By Teresa Stewart The last time Riziki saw her father, he was working in the church. As usual. She had returned home to the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) hoping that the violence had passed. The hope lasted two weeks.
With little warning, the war returned. The family scattered quickly. Her nine brothers and sisters were lost to each other in the chaos. They all knew their father would not leave. He was a Methodist pastor. He took seriously the demands of the gospel to welcome every outsider. In the Congo, this meant sheltering desperate and despised refugees from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.
For the next 13 years, Riziki, her husband and children, lived in refugee camps in countries bordering the Congo. She had her father’s habit of welcoming outsiders in the name of Jesus. Even as she raised six children, she took in other refugees who were especially vulnerable: the boy who lost his arm, the young pregnant woman disowned by her family, the woman dangerously leered at by guards. They would all live with her. She would continue to shelter desperate and despised refugees. Even when she was one of them.
Over the past two years, Riziki has shared parts of her story with me. I met her when she first visited a United Methodist Church in her new country. It happened to be my church, too. We exchanged meaningful smiles and phone numbers. When the phone conversations proved too difficult, we began visiting each other’s homes and eating one another’s strange foods. The conversations were inefficient. But when words weren’t available, we tried laughter, prayer, song, awkwardness and honest silence.
I learned not to ask about the war. Over time, some stories would come out obliquely. Often, she would look at me and simply shake her head—“I want to tell you, but there are some things that you can’t understand.”
She taught me a simple Swahili phrase: Mungo ni mwema. God is good. It was the bedrock of each story. Even the painful ones. She spoke it not as hypothesis, but as certainty.
In late 2012, Riziki and her family received an official notice. A country had accepted them for resettlement. Her father appeared to her in a dream with reassurance. He took them to a farm, offering them food and blessing for the journey ahead. God would be with them. Just as God had already been with them. Mungo ni mwema.
Three days later, the family landed in Kansas City, Missouri. Riziki was pregnant with her seventh child, who would be named Grace.
Some months later, with Grace wrapped on her back in a bright yellow cloth, Riziki walked into Central United Methodist Church in Kansas City for the first time. She was ready. Ready to exchange phone numbers. Ready to join. Ready to start ministry. Even while she cleaned office buildings at night and studied English by day.
She told me about the beleaguered refugees living around her. They needed to know that they were not forgotten. God was with them and for them. Mungo ni mwema. She wanted to start an African Praise Choir and Bible Study in her new church home. The choir would be called Kuomba Pamoja–Worship Together—because “all people worship side by side. There are no differences to God. God knows all languages. We do this together.”
There were overwhelming challenges. The exhaustion. The language. The night shifts. The transportation. And the thousand little, unimagined barriers—like the church’s database that couldn’t accommodate seven different last names in one family.
She and I decided to start with a multicultural Bible Study on Sunday mornings. Each week I would bring my carefully-considered plan. Each week my plan failed. The study would end up in a wildly different place than I anticipated. New refugees trickled in. Not all spoke the same languages. We had no translator. Understanding each other was slow, tedious work. Sometimes we left exhilarated. More often, lost and frustrated. The idea of the African choir seemed to languish.
Finally, Riziki came to me with her own plan. She would be starting a season of prayer and fasting to ask God for a helper to start the African Choir. In the Zambian camp, she had a helper named Solomon. Together they directed choirs and planted a new congregation outside the gates of the refugee camp. Riziki explained, “I can’t do this work alone anymore. I need someone like Solomon to help here.”
When I suggested other solutions, she offered simply: “When you empty yourself out, then God can fill you. I trust God for whatever I need.”
To understand what happens next, you need to know some data. Perhaps more importantly, as Riziki would remind me, you need to know God.