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Friday, November 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Fowler United Methodist Church embraces African refugee congregation

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 5, 2019

Lay pastor Marie Mwange leads an evening Swahili service while  Marcelline Mwange, left, is on hand to translate at Fowler United Methodist Church, 3928 N. Howard St., in Spokane on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019. Pastor Marie Mwange studied ministry and became a Methodist lay pastor while in a refugee camp in Uganda. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Lay pastor Marie Mwange leads an evening Swahili service while Marcelline Mwange, left, is on hand to translate at Fowler United Methodist Church, 3928 N. Howard St., in Spokane on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019. Pastor Marie Mwange studied ministry and became a Methodist lay pastor while in a refugee camp in Uganda. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

When Sue Robinson, lay minister at Fowler United Methodist Church, prayed for God to send children to their Sunday school; she said she couldn’t have possibly predicted how her prayer would be answered.

Likewise, when Marie Mwange prayed in a refugee camp in Uganda, and heard God tell her she would preach in a place her family had never been, she couldn’t have imagined it would be in a small aging church in Spokane, Washington.

But like the old hymn says, “God moves in a mysterious way.”

Mwange and her husband, Myani, had fled to Uganda from their native Democratic Republic of Congo to escape the violence that engulfed the war-torn nation.

For 10 years, they lived in a refugee camp with their children.

“Being a refugee is not a life anyone would want,” said Mwange, whose daughter Marcelline, 17, served as translator.

Food was scarce. They lived in tents, and schooling for their children was nonexistent. But Mwange and her husband are people of faith. Both she and Myani became Methodist ministers.

“One day I prayed, and God said, ‘You are going to preach to my people in a big city in a place you have never been,’ ” Mwange recalled.

Years passed and Mwange wondered when God would fulfill that promise. Then her daughter Christelle, 7, got sick.

“She couldn’t walk. Her legs were swollen. We took her to the hospital, and they told us she needed surgery,” Mwange said.

The heart-valve surgery Christelle needed wasn’t available in Uganda. Her conditioned worsened.

“Kids died every day, and Christelle saw their bodies. She said, ‘I don’t want to die, Mom,’ ” Mwange said.

The answer to her prayers came from World Relief. One of Mwange’s sons had moved to Spokane in 2015, and the organization arranged for the family to join him, so Christelle could get the surgery she needed.

They arrived in Spokane in July 2016.

“We felt so good, so relieved,” she said.

Christelle’s health improved dramatically, even before the surgery, and she’s now an active, energetic 11-year-old student at Willard Elementary.

The family began attending Central Methodist Church in downtown Spokane, and when the church closed in 2016, they joined Fowler UMC in North Hill Neighborhood, along with two other families from Africa.

Sue Robinson’s Sunday school grew overnight. The aging congregation in the Garland District now has a multicultural youth ministry.

“They needed a church home, and a place to worship God as a community,” Robinson said.

Members of the African families joined the church choir and many attend the morning worship service. On Sunday evenings they hold their own service and Mwange preaches in Swahili.

“The first thing I felt here is love,” Mwange said. “And God is love.”

She’s preached for the entire congregation for the past three International Women’s Days.

In addition, she works at the Queen of Sheba and Calico Kitchen restaurants, and her husband works at Northern Quest Resort and Casino.

Head usher, Robert Hammer, has been attending Fowler since 1963.

“Fowler’s always been a welcoming church,” he said.

His wife, Linda Hammer, nodded, adding, “We figured God would work it out.”

Robinson said the African refugees live to worship.

“They are a real example to us,” the lay minister said. “They bring a reminder that faith is not just something nice to have around the house.”

The Rev. René Devantier came to Fowler United Methodist in July and is delighted by the diverse congregation he inherited.

“We get so set in our ways,” he said. “We need to be reminded that people all over the world worship God in different ways.”

Mwange nodded.

“God is the same, but people praise him in differently. He sees the hearts,” she said.

Devantier agreed.

“We don’t need to be afraid of differences. We need to trust that God hears all of us,” he said.

Tears fill Mwange’s eyes when she speaks about the relief she feels now that her children have enough to eat, and the joy she feels when she watches them board the school bus every morning.

“For free!” she marveled. “I feel so grateful. This country is like milk and honey.”

And when she preaches on Sunday evenings, she said, she remembers what God promised her so long ago.

“God does not lie,” Mwange said. “He does what he promises.”

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This story has been corrected to show Sue Robinson is a lay minister, not a youth minister, for Fowler United Methodist Church in Spokane, Wash. Also, Robinson was referring to the African refugee congregants, not the church, in a paraphrased quote in the 27th paragraph. The errors were made by a copy editor.

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