While some people check their watches when worship goes beyond an hour, Christ Assembly Lutheran Church, Philadelphia, Pa., is just getting warmed up.
Their 2½-hour Sunday service follows the traditional liturgical outline of Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) worship – plus lots of joyful singing, clapping and dancing, reflecting the culture of Africa, the church founder’s homeland.
“We like to rejoice this way,” said Emmanuel Oniyama, a member of this growing congregation founded to share the Gospel with immigrants who fled civil war in Liberia.
As Christ Assembly celebrates their 20th anniversary, these Lutherans praise God for bringing them together with faithful partners who walked by their side, so ministry could thrive – a walk “with lots of bumps,” said Oniyama. Without those partners, “we would never be where we are now.”
God ahead of us on this
Christ Assembly began in 1994 with Bible study in the home of Rev. Arthur Zogar. Zogar founded the African Christian Fellowship for congregations reaching out to immigrants in the U.S.
By 1997, the young congregation in west Philadelphia had outgrown Zogar’s home and moved to the basement of the Joine family home. At their first formal service, Rev. David Goodine, then executive director of Philadelphia Lutheran Ministries (PLM), preached – and continued to serve in other ways as well.
Through PLM, Goodine – a former missionary in Africa – nurtured Christ Assembly and assisted Zogar in joining the LCMS roster by colloquy. In 1999, Christ Assembly became an LCMS congregation.
“God was ahead of us on all this,” said Goodine, now executive director of Camp Restore, New Orleans. “We just had to get out there and take what came at us and put things together.”
Very difficult without support
“We” refers to key ministry partners, including the late Howard Dufendach and other members of Hope Lutheran Church, Levittown, Pa. Joel McFadden, a PLM board member, is another partner.
Goodine asked McFadden, an experienced Philadelphia businessman, to advise Christ Assembly. The congregation had grown to some 80 Sunday worshipers and wanted to buy a building for their first permanent church home.
McFadden admits initial doubts. While some of the Liberians spoke English and had good jobs, “others had been in the U.S. only briefly, were new to our culture and lacked understanding of how business is done here,” said McFadden. Nevertheless, he appreciated the congregation’s mission.
He helped Christ Assembly with a business plan to purchase and renovate an old book bindery, using the second floor for worship and renting the first floor to generate revenue.
But how could a young congregation with minimal resources secure much needed financing? “Without a business partner like [Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF)], that would have been very difficult,” said McFadden, who calls LCEF’s faith-based support “a real blessing.”
“Rather than just big churches in the suburbs, they also help people in the city reach out,” said McFadden, whose congregation, Christ Memorial Lutheran Church, Malvern, Pa., also turned to LCEF. “That’s a plus for all.”
Building the Kingdom
Along with financial assistance, LCEF provided Christ Assembly with financial education.
“Rick Porter came to so many meetings,” McFadden said of the LCEF vice president for the LCMS Eastern District. “He knows that communication and education also are part of building the Kingdom. He explained that a congregation pays its loan, and that enables money to be loaned to help other churches.”
PLM and LCEF collaborated for congregants to get training in property management – another first for the Liberians, who lacked landlord experience. Along with paying off their loan, they learned to invest their rental income in maintaining and upgrading their building to keep their tenant – a tenant which was another ministry!
A nonprofit whose services included those for immigrants, Liberty Lutheran–Lutheran Children and Family Service, understood the congregation’s mission. They, too, “wanted Christ Assembly to succeed,” Porter said.
Like the other partners, the nonprofit embraced a “pulling together” spirit, essential for scaling ministry hurdles.
Worship, Liberian style
Most longtime Christ Assembly Lutheran members came to the U.S. as refugees, but Emmanuel Oniyama came as a student. A doctorate in chemistry led him to a job in New Jersey with a pharmaceutical company.
A transfer in 2001 took him to Philadelphia, where he sought the LCMS congregation with Liberian-style worship.
“When we worship, we like music; we like to dance,” Oniyama said of Christ Assembly services that are also full of fellowship. Oniyama even described the sense of joy they have together in worship saying, “It unites us.”
When congregants learn of an illness, for example, a committee is delegated to visit that home after worship. When a woman’s son died in Liberia, members gathered at her house, offering prayer and comfort while the funeral took place in Africa.
“We’re there for one another. We’re like a family,” said Oniyama of this congregation that includes all ages. Young people are very active in the church. Children who were toddlers when Christ Assembly was founded are getting married and raising their own little ones.
Blessings through partnerships
The church celebrated its 20th anniversary Aug. 30-Sept. 1. As they reminisced about their past, the congregation is also looking forward. Plans include continuing support for the work of Pastor Zogar, who returned to Liberia in 2015 to start a church and school. Rev. William Y. Boymah now shepherds the Philadelphia congregation.
They also seek to strengthen outreach in their community. And as children grow up in the church – as many are doing – Oniyama says congregants will ensure youngsters know the story of God’s blessings.
We “want to say thank you to all our brothers and sisters who heard our call and came to this ministry,” Oniyama said. “Thank you very much for your hard work.”
That gratitude extends, of course, to LCEF investors. “When they invest with LCEF, we serve as their link to ministries like Christ Assembly,” Porter said. “Investors are vital ministry supporters.”