As today’s church continues to evolve, the faith communities that Luther Seminary alumni serve include a number of immigrant populations that have come to the U.S. to flee war, civil strife and other problems, both economic and social.
Ministering to these individuals and finding ways to serve their needs requires both cultural sensitivity and an understanding of the unique challenges groups new to the region share as they begin to forge lives in a new land.
For Francis Tabla, founding pastor of Ebenezer Community Church in Brooklyn Park, Minn., his work includes ministering to a congregation of more than 400 immigrants, primarily from his home country of Liberia, West Africa.
Tabla says ministering to this group involves understanding the unique and multiple pressures these immigrants face.
First, Liberia endured 15 years of civil war. During this conflict, about 300,000 Liberians were killed and thousands of families were displaced.
Second, immigrants who fled the unrest to settle in the U.S. now face a second challenge as they face possible deportation back to Liberia by the U.S. government. The U.S.-based Liberian community fears deportation both because Liberia’s infrastructure has largely been destroyed, and because the refugees have now forged strong ties to their adopted homeland.
Third, in the past two years, Liberia was one of the West African countries to be most heavily affected by the virulent Ebola outbreak, which claimed almost 5,000 lives and sickened more than 10,000 in that country alone. Many of the U.S. Liberians still have family in their home country, and the epidemic became a tremendous strain as they watched it unfold from afar.
Against this backdrop, Tabla says ministering to his fellow Liberians has been rewarding, yet difficult, as he struggles to help his congregation address their troubled history.
“In 2000, when I first came to Minnesota to do a survey about the possibility of planting a church, my survey results at the time showed that there were 20,000 Liberian immigrants here in Minnesota,” Tabla says. “Today we are being told that there are about 30,000. Brooklyn Park is seen as the capital city of Liberia in Minnesota. The first group of Liberians to come settled here, and in our community, the word spread. Minnesota also has the largest contingent of Liberians in the United States.”
Tabla, who received his Doctor of Ministry in biblical preaching with an emphasis in stewardship from Luther Seminary in 2008, initially moved to Minnesota in 2000 specifically to form a church as a mission outreach for his fellow Liberians.
“I was pastoring at Ebenezer at the same time I was doing my work [at Luther Seminary],” Tabla says. “It was very demanding, but also very rewarding as I look back now. We started with about eight people [in 2000], a Bible study group, and we met in the evenings in St. Paul at the Pilgrim Baptist Church. From those first eight people, we have now grown to 432 members.”
As for the recent past, Tabla says serving his congregation during the Ebola crisis was a deeply challenging experience.
“The Ebola crisis was one of the most difficult times in the life of our church,” Table says. “On a daily basis, I would receive phone calls from members of the church whose relatives had died. It came to a point where I dreaded my phone ringing because it would be another church member sobbing because a family member had died—parents, siblings, loved ones. When that happens, you stand before the congregation as a pastor and you see such uncertainty on their faces. We fell back on prayer, fellowship and the support of the congregation. All of that helped to bring hope and healing. Three of our churches also collaborated to be able to send supplies to Liberia. In the midst of their pain, they sought out an opportunity to be of help.
“It’s just like with the immigration issue, as well,” Tabla continues. “Some [Liberian immigrants] have become U.S. citizens, some are green card holders, and of course, all of the kids who were born here are citizens. However, many are on a status called Deferred Enforced Departure, (DED) which is a temporary protected status. When the Civil War subsided, that status was terminated and Liberians were expecting to be forced to leave. But [Liberia] is not ready for all of these people to come back. The infrastructure was destroyed and the country was devastated, so how do you bring all of these people back? The U.S. came up with the DED, and sometimes that status goes for one year, sometimes for two. It affects our community whenever it’s about to expire and there is fear and apprehension in our community.”
As part of Tabla’s ministry for his congregants, he has also become involved in the political realm, working to convince the government to extend the immigrants’ stay in the U.S. “As a pastor, you see that fear,” he says. “I’ve been in Minnesota for 15 years now and I’ve done so many rallies to get Congress people to give their support to immigration bills to help our people. It’s been a long struggle.” Amid this uncertainty and challenge, however, Ebenezer has also experienced both growth and joy. The church recently broke ground for its first dedicated church home in Brooklyn Park.
“Over the years, our congregation has been on the cutting edge in terms of stewardship,” Tabla says, noting that this is particularly humbling given all the other financial demands Liberians face, particularly in supporting family members who remain in their homeland. “We were able to purchase 4.3 acres of land a couple of years ago, and we paid it off in 2013. By the grace of God, we’ve just been able to secure a loan that will enable us to construct our first portion of our church, estimated at $2.8 million. We’re going to be the first immigrant congregation from Africa that I’m aware of that will buy land and build a project of this magnitude. By the time the project is ultimately finished, it will be a little bit over $5 million.”