“There is a public narrative that African-American congregations are only recipients [of assistance]. We wanted our church (the ELCA) to see us differently. Rewriting the narrative is saying we also have something that we can give.”
Small sacrifices can make a huge difference. That belief is evident at Shekinah Chapel in Riverdale, Ill., where 41 members pledged $33,000 to build a church for Lutherans in Zambia.
The construction project is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Chuch in Zambia initiative‘s to build 15 churches, in partnership with the ELCA through its campaign.
The growing Zambian church has nearly 6,000 members in 40 worshiping communities, but only four of those have sturdy, weatherproof buildings. The others meet in thatched pole and mud structures that are vulnerable to heavy rain.
Andrew Steele, director of Global Church Sponsorship, said 253 of the ELCA’s members and congregations have given more than $200,000 in gifts and commitments toward the initiative’s $500,000 goal.
For a small congregation like Shekinah, supporting fellow Lutherans in Zambia meant overcoming feelings of scarcity and recognizing “we could be impactful,” said Yehiel Curry, the congregation’s pastor. Shekinah’s support is making a difference—both abroad and at home.
Curry first learned of the Zambia project from longtime Shekinah member Rahel Mwitula-Williams, manager for donor relations with Global Church Sponsorship. She proposed to Curry that their congregation help the Zambians build a church.
But given that Shekinah, a mixed-income congregation, is in a community grappling with its own challenges, Curry initially felt they should remain focused locally.
Shekinah, which attracts roughly 150 worshipers each Sunday, became an official congregation in 2012 and has received ELCA Mission Support (congregational offerings that fund synod and churchwide ministries). Shekinah’s founders chose to situate the congregation in Riverdale to address such issues as gun violence, high water rates and a lack of access to nutritious food, Curry said.
In considering the Zambia project, Curry said he was concerned Shekinah wasn’t financially stable enough to participate—it had building problems of its own to address. “I felt it wasn’t possible. The thought of helping out globally when there was so much help needed here didn’t seem right,” he said. “I didn’t necessarily have the vision of how we could be of service in a place like Zambia.”
Curry’s perspective changed after he and his wife, Lashonda, visited their daughter, Shemiah, last year in Rwanda. Shemiah spent a year volunteering with the Lutheran Church in Rwanda through ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission.
What they witnessed in Rwanda touched their hearts. “There was this family embracing my child and creating a space for her to live in, and the community rallying around her,” Curry said.
After returning home, Shemiah gave a presentation to Shekinah about her experience. She helped members see how they could affect the global church, Curry said.
“For whatever reason, being in that environment (in Rwanda) said to me [that] Shekinah could have an impact because I saw it through my daughter, and I was motivated to look at what, if anything, we could do,” he added.
Curry crunched the numbers. To build one church in Zambia at a cost of $33,000, they needed 33 members to commit to contributing $1,000 each over the next five years above their regular offerings, which is $200 a year or $16.67 a month.
The five-year effort launched last October, and members quickly exceeded their participation goal. They held a fundraiser in February for further support.
More than enough
Curry and Mwitula-Williams said Shekinah’s support of the Zambia project is “rewriting the narrative.”
“There is a public narrative that African-American congregations are only recipients [of assistance]. We wanted our church (the ELCA) to see us differently,” Curry said. “Rewriting the narrative is saying we also have something that we can give.”
Mwitula-Williams helped Curry introduce the project to Shekinah. To keep track of contributions, donors’ names are displayed on a table across from the sanctuary. Some paid the full amount right away; others contribute annually or monthly.
“Rahel did really open our eyes to what we can do abroad,” said member Bianca Pullen, a psychiatrist. “It’s helped people get to know one another. They talk about it. They’re excited. It’s like, ‘Wow we can do that. We can build a whole church there.’ ”
“I wanted to be part of it,” said Maggie Wallace, who at 77 had never been asked to support such a project. “I think it’s important to sacrifice and not be selfish. It’s nice that they are going to have a place to go and praise the Lord.”
“Rahel did really open our eyes to what we can do abroad. It’s helped people get to know one another. They talk about it. They’re excited. It’s like, ‘Wow we can do that. We can build a whole church there.’ ”
Participating was a “no-brainer” for Nayshon Mosley, an education administrator with a doctorate who gives monthly. She cut back on Dunkin’ Donuts and brings her lunch to work to keep up with her congregational offerings and Zambia project commitments.
Curry noted that the project even attracted individuals who weren’t regular givers to the church. “My eyes were really opened that if you cast a vision that others can fit into, they would be willing to participate,” he said.
Mwitula-Williams, whose work includes making appeals to ELCA congregations, said it’s important to engage nontraditional donors like Shekinah. In demonstrating that a congregation that receives Mission Support can also give, Shekinah is an example to others, she said.
Shekinah is not only helping rewrite the narrative for the church as a whole, but for members in “how they see themselves,” she said.
“What Shemiah and other young people in the global church have been able to help us see is … if you do inventory of yourself and rewrite the narrative, you are able to see, yes, you don’t have to be a congregation with a $1 million budget, what you have is more than enough to make an impact in other areas of the world,” Mwitula-Williams said.
Both Mwitula-Williams and Curry hope Shekinah’s story will inspire other small congregations. “How many others out there are wondering: ‘Do I have something to give?’ ” Curry said.
To learn more
Land for the Zambia initiative was first purchased about three years ago. Construction will begin when enough funds have been raised to ensure its completion, said Andrew Steele, director of ELCA Global Church Sponsorship. Learn more at elca.org/globalministries.