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Maine pastor and African immigrant reaching those on the margins

Lawum Kayamba (center) welcomed to stay for a time in his church office in Portland, Maine.

PORTLAND, Maine (BP) – Known for lobsters, cobblestone streets and an iconic lighthouse, Portland is not generally considered a hub for immigrants. But according to the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, America’s “Vacationland” of Maine is home to 87,200 immigrants and refugees, including asylum seekers and undocumented people of all ages – some 24,000 of whom live in metro Portland.

Lawum Kayamba is one of these. Kayamba, a native of Kikwit, an important commercial center in southwestern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), found his way to the seaside city of Portland, and started Disciples International Christian Church, a thriving multicultural, evangelical church affiliated with the Baptist Convention of New England.

Pastor Lawum Kayamba stands with new immigrants families at Disciples International Christian Church in Portland, Maine.

In the DRC, Kayamba was a national evangelist for the Mennonite Brethren Church of Congo and a teacher at the Christian University of Kinshasa. He earned degrees from Kinshasa Evangelical School of Theology, Bangui Evangelical School of Theology, and the School of Theology at the University of Natal, in South Africa, and before leaving Africa for the U.S., he was a PhD student at the University of Natal.

Now, in addition to being a full-time pastor, Kayamba works full-time as an outreach tutor for the certified nursing assistant (CNA) program at St. Joseph’s Rehabilitation and Residence, a subsidiary of Maine Medical Center. Healthcare assistants have been in short supply in Portland, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, so he also teaches immigrants CNA skills, as well as Bible basics and financial literacy.

He came to the United States in 2005 when he was invited to attend a Dynamic Church Planting International conference in California. Because of civil unrest in the DRC, he could not return home, so he applied for and received asylum in March 2006.

After living in Connecticut and Ohio, Kayamba and his family relocated to Maine, and he planted Disciples International Christian Church in May of 2010.

The ministry is demanding as he tries to serve his marginalized neighbors, some of whom are in desperate need of everything – from food to shelter to transportation to friendship – when they arrive as foreigners from many countries.

“When you have been a pastor for as long as I have, there are scars,” Kayamba said. “It’s challenging and there is a cost.”

He lives by the command of Leviticus 19:34: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners …”

While he was living in Augusta, Maine, a woman from Angola, who had just arrived in Portland, called on the pastor when she did not know where to buy cassava and the other ingredients that she needed to prepare fufu, the favored porridge-like food to which she was accustomed. Kayamba drove two hours roundtrip to take the woman grocery shopping at the city’s only African market.

It was after that, Kayamba and his wife, Suzanne Makala, decided “the Lord is calling us to Portland.” They sold their Augusta home and relocated to Portland along with their seven children and five grandchildren.

Kayamba soon found that for an African, life in Portland was “amazing,”

“I found a lot of immigrants from my country, and from Rwanda, Uganda, and Cameroon,” he said. “The Lord began to ask me if I would start something among them.”

He began a Bible study group on Saturdays at a local school. Soon, the group outgrew the space and moved to a Salvation Army building, where they stayed for eight years. In January of this year, the church began meeting at First Parish in Portland, which is said to be the oldest place of worship in the city.

The Unitarian Universalist congregation that owns the building advertises itself as “welcoming and affirming.” It was established in 1674 and moved into the current location in 1740.

Kayamba admitted that the decision to meet a building owned by a church so different theologically was a tough one. “It was very challenging,” he said. “We prayed and prayed.” But they believed God had opened the door to meet in a building downtown that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Kayamba, 63, preaches in French and young adults translate his sermons into English. Others in the church speak Portuguese and several African languages.

When asked what a guest might expect when visiting the church, he replied: “Bring your dancing shoes!” The African worship style is energetic, he said.

“We are fired up because of what the Lord did for us. Sunday is not an ordinary day. It is a rendezvous with the ‘perfecter of our faith.’”

The church began in 2010 with five people plus the pastor’s family. Today, about 150 people attend worship.

“This is what God can do!” Kayamba said. In addition to his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he serves immigrants from Nigeria, Rwanda, Angola, Burundi, and the Republic of the Congo as well as U.S. natives.

The City of Portland recognizes the church’s outreach and these days refers immigrants to Kayamba. When he discovers people in need, he visits the hotel or shelter where they reside temporarily and, along with church volunteers, assists them with translation, transportation, shopping, permanent housing, employment, education and numerous other practical matters of daily living in this country.

“We start by serving them, and later they will want to know where we are from,” he said.

Recently Kayamba encountered eight immigrant families, about 20 people including children. For lack of a better option, they were sleeping outdoors. After allowing them to stay in his church office for a time and helping them find sufficient food and water, he helped them find housing in nearby Sanford, Maine.

“I’m coming from the same background as them,” he said of his motivation to help in tough cases. “I know what is suffering. I know what they’re going through. I could be in their shoes. I can relate to them. …

“If we can do something, we need to do it. I cannot do it on my own, but I need God’s strength. The love of Christ is pushing us to come to the aid of our neighbors who are going through a lot.”