The Rev. Peter Mahoye packs a spiritual punch befitting the best of Pentecostal Christian preachers.
The intensity of his sermon, the insistence of its message, gains a distinctive force from its church setting and from the story of the congregation that fills it.
“It’s time for you to choose,” Mahoye implored a sanctuary full of church members on a recent Sunday morning. “Everything is possible for those who believe.”
Magnifying the message is the one-two punch in which it is delivered. On this day, the pastor fires off his sentences in accented English, and his assistant, Alexa Mulangaliro, instantaneously translates them into Swahili. Back and forth, back and forth, the last English word covered by the first in Swahili, the last in Swahili covered by the next in English.
The parents understand Swahili best while the children, in school in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, understand English best.
“If you love Jesus, don’t panic,” the pastor instructs. “It doesn’t matter the problems you are facing. There is an answer.”
Mahoye numbers his growing church faithful at 115, nearly all but the children of whom are refugees who have fled from war, killing and chaos in the African nations of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. Refugee camps were home to most, except the children born in the United States, before they qualified to make their way to America and came to Iowa.
Frustratingly, the refugee camps remain home to family members waiting to join them.
“You’d think we were bringing people back from heaven,” says church member Patrick Mulangaliro of the complexities of the immigration process.
The Community Evangelical Pentecostal Church’s home is a little rented church tucked into a working-class neighborhood in southwest Cedar Rapids that is a bit of miracle in itself: The 73-year-old wood-sided structure has come back to life from the 2008 flood, and in recent weeks, it has gotten a surprise reprieve from the wrecking ball.
All summer the church’s leaders were sure they would be without a church after the building’s owner applied to have it included in the city’s buyout of flood-damaged properties, a move that likely would have meant the building’s demolition.
However, the City Council, without comment, intervened, saving the church. It did so when it decided to include a last group of 50 residential properties in the buyout that had missed the program deadline, but to exclude 15 commercial properties — most of which had been renovated and reoccupied and were making property-tax payments. The African immigrants’ little leased church was included with the commercial properties.
“That’s the hand of God,” says Mahoye, who talks about little miracles that turn up in everyday life.
In some ways, few could have been better prepared to take on and recover from Cedar Rapids’ 2008 flood than Mahoye and his church members. After all, what is a flood, which took no lives, compared to what he and most of his church members had endured back in Africa?
Even so, for much of two hours on a recent Sunday morning, the awfulness of what had been endured in Africa seemed to vanish as Mahoye’s church at 716 Eighth Ave. SW filled to the brim.
The service not only comes partly in English and partly in Swahili, but there are also prayers and songs in the ethnic languages of Burundi and Rwanda and in French, which is the “international language” in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda from their days as a Belgian colony, the pastor explains.
A 30-minute musical part of the service, with keyboards, drums, electric guitars and singing, surely makes its way from the 1,100-square-foot church to the sidewalk and street outside.
SLIDESHOW: A Sunday service at the Community Evangelical Pentecostal Church
Such a Sunday service can last only so long, though, and a midweek conversation about the past in the same sanctuary with Mahoye, 49, Assistant Pastor Sepa Mamboleo, 49, the church’s treasurer, Mboyo Ilonga, 47, and choir director, Alexa Mulangaliro, 28, is the difference between day and night.
“It’s too painful to talk about,” says Mamboleo about the wars back home in Africa.
Mahoye says the attacks in cities typically came at night, and often, forced a person simply to flee without time to take anything or even take account of family members.
“Yes, I had to run,” says Mulangaliro, who was a teenager when he fled from his home.
A key difference between America and the Democratic Republic of Congo, he says, is that soldiers carrying guns always were walking the streets back in Africa.
“I’ve never seen a soldier on a street (with a gun) in the United States,” he says.
Put simply, Ilonga says, “There was no peace in Congo.” He says the problem was among neighboring nations fighting in a part of the world with significant resources such as gold, diamonds and cobalt.
“What we saw hurt us,” Ilonga continues. “We saw people dying, people killing. We thank God we are here and that we stayed alive.”
