South goes North: Mission efforts in Africa benefit church in U.S.
Fleeing the war on foot, he hid from rebel fighters as he escaped to neighboring Sierra Leone.
In Freetown — Sierra Leone’s capital — and later in Ghana, he sought out fellow Christians with whom to worship.
When he immigrated to the U.S. in 2001, he did the same.
“They help me with faith and spirituality. They help me financially when I need it,” Giddings said of the Northern Light Church of Christ, northwest of Minneapolis.
Once a white, middle-class congregation, the Northern Light church has seen an influx of African refugee members.
In a metropolitan area with 3.2 million residents but only a dozen Churches of Christ, the immigrants provide a numerical — and spiritual — boost.
“Some solid mission efforts in Africa by others in the past have resulted in benefits for our church today,” minister Joel Solliday said. “In most cases, these African refugees came looking for us and were welcomed.”
The church also houses a public charter school that serves hundreds of Hmong students.
“We do not have any new members from that community,” Solliday said of the families from southeast Asia. “But there has been some healthy relationship building with them.”
A domestic mission field for Churches of Christ, Minneapolis has one of the nation’s highest African-born populations.
Immigrants from Liberia, Nigeria and Cameroon comprise about 25 percent of Northern Light’s 190 members.
“In some cases, they came to America, and it was, ‘Find a church first, then find a job,’” Solliday said.
Elder Ed Peek said: “It’s obvious that they didn’t come here with superficial backgrounds. They come pretty well studied and are pretty good (Bible) students. And it’s a strong faith.”
For their part, immigrant members praise the congregation’s warmth and acceptance.
“When you’re in the Northern Light Church of Christ, you don’t consider yourself to be like a member, but more like a family,” said Boakai Zay Zay, a Liberian refugee.
“You are home from the first day. If you miss a Sunday, you’re going to get a postcard in the mail or a call is going to be coming.”
When their daughter, Nora, was born, Nigerian immigrants Emem and Mary Akpan were amazed by the church.
“People just took time to bring me something to eat — not just me, my whole family,” Mary Akpan said. “And so it was really something that gave me joy.”
Emem Akpan, a computer engineer, is one of eight Northern Light deacons. His parents, Dominic and Ima Akpan, were baptized after studying with a missionary. Dominic Akpan is a church elder in Nigeria.
Each year, the Northern Light church celebrates the heritage of its immigrant members with an African Appreciation Sunday, featuring native dress and cuisine.
On Sundays, children of the church contribute change to help bring clean well water to Africa.
The influx “has inspired us to focus a lot of our mission work on Africa,” Solliday said. “It is out of some gratitude. We do know that work that was done in Africa years ago came back to bless us.”