ST. PAUL, MINN. (Outlook) This is a story of how two Christians interested in immigrant ministry (one Lutheran, one Presbyterian) are working together to help Anuak refugees who’ve come to Minnesota, having been forced out of Ethiopia and South Sudan.
It’s also a story of what could be: ecumenical cooperation in mission; pooling of funding and ideas; taking what’s been learned from working with one immigrant group and applying those lessons to working with others.
For Gilo Agwa Gora, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister, a graduate of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa and a native of Ethiopia, the idea of ecumenical cooperation is organic. The Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus he grew up in is Lutheran, with a history of PC(USA) cooperation. “That was still in my heart” when he moved to the United States, Gora said. He was surprised to find that “here, you don’t work together.”
Gora is the part-time pastor of Foundation of Life Faith Community, a 1001 new worshipping community serving Anuak immigrants in the Twin Cities – about 3,000 of whom have come to Minnesota after being forced to leave their ancestral lands.
He’s now working with Justin Grimm, director for evangelical mission and assistant to the bishop for Next Generation Ministries for the St. Paul Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Both men spoke July 18 at the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board executive committee retreat, being held July 17-19 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“I get to work with our new congregations, our baby congregations,” Grimm said. That includes 10 or so immigrant fellowships – two Latino, two Chinese, several Hmong and an African group. In doing that, he had conversations with Jeff Japinga, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, and jointly they cobbled together two years of funding for Anouk outreach – with funding from the PC(USA), the ELCA, the presbytery, the synod and, most recently, donations from local congregations as well.
The hope: This cooperative ministry could provide a model for others to use. The idea of ecumenical mission work is a possibility internationally too. José Luis Casal, the PC(USA)’s director of world mission, said he will participate in a meeting in December at which the mission directors from a number of denominations will discuss ideas for the doing more ecumenical ministry together internationally.
Grimm said Presbyterians and Lutherans in the Twin Cities also are discussing other possibilities for cooperation – including possibly partnering together in an outreach to young retirees and millennials living in downtown St. Paul. The idea, he said, is “what can we do better together than we could do alone?”
The funding for the Anuak ministry provides a part-time salary for Gora – who also works as a nursing home chaplain (and who wants to find the funding to become a full-time pastor). After he graduated from seminary, Gora said of the Anuak people: “My heart was with them. I had to do something here.”
He described his ministry with the Anuaks as holistic – helping them with both spiritual and physical needs, and to bridge cultural differences that play out in complicated ways across the generations. He teaches them practical skills: how to use credit cards and how to get loans, for example. He convenes teleconference worship services for those who have to work and can’t come to church. He tries to address the root causes of emerging problems such a rising divorce rate among many refugees, or tensions between parents and their children about how to accommodate to a much different American culture.
“The culture here is very challenging” to new arrivals, Gora said.
The night before, for example, he was called to the home of a woman who had threatened to kill herself – distraught over a relationship with a man that had ended and did not lead to marriage, in part because of differences in cultural understandings. “I became a counselor to her and her family.” Gora said. “Their tears were running down. … Those two cultures sometimes may fight. But through God we are able to help.”
Gora tries to tell the young Anuaks that “we need to be thankful to this country” and “say thank you for friends who welcome us here.” The teenagers and young adults need support too, as they feel the tensions of sometimes adjusting faster than their parents and being pulled between two worlds. “If we don’t support the refugees, it will be a problem in the future,” he said.
Gora and Grimm have plans for the future. They hope they will be able to extend their work to the Oromo, another Ethiopian ethnic group.
Grimm is trying to encourage Gora, who travels to towns like Austin and St. Cloud in Minnesota to meet with Anouk communities there, to exercise self-care – to spend time with his family, to remember to sleep. Grimm and Gora spoke together recently before 600 Lutherans at a synod assembly meeting – describing their work together and their vision for what happen when creative grassroots ministry is done ecumenically.
“I thank God,” Gora said. “When Lutherans and Presbyterians come together, I think it’s some kind of miracle.”
Following their presentation, Gora knelt while the executive committee and representatives of the PC(USA)’s national staff laid hands on him – praying for his ministry and the immigrants he serves.
The executive committee retreat continues through mid-day July 19.