Food, Fish, and Cross-Cultural Friendship:
When the Beloved Community Came to Us
by Stuart Lamkin, Pastor, Hickory Rock Baptist Church, Louisburg, NC
Our church, Hickory Rock Baptist in Louisburg, NC, always enjoys using CBF’s Offering for Global Missions curriculum. We love seeing videos of mission work going on around the world that we get to support … Bible translations in Thailand, new pastors trained in China, teaching Roma children in Slovakia, strengthening youth in Miami, and so many others. It’s so inspiring to learn about the incredible work that field personnel are doing, which we have the privilege of supporting.
This year I was delighted to see that some of the missionaries highlighted are in our very own backyard. Or rather, we’re in their backyard, since they work in the big city of Raleigh and all around the Triangle area of North Carolina, while our church is in a rural county an hour north. We’re nestled between farm fields and horse pastures, while Marc and Kim Wyatt help refugees who arrive in Raleigh find homes, food, supplies, community, and support. They make new people feel welcome who have been through untold hardship and tragedy. So we are honored to support their great work.
But instead of just learning about them from the OGM curriculum and videos, we invited them to speak in person, and they were gracious enough to trek into the country and talk to us about what it’s like being a refugee. Through the Wyatts and the OGM materials, we were inspired to spread Christ’s beloved community in our area.
I was so glad the Wyatts agreed to visit, but that night there was a problem. The Food Bank where we get food to serve our area had come with an unexpected and huge shipment of produce. I, always susceptible to both guilt and a desire to help, agreed to take far too much food—more than we could distribute before it went bad. If only we could find people to give it to who would want it.
That gave Marc an idea. In one of the OGM videos, we learned about the work of Pastor Felix Iyoko and his wife Nicole. They had escaped violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and were called to start a church in north Raleigh for other Congolese immigrants and Swahili-speaking people. Marc said that their congregation, Shiloh Restoration Baptist Church, would enjoy getting the fresh produce that I had accepted.
So we made plans. After worship one Sunday, some of us Hickory Rockers hauled the produce to Raleigh and met the Restoration folks at the apartment complex where many of them live. They were quite a joyful welcoming committee, already in the parking lot waving at us when we arrived. Marc was there to make the introductions. There were smiles all around. Many helping hands carried boxes up flights of stairs.
After it was all divided, we spoke words of welcome and said prayers of thanks. Not only was I thankful to distribute all that food before it spoiled, I was more thankful for the honor of meeting such inspiring people. They have much to teach us about strength, struggle, resilience, and faith. Before he escaped the Congo, Pastor Felix’s parents and siblings were killed, forcing him to run through the wilderness for days without food. He made it to Nigeria and received asylum, staying there twelve years before the U.S. let him resettle here as a refugee. All that hardship and loss, yet he laughs and smiles all the time. He is a man of joy, and he has much to teach me.
Counting his current church, Pastor Felix has helped to plant fifteen churches, which is fourteen more than I have. He preaches with fervor and excitement; I preach softly and use a manuscript. His sermons are pointed and bold; mine are thoughtful and clever. He is always busy ministering in the trenches of his community; I enjoy watching the breeze blow through the trees outside my quiet church office window. He has much to teach me.
During our first meeting, we learned that their church people love fish. Coincidentally, our church people love to catch fish. So for our next visit we delivered actual loaves and fishes, and it seemed like we gave out more than we brought.
But I didn’t want our relationship to be based on food deliveries, so I asked if we could visit their church sometime. “Of course!” they said. So more plans were made.
Shiloh Restoration Church worships in the Fellowship Hall of a Lutheran Church in north Raleigh on Sunday afternoons, and if I don’t get too long-winded in my sermon, we can leave Louisburg after our worship and arrive in time for theirs. So we did. “Load up the church van! It’s time for a field trip.”
