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Iowa Church Transformed and Revived by Refugee Outreach

01-06-2017
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Zion Lutheran Church Reaches Out to Refugee Communities
Zion Lutheran Church Reaches Out to Refugee Communities

DES MOINES -- As churches become more involved in the international refugee crisis, one Iowa congregation is setting a high standard. 
  
Zion Lutheran in Des Moines, Iowa, is not your average church. On any given Sunday, they hold services in four different languages and you can hear people speak more than 15 dialects.
 
The inspiration that transformed this 150-year-old ministry into a 24/7 mission field came from one simple question: if their church closed, would anyone miss them? 

In 2010 they prayed about the future of the church and God's answer revealed an unexpected plan. Lead Pastor John Kline says God put Luke 14 on his heart, and felt like He was telling them to turn the church into a banquet.

"In Luke 14 we learned that he wanted us to be a place that would bless people who couldn't bless us back," said Pastor Kline.

So they took box lunches to a nearby low-income apartment complex housing refugees from all over the world. They asked each person, how can we bless you? 

"We didn't plan anything, we just walked down the street, and everything unfolded because of faithfulness to God," said Grace Kline, Pastor John's wife.

Congregation Transforms

Zion started making weekly visits to the complex and began bringing refugee children back to the church for tutoring. As word of their work spread, they caught the attention of a group of Burmese Christian refugees. The Mizos had been worshipping in a small apartment and needed a bigger space.

Zion welcomed the Mizos in and gave them a service time.

"When I talked with Pastor John he was like everything you want to do, you can do. This is God's house, not my church or no one's church, this is God's house," said Lucy Hnemi, a Mizo refugee. 

Then the church went a step further, sending someone to Burma to bring over a new associate pastor who spoke their own dialect. 
 
"The first service was very emotional," said Hnemi. 
 
Now the mission offers Arabic and Swahili services, along with a diverse youth program reaching over 300 students.

"It's a place where if you're thirsty, you'll get something to drink, if you're hungry, you'll get fed, if you don't have a place you'll find a place, and if you don't have a family, you'll join ours," said Pastor John.

These communities not only use the church, they've become an invaluable part of it. 
 
"When we came here we didn't have the language to tell our story, we didn't have people to help us because we didn't know them but now we have this community, we have all these people surrounding us," said Congolese worship leader Boaz Nkingi.

Refugee Outreach

When refugees arrive, no matter their religion or language, Zion helps with tutoring, resettlement assistance, and friendships in their new home.  

"When I enter this church, I feel very happy inside, and I feel this is my family," said Karim Jawda, a Muslim refugee from Iraq. 
 
Every day, people bring in donations that fill Zion's main lobby. Refugees from around the community are welcome to come and take whatever they need.

"When refugees come, there's a limited time when they need the most, and when you can invest in their lives and say Jesus loves you, like with these Syrians, its like know you matter and I care about your eternity," said Grace Kline.

Ministry Challenges

Ministering in this way isn't always easy. Many of Zion's new congregants lost family to war and others come from different sides of civil wars.  
 
"People don't want to suffer, and to walk into the lives of these people is to walk into their suffering, and to the suffering of their nations," said Grace Kline. 
  
But longtime church members like Sherilyn Rittgers see the positive effect welcoming the suffering has had on their own faith.  
 
"To watch them worship, knowing everything they've been through, to see them worship is just incredibly moving for me," said Rittgers. "It has really challenged me in my faith, it has made me realize that God really is enough, period."

The church even witnessed a financial miracle. It was $1.3 million in mortgage debt when the outreach started in 2010. Despite taking in these new members who can't always financially contribute, they've paid off all but $150,000 of it. 
 
"I know that if I step out in faith, even if I fall, he's still going to catch me, and if I step out in faith, chances are, there's going to be something beautiful that becomes of that," said Pastor Kline. "Our vision is that other churches would do this, because there's so much that needs to be done and it's so simple."

Zion's slogan is "Where the Nations Worship." People say coming here feels like a taste of heaven.

"When the nations, especially that diverse, can all feel comfortable coming to one place, that tells you God's doing something special here," said Pastor Al Perez.

Congolese worship leader Boaz Nkingi agrees, "We may have different songs, we may have different accents in singing, we may play instruments different, but God is one." 

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