By Alice and Philip Huber
Over the past few years, we have been blessed to help serve and share the gospel with many African refugees living in Spokane, Washington, USA. Before coming to the United States, many of them had seen the horrors of war, starvation, and families forcefully separated from each other in their home countries of Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
We know that not all wards throughout the world have refugees in their area, but all wards and branches have people from different backgrounds, and all of us are striving to gather Israel and build Zion where we live. We’d like to describe what “love, share, invite” looked like for us as we share some of the experiences we’ve had these past few years. We believe these principles can apply to wards around the world.
Like Ammon and the other sons of Mosiah in their mission to the Lamanites, we wanted our service to stem from a motivation to help others feel Christ’s love for them (see Mosiah 28:1–3; Alma 26:15). As Elder Jeffery R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles once said: “Prayers are answered … most of the time … by God using other people. Well, I pray that He’ll use us. I pray that we’ll be the answer to people’s prayers.”
Nyafuraha Mukushaka arrived in Spokane in June 2019 from Burundi. Soon she started work in a glass factory at 6:00 a.m. each day. The morning bus schedule did not allow her to make it to work on time. For four months while she was preparing to get a driver’s license, Church members would wake up at 4:40 a.m. each morning, drive to her home, and then take her to work. She shared this experience with her parents and brother, who arrived in Spokane in August 2021. Her father, Vincent, became interested in the restored gospel when he sought to find out who would be willing to provide such a service to his daughter. Vincent joined the Church in November 2021.
Kayitesi Muhorakeye and her daughter, Divin, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo by way of Rwanda, arrived in Spokane in January 2021 to look for a job and a home so that their family of seven children could move from Texas. Church members helped them find and move into a home. Four family members have since joined the Church.
The ways to love and help our brothers and sisters coming from Africa are so varied and can fit into the schedule of anyone willing to reach out. Our friends needed help learning English, going to the grocery store, registering kids for school, learning to drive, opening a bank account, learning to cook with American food, and more. We actively sought out opportunities rather than waiting for someone to ask for help or waiting until it was convenient to help.
Brother Huber and Henry Rashidi before Henry’s baptism. Ward members and missionaries worked well together in teaching and fellowshipping.
Missionary Work in Person and Online
As these Swahili-speaking refugees began coming to church, we needed missionaries who could speak both Swahili and English. The missionaries in the ward began learning Swahili, but with no native speakers, the learning was slow. In March 2019, mission leaders of the Washington Spokane Mission went to pick up new missionaries from the airport. When the mission president and his wife greeted Elder Noel Cohen, they remarked that his mission recommendation said he spoke Swahili. “How well do you speak Swahili, Elder?” they asked.
Elder Cohen replied that Swahili was his native tongue. He had immigrated to the United States from Kenya the year prior. Elder Cohen then spent his entire mission in our ward, and he and his many faithful companions worked tirelessly to love and invite many of these wonderful refugees and immigrants to learn about the restored gospel. Grateful for the help of ward members, Elder Cohen said, “We did a lot of the teaching, but the members did a lot of the fellowshipping.”
We learned that the Lord knows much better than we do how to gather His children. When we move forward and act with unified faith, the Holy Ghost will inspire and guide us, often in ways different from what we had anticipated.
When COVID-19 hit in the spring of 2020, we all worried about how to continue the work. The African refugees are an extremely social and warm people, so the isolation was hard on them. Gone were the large group gatherings in homes of members and African friends alike. In May 2020, we held a ward fast and prayed that Heavenly Father would bless the lives of our African friends both temporally and spiritually and help them come unto Christ.
As was common throughout the Church, our missionaries began teaching online. They started a Facebook page about the Church in the Swahili language.
Our ward mission leader at the time, Brian McCann, said, “As we fasted for the Lord to help Swahili missionary work, in our minds we thought it meant Swahili missionary work in Spokane. But the Lord really showed us the use of technology during COVID-19, and all of a sudden the elders were showing up saying, ‘We’re teaching this person in Norway and this person in Uganda and this person in Kenya.’”
Sifa, an African refugee living in Norway, found the Facebook page and began taking the lessons very early in the morning, Spokane time. Sifa contacted her local missionaries, and together with the help of the missionaries in Spokane, she learned about the restored gospel. She and her son were baptized in Norway in December 2020. Sifa knew people in Uganda from her time as a refugee there, and soon we were teaching 20 people in a Ugandan refugee settlement.
Friendship and Welcoming Others
One of our previous ward mission leaders came up with a slogan that is engrained in ward members: “We are the friendliest people in the Church.”
