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Church led by refugees to dedicate new building

November 20, 2014

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) — Pastors Francois Mikobi and James Masasu will host a celebration of thanksgiving this weekend.

It may be a bit early for the traditional American Thanksgiving, but the two say they have much for which to be thankful.

Both men, refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, lead Fort Wayne’s International Restoration Church. The church is planning special events Friday, Saturday and Sunday to dedicate a new building for its congregation of about 100 people, many of them fellow refugees from Africa.

The congregation has grown from humble beginnings in the last seven years, the pastors say.

“It’s kind of a church of people with different backgrounds, different countries, actually about 15 countries,” Masasu, 48, tells The Journal Gazette (http://bit.ly/14QWfnj ). “We have a lot of diversity. ... It’s reflecting the diversity of Fort Wayne, definitely.”

At the church’s weekly worship services on Sunday afternoons, attendees typically include not only Congolese, but also people born in Rwanda, Burundi and Gabon in Africa and in Haiti and the United States. Services are in English, but French, the language of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Swahili language of Africa are sometimes spoken.

The church follows in the evangelical Pentecostal tradition of Protestantism, says Mikobi, who was licensed as a minister of the Assembly of God denomination in 2011. He says First Assembly of God is one of several Fort Wayne congregations, including Fellowship Missionary Church and Life Bridge Church, that have provided assistance as the refugees worked to build their congregation.

According to Mikobi and Masasu, the church started as small prayer meetings in refugees’ homes beginning in 2007. As people became more settled and organized, they met for a while at the former Emmaus Lutheran Church on Broadway. Beginning in 2012, worship was at a simple white-sided church at South Hanna Street and Sherwood Terrace once used by another Pentecostal group.

But by last year, it became clear that the congregation needed more space. Masasu says he found the new building by chance while visiting a congregation member.

The nearly 10,000-square-foot facility, formerly owned by Boanerges Ministries Inc., was listed for just under $249,000 and had been on the market for about a year. But the congregation’s offer of $170,000 was accepted, Mikobi says. The congregation met a 25-percent down payment for the structure, which includes a sanctuary with audio-visual equipment, a large fellowship hall with a kitchen and classrooms.

“That was a miracle in itself,” says Mikobi. “We are about 100 (people), and most of them are refugees. Most of them work, but they are low-income.”

The new facility’s listing broker, David Norton, says he was impressed by the group while helping them with the transaction. Norton specializes in church properties for BND Commercial Real Estate Solutions in Fort Wayne.

“They did a great job of fundraising,” he says. “I was with them many times on Sunday afternoons, as they prayed and worshipped danced ... and made their decision. I was impressed with their focus and their work ethic.

“They’re a group of people who are really interested in changing the culture of the community. In a way, they’re wanting to be missionaries to our community. They’re wonderful people, and we can learn a lot from them. It was really a privilege for me being able to work with them.”

Now that it has an adequate home base, the congregation’s hope is to serve the community though religious education classes and a child care center for children and leadership training for adults, the pastors say.

Although securing a building was a feat, Mikobi, 35, says, the struggle paled in comparison to what many of the refugees have been through.

Mikobi says he came to the United States in 2000 as his homeland devolved in the late 1990s into tribal conflicts and civil war following the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. People were being killed and homes destroyed in the strife, he says.

At the time, he says, he was a student at a business school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s capital city, Kinshasha. Seeking protection from the violence, Mikobi and his siblings ended up in a refugee camp in Cameroon after his father and a cousin were arrested and imprisoned.

Once resettled in Fort Wayne, assisted by Catholic Charities, he got a job in housekeeping and laundry at the Hilton Hotel downtown and started attending classes at Anthis Career Center to learn English. Then he got a second job working at a fast-food restaurant to help his extended family.

He earned his G.E.D. and moved to a job at the Wal-Mart on Coldwater Road. He also enrolled in classes at IPFW.

In 2004, he succeeded in helping both his parents, John and Odette Mikobi, come to the United States, and, in 2006, got married to a refugee from the same camp in Cameroon where he had lived for a time.

By 2008, Mikobi had earned a bachelor’s in electrical engineering, and through internships and a job fair, secured a job in Indianapolis at Cummins, a global company that designs, manufactures and services diesel engines and related technology. He still works there and commutes to Fort Wayne on weekends for his pastoral duties.

Mikobi and his wife, Salima, 29, have three children - Deborah, 7, Blessing, 2, and Isaiah, 2 months.

Mikobi says his story and that of other congregation members reflect the message of the church as a whole. God, he says, can heal and restore.

“God can allow difficult situations to come even to Christians,” he explains. “But we have to know in the church that even when we walk through the valley of the shadow (of death), that he is going to be there with us - that the difficulty, it is temporary, that it is going to be overcome.”

Masasu agrees. “This year was a big, big achievement for our church,” he says. “What has happened is that God has blessed us as refugees and in coming to this country, and we want to thank God for that.”

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Information from: The Journal Gazette, http://www.journalgazette.net

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