ways and helps assess needs. Her quiet energy is empowering much more social interaction, says Albing.
When Leopold Lawson, who joined LCCR in November, spoke with Albing about having their three children baptized, he said, “We have missed our church in Togo. It was very important to us. We have visited other U.S. churches. But now after visiting this church, we finally feel like we belong somewhere. We have found a home.”
Celebrating New Americans and new members
Togo, a slim sliver of a nation just east of Ghana, attained independence in 1960. Torn by civil discord in recent decades, it has seen thousands emigrating, many to the United States. Togolese now number more than 3,000 in Minnesota, mostly in the metro region.
Togo’s faith demographics are typical of west African countries. Among its six million people, says a Lutheran World Federation analysis, 46 percent identify with traditional tribal religions, 37 percent are Christians, and 17 percent are Muslims. German Lutheran missionaries launched Togo work in the mid-1800s. During Togo’s colonization by the German Empire (1880s through 1914) a sizeable Lutheran church developed. After the French expelled German missionaries early in World War One, that church lost its Lutheran identity, dividing into a Presbyterian group and an evangelical group. The latter is today Togo’s largest Protestant church.
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in 1980 sent two missionary pastors from the U.S. Their work has produced several congregations with a few thousand members.
Among Togolese finding their way to LCCR there’s nary a Lutheran. All have had Roman Catholic background.
“Their coming is a good match for us,” says Albing. “A very small congregation helping immigrants from a very small country.”
Charles P. Lutz, a Metro Lutheran editor emeritus and member of Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer (ELCA), lives in southwest Minneapolis.
Tags: Bethlehem Lutheran Church Minneapolis, Charles Lutz, Dorothy Rossing, Edina Community Lutheran Church, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Inge Bash, Leopold Lawson, Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Mady Ekue-Hettah, Mark Hallonquist, Mary Albing, Paul Amla, St. Peder's Lutheran Church Minneapolis, Togo, Togolese, Togolese Community of Minnesota