In 2019 we held an African culture night to learn more about our African friends and their interests. Kimberly McCann said, “We had some fried chicken, and they brought food that reflected their culture. They did some singing and dancing, and it was so much fun.”
Brian McCann said: “I think anybody who has spent any time with our African friends realizes how sweet and kind they are. And you just want to be around that. We’re going to miss out on great months and years of friendship and camaraderie and fellowship if we wait until they get baptized. We want to be a part of their lives now. They have so much to teach us about Christlike attributes.”
Perhaps most of all, people need to feel that they have found family here among our congregation of Saints. Several ward members began learning Swahili to better connect and relate with our African friends. Ward members and our African friends began opening their homes to each other. This was so important to many of the refugees who were separated from their families or had lost family members in the war.
For example, Nshimiyana Adolphe lost both of his parents to violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and was orphaned by the age of six. He arrived as a refugee in Spokane 20 years later in August 2021. While celebrating Christmas as a new convert in a member home, he said, “This is the first time in my life that I have felt part of a family.”
Moses Lwakihugo, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, lost his father to war in 1997. Moses lived in refugee camps for over 10 years. Now a priesthood leader in the Swahili group in our ward, he said, “I noticed something different about the members of the Church. They actually live what they teach. In other churches I had been a part of, nobody came to visit me. In this ward, people were checking in and bringing meals when my family was sick. I have never seen a church so full of love.”
While Moses was learning about the restored gospel, he called his brother-in-law, Maroyi, to tell him about the Church. Maroyi, who lives in a refugee settlement in Burundi, said, “We need this church in Burundi.” Soon Moses began teaching his sister and brother-in-law by telephone with the missionaries. Moses’s sister and brother in-law were baptized, along with eight others in Burundi, the same day Moses was baptized in Spokane. The group in Burundi has grown so large that they need another building to accommodate all the people who come every Sunday.
The Lord’s hand guides this work, and the experience of Vumilia Tambwe illustrates that. She was home in September 2016 when two sister missionaries knocked on her door. Vumilia had immigrated to the United States five years earlier from the Democratic Republic of the Congo by way of Kenya. She kindly visited with the sisters but was not interested in their message.
Later that evening, the sisters went to the home of a member family for dinner who had recently become a host family for refugees. Because of the language difference, the refugee family and host family couldn’t communicate with each other. The refugee family had rashes all over their bodies, and the host family didn’t know how to help them. When they told the sister missionaries about the problem, the sisters told the member family that they had just met a woman named Vumilia who spoke both Swahili and English. The missionaries went back to get her help. Vumilia learned that the rashes were caused because the family had mistakenly been using shaving cream as lotion.
The host family and Vumilia became great friends, and they threw a citizenship party for Vumilia in January 2017. Vumilia began her journey toward becoming a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because of the true friendship she experienced from members of the Church.
Another example of the hand of the Lord in this work occurred before Thanksgiving in 2018. Diann Ross felt prompted to go to the grocery store. While there, she noticed an African family struggling with the ATM machine. The Rusimuka and Lwakihugo families had recently immigrated from a refugee camp in Burundi. Sister Ross helped the families with their groceries and invited them to Thanksgiving dinner. The Rosses, the Lwakihugos, and the Rusimukas soon became close friends.
As formal Church gatherings resumed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington State law allowed only 25 percent of building capacity to gather. This meant that our ward would initially hold four sacrament meetings to accommodate all members. We decided to hold one of these four sacrament meetings in Swahili.
In September 2020, we and several other couples were called to serve as service missionaries working with the Swahili-speaking African refugees in Spokane. Our mission was to foster a feeling of love, acceptance, and friendship with African refugees and to help these friends integrate into our community.
In January 2021, stake leaders officially formed a Swahili group with three baptized members and many others attending. Sacrament meeting is translated into both English and Swahili, and we share youth classes and Primary with the ward to which we are attached. All of these brothers and sisters, whether coming from a refugee camp or a different part of Africa, have meaningful, important stories to share. Sacrament meetings have provided a valuable opportunity to hear about how faith has helped our African friends overcome incredible hardships. Our friends from Africa come with a rich heritage, and their love of music and singing have been such an enriching portion of sacrament meeting.
We have seen such amazing examples of courage and resilience in the face of hardship. We have seen forgiveness, love, and grace and are constantly amazed by the examples of their faith in Jesus Christ. Many of the refugees coming from Africa have relied on faith to overcome trials. As we try to learn their language and help them navigate life in a new country, true friendships form.
Maybe the greatest lesson we can all learn is the extent of family. Truly being brothers and sisters means that people coming to our ward will not find themselves “strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).
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