Mahoye was trained as a teacher, taught for 11 years and then worked for the Red Cross for a year before he went to Bible school to become a minister.
In 1999, war in the Congo drove him to nearby Kenya. He graduated from Bible school in 2002 and preached in a couple of different countries before he made his way to the United States in 2005 and then eventually to Cedar Rapids. There already were some refugees from Congo here.
There are several church congregations of immigrants from Congo, Burundi and Rwanda of different Christian denominations in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, he points out.
He says he got an idea to start his own ministry in Cedar Rapids in a dream or vision, and then set about making it come to pass.
It was all calling and no cash. He credits local minister, the Rev. Wendell Beets, with letting him and his church members lease the church on Eighth Avenue SW for a modest sum.
As time passes and life moves on in Cedar Rapids — Mahoye has been here seven or so years, Ilonga and Alexa Mulangaliro about 10 years and his father, Patrick, almost 20 — the refugees are facing the real challenges of making a life in Iowa. Their church, like most churches, has become something of helping-services center without scare resources to help.
Cedar Rapids, says the pastor, is a place for African refugees living elsewhere in the United States to seek out because of the African immigrant community here and because there are job opportunities in Cedar Rapids and Eastern Iowa.
Those arriving at his church, though, typically must stay with church members, many of whom have families and nearly all who live in apartments. Single men typically sleep in the church’s basement short-term while they get on their feet. Filling out job applications and taking a driver’s test are difficult for those whose English skills have yet to be developed.
Among the church’s list of needs: transportation, temporary housing, better access to English lessons for Swahili speakers and help in using the social-services system, the health care system, the immigration system and the legal system.
Important, too, is the wish for a larger church building, one without leaks in the roof. The congregation’s church on Eighth Avenue SW would have been standing room only on a recent Sunday if most of the youngsters had not headed to the basement for Sunday school during the church service. Those needing to use the basement rest room must walk through the Sunday school lessons to get there.
There is no better testament to the church’s needs than Mahoye’s old van, parked next to the church, with its bad transmission, missing headlight and door handle and the temporary tire on one of its rear wheels.
“It’s up to Him,” he says of his belief in God. “I believe he is a rich. He is not poor. He will provide us another place. God is a provider. He never fails.”
This is no pastor, though, who is simply sitting back and waiting.
Mahoye has visited city officials at City Hall, where he has inquired about a renovated brick church at 800 G Ave. NW that the city now has acquired as part of its flood-recovery buyout program.
City officials report that the city is preparing to seek proposals for the church in the weeks ahead, though it’s unclear what resources will be needed to purchase it.
Mahoye, too, has been working with the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation to create a non-profit fundraising organization, the African Immigrant Relief Fund. Grants that can’t go to churches, might go to such a non-profit fund, he says.
And by early afternoon every day of the workweek, Mahoye, Mulangaliro and a couple of other church members are getting ready to drive to the Maytag plant in Amana, where they work second shift on the assembly line building refrigerators. Some others from the church work the third shift while others drive back and forth to Waterloo to work in the Tyson meatpacking plant there.
Mahoye points to what Paul says in the New Testament and says, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” A pastor, he adds, must set an example.
Mulangaliro’s dad, Patrick, came by himself to the Cedar Rapids area in 1993 as part of a first wave of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He, too, works at the Maytag plant.
“When it comes to work, nobody ever likes work,” philosophies Patrick Mulangaliro. “Even the president complains about his job. We do it because it’s an obligation. … You want something to hold on to. You want to pay your bills.”
His 20-year-old son, Lebon, has been in Cedar Rapids for 12 years, speaks perfect English, is a student at Kirkwood Community College, holds down a job working with developmentally disabled Cedar Rapidians and teaches Sunday school at the church.
“Nights can be long, but the day is coming,” says Mahoye, whose own children remain in a refugee camp in Kenya. “We are learning something in America. We are learning how we can do things in the right way.”
VIDEO: Lebon talks about the church community and what the church means to him