The congregation, started by Zimbabwean immigrants, has begun attracting neighbors to its community. The church provides office space for area nonprofits, built a playground for local children and hosts after-school programs. Photo by Lissa Gotwals

Six years after being given a dying church's building, Shepherd's House UMC, an African immigrant congregation in Durham, NC, is a beacon of renewal.

On a Thursday afternoon in a poor, run-down section of Durham, N.C., the parking lot outside Shepherd’s House United Methodist Church is full.

On the second and third floor of the neo-Gothic brick building, the floorboards creak as employees and volunteers at a series of nonprofit organizations move back and forth in rented offices working on projects to revitalize the neighborhood.

In the church basement, a nutritionist from the Durham County Department of Public Health is teaching half a dozen children to make a kale salad and a peach crisp.

After they finish preparing the food, the children scamper outdoors to the playground recently built in the church’s backyard.

By all accounts, Shepherd’s House UMC is a beacon of renewal. Six years after it took over the 1949 sanctuary and annex of Carr United Methodist Church, the congregation, started by immigrants from Zimbabwe, has made a marked difference in the surrounding east Durham neighborhood.

Long before Carr’s dwindling membership voted to give the building to the African congregation, many people in the neighborhood thought the church was already closed. Based on the vacant parking lot and locked building, they assumed it had been abandoned.

These days, residents see it as a phoenix rising from the ashes.

“When it was Carr United Methodist, they didn’t do much of anything,” said Hilda (Cookie) Coppedge, who has lived on a nearby street for 28 years. “Now, they’re trying to make an effort. I’ve been thinking of going over there to see what they have to offer.”

But the makeover of this corner church tells a larger story. It’s the story of globalization, migration and the changing religious makeup of the United States.

As some mainline Protestant congregations wither and die, they are often replaced by immigrant churches, many of whose members were introduced to Christianity by U.S. missionaries.

At Easter, as Christians proclaim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, Shepherd’s House UMC is an example of the ways American Christianity is being reborn.

A language, heritage and faith

In 2002, a group of Zimbabwean immigrants living in North Carolina’s Research Triangle region began gathering in one another’s homes on Wednesday evenings for fellowship and prayer.

They shared a language, Shona, an ethnic heritage and a deeply held faith.

Some had come to the U.S. as students; others, in search of economic opportunities after Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation crisis of 2000 forced millions to uproot their families and find work elsewhere.

Before long, the group found a Zimbabwean pastor to lead them. Eventually, the group decided to meet monthly for formal church services. A congregation in Durham allowed them to meet on Sunday afternoons in its sanctuary.

But as the group coalesced and matured, they sought a more permanent solution and more frequent church services, preferably on Sunday mornings. For this, they needed a new space.

Carr United Methodist Church, organized in 1886 for the benefit of cotton mill workers, had been declining for more than two decades. Its membership had dwindled to about 40 people, mostly white and middle-class and in their 70s and 80s. None lived in the neighborhood.

In 2006, the Rev. Cheryl Lawrence, Carr’s then-new pastor, was searching for solutions to keep the church doors open and finances solvent. She invited the Zimbabweans to worship in a downstairs hall. With the financial help of another Methodist church, the Zimbabweans knocked down some walls, replaced the flooring and retrofitted the space to meet their needs.

“Nobody thought about giving the building away,” Lawrence said. “We were welcoming them and showing them Christian hospitality.”

But over time, it became apparent that the downstairs space was swelling with congregants while the upstairs sanctuary was attracting little more than a dozen on a Sunday morning.

One day, the Zimbabwean pastor came to Lawrence with an idea. His congregation wanted to start an after-school program for neighborhood children. At that moment, Lawrence realized that her fading elderly congregation had neither the will nor the temperament to undertake such a project in a mostly African-American neighborhood, now infused with a new and growing Hispanic presence.

The time had come to reckon with reality.

On Jan. 19, 2008, members of Carr United Methodist held a funeral service for a longtime member of the congregation. One hour later, 28 members of the church gathered for a vote. By 19 to 9, they resolved to give the building, parsonage and furnishings to Shepherd’s House and to move into space provided by a suburban congregation north of the city.

Changing the U.S. religious landscape

There are no good figures on the number or size of African immigrant churches in the United States. But there’s no question the formation of such congregations is changing the U.S. religious landscape in profound ways.

Mark Gornik, who has studied immigrant churches for his book, “Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City,” estimates at least 200 African congregations in New York. The members, from countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya, tend to be devout and intensely focused on their faith.

“People believe their life depends on God and worship is central,” Gornik said. “It’s a form of organizational life that has God at the center, but also a common life where people share their ups and downs.”

Many of these new African churches start modestly, in poor, neglected urban neighborhoods, where they feel called to reach out and help improve the lives of local residents, both as a commitment to social justice and as a form of evangelism. It’s not uncommon to find African church starts in storefronts or abandoned buildings.

“They come in and rebuild certain neighborhoods that were dilapidated and deprived,” said Moses Biney, assistant professor of religion and society at New York Theological Seminary and the author of “From Africa to America: Religion and Adaptation among Ghanaian Immigrants in New York .”