The first thing you notice when you visit Shiloh Restoration Church is the music. As you walk up, you don’t just hear it; you feel it. You can almost see it emanating from the building in visible waves. As you enter the room you also enter the sound itself as it engulfs you, enveloping you with voices and rhythms. It pulsates through your chest, pushing your heart to beat with the beat. It’s louder than any worship you’ve experienced. But it’s brighter too, with singing like angels. And it must be what heaven sounds like. (Although hopefully the volume in heaven isn’t quite as pounding.)
The words were not in English, but that didn’t matter. Some people stood, some people sat, some people clapped, and some people danced. So we didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves. This wasn’t the calm, orderly, straightforward worship we were used to, but that was why we went. We got to worship God in a different language, in a different style, and with a different culture. And it was exciting.
After their rousing worship, I returned the invitation and said they were welcome at our church anytime. They accepted. More plans were made.
I was nervous before they came, because who doesn’t get nervous when new friends come over to your house for the first time? What will they think of us? I tried to prepare my congregation: “You should know, these folks are a lot cooler than we are. Well, at least cooler than I am.” Admittedly a low bar, but still true. In my nervousness I sought Marc & Kim’s wise counsel, as I had many times the last few weeks. Their infinite cross-cultural knowledge talked down my anxiety, again.
On the day of the visit, what I assumed would be a small group turned out to be a great majority of Shiloh Restoration’s membership who caravaned up to our neck of the woods. It practically doubled our attendance that day, but there wasn’t time to count. I was whooshing up and down the church halls helping their kids get to Sunday School classes, helping their band get plugged in to the speakers, and helping encourage our amazing cooks who were preparing lunch. Everything that day was wild, chaotic, and wonderful. Unlike usual, nobody was falling asleep in worship that day. There was too much excitement, and you didn’t want to miss anything. I’ll have to check with our older members, but I’m pretty sure that was the first time the Bible’s been read in Swahili at our little country church.
All the many languages in our worship that day—English, French, Swahili, Lingala—reminded me of Revelation chapter 7, when God is worshiped by “every nation, tribe, people and language.” So I noted that the day was a preview of heaven. And one thing’s for sure, heaven includes a covered dish lunch with sweet tea and chocolate cake, so our day did too. During lunch the children played outside—on swingsets in the breeze and shooting basketballs as the fall leaves blew by. It was a beautiful day, inside and out. But before they left, our guests asked to see the horses that live next door. Fortunately the neighbors were outside and were fine with a horde of bouncing Congolese kids coming into their yard to pet the horses and take selfies.
Later that afternoon I got a message from the Wyatts: “Africa came to Louisburg today! Are your ears still ringing?” Yes on both counts. The wonderful people from Shiloh Restoration Church blessed us with their presence, spirit, smiles, and music.
So now the next visit is our turn. We’re planning to go back during Christmas to say hello. We want to deliver some Christmas presents to the kids in their church. Instead of our usual practice of giving shoeboxes of random items to an organization that sends them to random places in the world, now we’ll know exactly who needs what and where. Instead of mailing a present and never seeing a face, we can exchange gifts as part of a real relationship with a child, a family, a church. They will be gifts between friends.
I look forward to many more times of friendship and fellowship with our new sister church of Congolese immigrants. We might speak different languages, but smiles and hugs transcend language barriers. And with more visits in the future, I’ll need to keep the Wyatts on retainer as international ministry consultants. I know that’s not as important as their refugee ministry at Welcome House, which provides a safe home and good food, but we certainly appreciate their guidance and their ministry of introduction. That was another reason we decided it was high time to put the Offering for Global Missions in our church budget.
We’ve supported CBF’s mission work for decades, but now we’re delighted to find ourselves the recipients of that mission work. Through the Wyatts’ ministry, Pastor Felix and his wife Nicole were commissioned last summer as field personnel who build Christ’s beloved community around Raleigh. We now realize that they have ministered to us, opening the arms of their heart and welcoming us in, letting the love of Christ break down barriers and divisions. Their mission work brought them all the way to Louisburg, in the rural farmlands of Franklin County, North Carolina, as they extended the beloved community to us, and we are thankful. We are excited for that community and these new friendships to grow.