Louis Weeks, the retiring president of Union Theological Seminary-Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, describes the ordination of Stephen Nkansah this way: “I never saw so many cabs in a Presbyterian parking lot.”
Nkansah says more than 600 people worship at his congregation in Woodbridge, Va., now — cabdrivers, custodians, truck drivers, delivery people, nurses, “all kinds.”
They worship at Ebenezer Church both in Twi, the language of their native Ghana, and in English. By worshipping this way, “you come from the bottom of the heart,” Nkansah said. He compares what happens at his church to the multitude of languages the apostles heard filling the room, as described in Acts — all voices, all tongues, all manners of expression. “That is the best way to preach the Bible and to teach, in your own native language,” he said. “We are trying to be like the apostles.”
This is a story of one man — two, actually, Nkansah and his friend and colleague, Mark Frimpong — who have come far from home, made new homes, and planted new churches that are growing faster than many established congregations. It’s a story too of struggle, of finding a way to connect with the predominantly white Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has been both welcoming and unsure of what to do with these people who come with their own customs and music and food and language, wanting to worship God in their own way.
Space has been made, but it has sometimes been painful.
Nkansah suspects that Jesus would want an integrated church, all the people from all the places and colors worshipping God together, but that has not been easy to achieve.
What would he say to the mostly white, American church?
“You people came all the way to Africa and brought the gospel to us,” as missionaries years ago, he said. “We have accepted the gospel and now we have come here for the green pasture. Why is it that you are running away from us?” Nkansah asked. “We have embraced and accepted your gospel. We want to worship the same God that you have brought to us. … It’s time for America to welcome the immigrant and to share the love of Christ at the same time.”
By God’s grace
When Nkansah first came to the United States in 1992, he joined Calvary Church in Alexandria, Va., an inner-ring suburb of Washington, D.C. Nkansah, who had been trained as an evangelist, approached Henry G. Brinton, then the pastor at Calvary (now Fairfax Church) and said he wanted to start a Twi-language Bible study.
The leadership of Calvary, wanting more diversity, supported Nkansah. And the Twi Bible study, meeting on Sunday mornings after worship, “proved to be tremendously popular,” bringing more and more Ghanaians to Calvary, Brinton said.
Nkansah yearned to become a minister, as he had planned to do in Ghana, so with Brinton’s help he enrolled at Union-PSCE, traveling to Richmond during the week and on the weekends returning to his family in Washington, to Calvary, and to the Twi Bible study.
“God opened the doors and they decided to give me a chance,” even though his earlier educational background was anything but traditional, Nkansah said. He said of the Union faculty: “They didn’t want the church to die.”
Weeks, Union’s president, told Brinton that “we were reaching another slice of society through this ministry, people who wouldn’t normally come to a Presbyterian church.”
In time, the Bible study morphed into a Twi-language worship service. “The church really embraced them,” Brinton said. “It had been a mostly white congregation,” but many from Calvary wanted to reflect the rapidly-changing neighborhood around them.
Holding both groups together, however — the black Ghanaians and the whites from Calvary — proved difficult over time.
“The church really benefited from being a much more international, multi-ethnic congregation,” Brinton said. But “there was resistance, a sense of loss” from some “who didn’t share that vision. There were debates all along the way” over such things as governance and use of space and worship style.
While some of the Ghanaians wanted a mixed congregation, others preferred to worship separately, in their own language and a more exuberant style, “jumping, clapping, dancing,” Mark Frimpong said.
Some of the Ghanaians do not know English. And by worshipping in Twi, they were able to express their faith more familiarly and more explicitly. For example, “we have several names for God,” Frimpong said. “God is a tree that when you lean on this tree, will never disappoint you to fall.” Or they tell of “the God who makes a promise who is always united to this promise.”
For the immigrants that is familiar language — a sense of God rooted in the heart.
And eventually, wanting that sense of distinctiveness, about 400 Ghanaians left to form their own congregation, to start what’s now called Ebenezer.
For Calvary, “that was difficult, and some people really grieved the departure of many of the Ghanaians,” although some did stay, Brinton said. He struggled with it too, but “I came to understand that the Spirit works in many ways.”’
The next steps
Nkansah, meanwhile, finished seminary, but had difficulty passing some of the ordination exams — in Ghana, his schooling had been limited, and while he understood the material, he sometimes had difficulty expressing himself in written English. National Capital Presbytery, feeling his track record of ministry showed promise — he was already leading a growing congregation of 400 — decided to ordain him under provisions that allow exceptions to be made from the usual rules.
“He’s a very charismatic individual, very friendly and outgoing,” Brinton said.
