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Congolese refugees worship together at St. Paul UMC
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Mugisha Bienvenu plays piano and sings with other musicians Nov. 12, 2017, at St. Paul United Methodist Church during services for the local Congolese population. - photo by Scott Rogers

Songs of praise ring in joyful reverberation from a street-level room as cars flash by in the windows.

But in this basement of the St. Paul United Methodist Church, located at the corner of Washington and West Academy streets near downtown Gainesville, the parishioners are not who you would expect.

Mostly speaking in Swahili with some women wearing traditional African headdresses and baby wraps, this congregation is made up entirely of Congolese refugees.

St. Paul Associate Pastor Angela Johnson said having Congolese refugees join the church has been something of an affirmation.

“We are seeing God’s love from all parts of the world,” she said.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a predominantly Christian country torn apart by years of war and ethnic conflict.

More than 1.3 million people have been displaced by the violence in recent years, according to the United Nations, forced to flee to safety in neighboring African countries like Kenya, Burundi, Zambia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Angola.

Congolese refugees became a focus of international resettlement efforts in the early 2000s, with the United States taking the lead.

More than 3,000 Congolese were resettled in this country in 2010 alone, and that figure jumped to 16,370 in 2016, according to federal data.

Philemon Rudaga, 46, came to America about three years ago. He was a pastor in his home country, and he longed to find a church here where his family felt welcomed and invited.   

“My desire and passion is to bring the word of God through songs,” he said.

Rudaga started a special service for his family at the church, and eventually other Congolese refugees joined.

There are seven Congolese families and nearly 50 people in all who now regularly attend this unique congregation.

Mugisha Bienvenu, 18, is a star runner at Gainesville High School. But he’s also got the rhythm of a great musician.

He said he was shy and lacked confidence when he first came to America. But church and school have helped him open up.

“It is really special,” he said.

During a recent service, songs of praise were led by teenagers and young children who attend local schools.

Bienvenu sat at the keyboard and banged out melodies with a jangly, boogie-woogie sound accompanied by a programmed drum beat.

There was dancing that resembled a man running in place, clapping and chants, and singing in both Swahili and English.

The room itself is as colorful as the songs of praise. Behind a choir hang blue, red, white, black, pink and turquoise curtains, while pillars are painted yellow and the walls a pea green.

It’s the perfect environment — for now.

“We’ve had a great relationship” with church leaders, Rudaga said, adding that he hopes to recruit additional families and will likely one day need a bigger space for service.

In that vein, Rudaga is working to translate some traditional African praise songs into English and collecting new instruments to add to the drums, bass, acoustic guitars and keyboards on hand.

Robert Thorpe, a parishioner for 20 years at St. Paul and a former middle school principal, has taken a keen interest in the Congolese refugees migrating to the church.

He has worked closely with several of the families to establish bonds that will last a lifetime. And Thorpe assists in ways large and small, from helping run errands to navigating cultural barriers.

“I have a heart for people” coming from poor and violent backgrounds, he said.

But this is no one-way street.

“We’re learning a lot from each other,” Thorpe said. “It really validates my love for this church.”

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