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Small is beautiful

In sparsely Presbypopulated Maine, church reaches out to Sudanese

May 5, 2009

STATESVILLE, N.C.

Editor’s note: This is the 18th in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter

A woman ties string beside two children.
Kids with one of Mid-Coast Presbyterian Church’s steering committee members after worship at the Sudanese church.

STATESVILLE, NC — The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has much room for growth in New England.

In Maine, the church has the lowest membership of any denomination. Still, the Rev. Richard Wyatt, executive presbyter of the 34-congregation Presbytery of Northern New England, is pleased with the efforts he sees from the churches in the four states the presbytery encompasses.

“We have a lot going on here in New England,” Wyatt said. “We have the fastest-growing congregation in New England in New Hampshire, a new Hispanic church in Massachusetts that is doing a lot of work with youth in their community to combat gang involvement, and a church in Maine that has a ministry devoted to helping the Sudanese community of Portland.”

The latter church, Mid-Coast Presbyterian Church in Topsham, ME, has been working with a Sudanese refugee fellowship since 2004.

The partnership began when several members of the fellowship walked into Mid-Coast one Sunday afternoon, asking for help setting up a worship community. The fellowship was already receiving some money from the presbytery, but approached Mid-Coast because it was the closest church to the Portland-based community — there are no PC(USA) churches in Portland.

The Sudanese live about 30 miles away from Topsham, and are part of a community of refugees that has been growing since first arriving in Maine in the early 1990s. They’ve come to New England via refugee camps in other parts of Africa after fleeing fighting in southern Sudan, a region that has been in civil war almost continuously since 1954. The Sudanese who approached Mid-Coast were Presbyterians and were from the Nuer tribe.

“When we arrived here, we needed to find a church. We wanted to worship as Presbyterians,” said Matthew Long, the lay leader of the Sudanese fellowship.

Members from Mid-Coast and the Sudanese community organized a committee to assess the needs and possibilities of the fellowship. Although merging into one multicultural congregation would have been the simplest solution, that just wasn’t possible. 

“We’re 30 miles away from Portland, and the members of this community are refugees,” said Paul Brown, a member of Mid-Coast and the committee. “Many of them are still contending with cultural differences and lack of education. A lot of them are poor. Very few have cars, making it difficult for them to simply join our congregation for worship.”

Commuting from Portland to Topsham would be impossible, Long said, adding that money was an issue in forming a worship group.

“We can’t afford to commute because they are too far away,” he said. “But we couldn’t afford our own church, either. (Mid-Coast) helped get us connected to the presbytery and helped us to get grants so we could have our own place to worship.”

Church members standing togther for a photo behind a table and cross.
Visiting pastor after worship at the new rental facility in Portland.

With help from Mid-Coast, the Sudanese group received funds from the PC(USA), the Synod of the Northeast and the presbytery. The group also gets monetary and clergy support from other churches in the area. The funds have been used to rent worship space from a Baptist church on Sunday afternoons, operate a donated church van and support Long part time.

And now, the program is about to get a welcome expansion.

“They’ve just found a new facility that they can lease full-time,” Brown said. “They only had use of the Baptist church on Sunday afternoons for worship, so they couldn’t really do any other group activities, but now they will have a facility to use to do expanded programs. We’re hoping it will generate excitement and help them to grow their fellowship.”

That goal of growth reflects the 218th General Assembly’s commitment to grow Christ’s church deep and wide through the areas of evangelism, diversity, discipleship and servanthood.

The size of the Sudanese community in Portland is about 1,000 people, Brown estimated. The size of the Presbyterian fellowship varies, but is now at about 15 members. 

Along the way in their work with the Sudanese, the members of Mid-Coast have found growth of a different kind. Sometimes the best way to achieve cultural awareness is to contend with cultural differences. Brown and the other committee members are often surprised by some of the issues that have arisen.

“We Anglos continue to learn, because there are so many cultural differences that things that may be normal to us are not for them,” Brown said.

For example, the Sudanese are often not familiar with how things work in the United States, while Brown and the other committee members sometimes don’t realize things are done differently in Africa. Surprisingly, budgeting was an unfamiliar concept for the Sudanese.

For their part, Brown and his colleagues had never dealt with a tribal society before, and sometimes the jealousies and tribal mindset surprises them. One effort that has been challenging is expanding the fellowship beyond just the Nuer tribe to a full Sudanese fellowship. That involves not only breaking the groups out of a purely tribal way of thinking, but even overcoming a language barrier. The Nuer speak their own tribal language, different from the other Sudanese tribes. A common language such as English, foreign to both groups, must be decided on just to communicate. 

Budgeting might have been a new concept, but the Sudanese fellowship has been very happy with the results. Since the start of the relationship, the Sudanese fellowship pledged to save 5 percent of its income for mission.

Between offerings and grant income, the group just sent Long to Nasir, in southern Sudan, with $8,000 to help rebuild a Presbyterian church there that was destroyed in fighting in 1984.

For the members of Mid-Coast, the relationship has taught them about getting outside their comfort zone and expanding their cultural awareness. Some members of Mid-Coast go to Portland once a month to worship and share communion with the Sudanese fellowship members.  On some occasions, they have brought the Sudanese to Topsham to join in worship at the church.

“They are outgoing, faithful, neat folk,” Brown said. “They have been a big plus for us. They really buoy our spirits.”

Toni Montgomery is a free-lance writer in Statesville, NC. She is church secretary for First Presbyterian Church of Statesville.

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