Another Ghanaian leader that Nkansah helped lift up was Frimpong, who also had experience as a church planter in Ghana and now is a 36-year-old father about to graduate from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Before he came to Louisville, Nkansah dispatched Frimpong to Silver Springs, Md., to start a fellowship with Ghanaian immigrants there, meeting first in a hotel and later in a school.
Frimpong had been on the verge of starting seminary in Ghana when he won a spot in a lottery to legally emigrate to the United States. Economically, he felt he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. So he decided, “I don’t think God called me” to the ministry. “I ran away and came here.”
The running didn’t last long. Frimpong began to worship at Calvary, and before long Nkansah asked him to lead the new Bible study in Maryland. In Ghana, Frimpong had started a church in a remote area, hauling a television to the middle of villages to show videos about Jesus — pausing the tape midstream to talk about God. He says of evangelism: “That’s where I get my joy.”
Frimpong’s own journey to the ministry has had some twists and turns. For a time, he stopped going to church because “I didn’t see why you talk about oppression and justice” in churches, when people from those churches were not willing to feed the hungry.
But in his second year of college, “I had a touch from God,” a dream in which God spoke, Frimpong said. “I know we don’t talk much about dreams in the Presbyterian church. I don’t know if I should talk about it as a vision, but something was pushing me to go back to church.”
He woke up from that Saturday night dream, and that Sunday morning walked into a congregation of 1,000, saying, “I’ve been challenging Christianity for a long time, and I need help.”
Not a single person there offered to talk with him about faith.
Frimpong went home and wept.
The next Sunday, he felt the push again, and this time went to an Assemblies of God church. But “I could hear someone talking to me, and saying, ‘This is not where I want you to go.'”
The Sunday after that, Frimpong went to a Baptist church. “And as soon as I introduced myself, they sent people to me.” They took him to a room, and started explaining, “Who is God? What is God like?’ They had time for me,” assigning him a mentor. When he struggled with questions, they said, “Frimpong, it’s OK,” because his questions meant “the Holy Spirit is working in your life.”
Later, he married a Catholic; taught biology to high school students in southern Ghana; moved to the north, started preaching in the villages, and planted a church there. Frimpong was accepted to seminary, but left for the U.S. before he could start.
He is about to graduate from seminary, but has struggled with the polity exam. As someone who has never owned property, it has been hard to understand the nuances of American zoning laws. “How can I know how to get land in America?” Frimpong asked.
He felt discouraged and defeated, but will try again. “That is my mission here,” Frimpong said, “to get the people, both Africans and Americans, to understand the differences we have.”
Through his journey, Frimpong has learned some things he thinks could help the American church. He remembers, for example, the warmth he felt at that Baptist church when he showed up, a stranger with questions about God.
In too many places, “you go to church and it’s ‘Hello, Good morning, Good morning,’ and that’s it,” Frimpong said.
In the Ghanaian church, if someone is sick, people pack into a car — as many as can fit — and “we drive to the person’s home and we sing hymns and hymns and hymns. … They can learn from us how to break our boundaries and break out of our shells, put aside our fear of neighbors.”
Frimpong would not give someone who was ill flowers or a “Get well” card. He would give them money, $5 or $15 — whatever he could afford — because he knows how many immigrants send money back to Africa to support their families there.
“Immigrants are always struggling with money,” Frimpong said. “I am my father’s health insurance, my mother’s health insurance. … We send money down to Ghana all the time.”
And he says of his ministry now: “Esther — she has the same story as me. I am from the margins. And through the grace of God, I find myself in the mother of the United States. … It was by the grace of God I came here. I need to help people in the margins.”
Born on a Thursday
It is through those connections, through melding their love of Ghana and this country, the past and the future, that Nkansah and Frimpong are finding their places as leaders. They know the Ghanaian churches will have challenges, as the children of those who have emigrated become more accustomed to the United States.
But they also understand the complexities and the subtleties, the common ground and the Ghanaian distinctives.
In the United States, people often will ask, “How old are you?” or “When were you born?”
These men have learned to calculate the answers to satisfy the Americans.
But to the people in his congregation, Steven Nkansah is known as Yaw Nkansah. In Twi, Yaw means a male child born on a Thursday.
In Ghana, the year of the birth doesn’t matter much, Frimpong said. But any Ghanaian can tell you on which day of the week they were born.
The lesson of all this for white Presbyterians may be “not to assume that the next generation of new members will look and sound exactly as new members have looked and sounded” in the past, Brinton said. “We have this fantasy the church will grow through white middle-class Americans” returning to the pews.
But maybe the new members will be from Africa and Asia and Latin America, people who want to worship and pray in what Brinton calls their “heart language,” in Chinese or Spanish or Twi, with drums and dancing and shouting, led by someone who knows exactly where and when he was born.