Shepherd’s House fits that pattern.

The Rev. Johannes (John) Gumbo, the church’s pastor, said he wants his church to serve as a kind of United Nations, welcoming to all, whether they are Africans, African-Americans or Hispanics.

Like many of his members, Gumbo, who came to the U.S. 16 years ago, does not live in the community. But he has made it a priority to order food from local restaurants and to service his car at a local garage.

More than that, he has flung open the church doors and invited half a dozen local nonprofits to rent office space in the church, some for a mere donation. He has worked with a local organization to build a playground for neighborhood children, and he recently took up an offer from a landscaping company to plant an orchard of fig, peach, pear and cherry saplings on the front lawn. When the trees bear fruit, he hopes the community will take the lead in harvesting it.

He feels the same about the playground.

“They thought I’d lock it at certain times,” Gumbo said. “But I said, ‘I’m not locking it.’ It’s for the community. I cannot separate the community from the church.”

Brett Fox, a Duke Divinity School student who bought a house across the street from the church, said the efforts are both noteworthy and unusual.

“Most churches are guarded about their space,” Fox said. “But they’ve been very generous with their space. That creates a lot of safety in neighborhoods that have struggled.”

An extended family

In many ways, Shepherd’s House functions as an extended family, with members gathering throughout the week in each other’s homes to share joys and sorrows. Recently, when a couple in the church announced their engagement, they handed out wedding invitations to each member of the church after services.

This kind of familial glue is what led Esau Mavindidze to join the church. The 50-year-old technical writer came to the U.S. nearly 25 years ago as a Fulbright scholar. He joined the church so that his two American-born sons, 7 and 11, could learn about his Zimbabwean background and pick up on some of its values.

Mavindidze does not live in the neighborhood, but he understands that the key to the congregation’s long-term survival is outreach to the wider community.

“The identity aspect has to be transformed if we are to grow,” said Mavindidze, who chairs the church’s trustee board, sings in the choir and coordinates a couples’ ministry with his wife.

The need to broaden the membership beyond the Zimbabwean community became apparent last summer when 27 people left Shepherd’s House to form a Pentecostal congregation, more in line with the style of worship they had grown up with back home.

No one understands this better than Pastor Gumbo, who has worked hard not only to invite others but also to serve as a peacemaker in the community.

On at least three occasions in the past year, church members have heard gunshots or seen bullet casings outside the sanctuary. One Sunday, as members stood outside after services, they heard a fusillade of gunshots. Gumbo led members back inside and then headed toward the arriving police cars and ambulances to see if he could be of service to the neighbors.

Gumbo makes it a point to be on-site during the after-school program, where neighborhood children and their parents occasionally clash, sometimes violently.

“I had so many second chances in my life,” he said. “If I didn’t have a second chance, I wouldn’t be here today. So who am I to judge these people?”

When the spirit catches

The church’s dark-wood paneled sanctuary, with its pews, choir balcony and brilliantly colored stained-glass windows, shows signs of aging. The gray carpeting is faded, and the ceiling reveals telltale marks of water damage.

But the choir, consisting of half a dozen women standing behind microphones, is upbeat, and the music pulsates with an eclectic mix of praise songs in English and Shona. When the spirit catches, there’s even some ululating.

Some years ago the congregation transitioned from Shona to English for the morning sermon, and these days it’s obvious it was the right decision.

Along with the faithful Zimbabwean natives, the congregation has been adding more people from the neighborhood. It is no longer uncommon to hear African-American-style call and response, as well as frequent “Amens,” from the pews.

Pamela Lewis is among the neighborhood residents who now attend the church. She began coming after she met Pastor Gumbo and his wife outside the sanctuary and asked whether the church might help her pay a bill.

“They helped me not once but twice,” she said.

Her three children now attend the after-school program.

Biney, the New York Theological Seminary professor, said it’s not easy for African churches to attract Americans as members.

“Even though [the African churches] want to blend in, they’re often seen as outsiders interested in their own ethnic bonding,” Biney said.

Still, there’s evidence Shepherd’s House is beginning to break those barriers. At a new-member meeting on Palm Sunday, a group of residents munched on pizza and chocolate-glazed cannoli. Asked what they liked about Shepherd’s House, class members repeated the same refrain: it’s friendly, and everyone wants to get to know you.

Marcia Owen, the director of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, which rents space in the building, said that might be the key to the congregation’s success.

“There’s a sincere sense of hospitality, which is really the heart of all ministry,” she said. “How can you be a church anywhere without being open to your neighbors?”

Questions to consider:

  • What does your church look like to its neighbors? Is it part of the community or separate?
  • In what ways is your church shaped by globalization and migration? What does it mean for your church if members say it isn’t?
  • What can mainline Protestants learn about evangelism from African immigrant churches?
  • What would it mean for your church to take up a cross and follow a crucified Savior?
  • What ministries or programs in your church or organization are dying? How can you help them die to make room for new life?