NASHVILLE — Memba Mwene, pastor, Swahili Baptist Church here, will soon return to the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa to train leaders of 10 new Baptist congregations he helped start and ordain new Baptist ministers.
This is somewhat unusual because though Mwene lived for many years in the DRC, he was a pastor in the Free Methodist denomination in which his father was a bishop. It is also unusual he is returning to the DRC because he and his family had to flee a civil war there to a refugee camp in Tanzania. In the camp for seven years he started a church which grew to about 2,000 people. But he and his family had to flee again because of Muslim opposition to him and the church. They were resettled in the United States in 2007.
Several years ago Mwene visited Woodmont Baptist Church, Nashville, because it was near a mall where he was working as a custodian. There he met Carlos Owens, a retired missionary to Africa who is a member of Woodmont. They soon realized that they both speak Swahili. A few months later Mwene and his wife became Baptists by joining Woodmont. Then he was ordained and started Swahili Baptist which meets at Woodmont.
Owens and his wife Myrtice, who served in Africa for 36 years, have worked closely with Mwene and seen the church flourish. Several families joined Mwene in Nashville by relocating from cities in which they were resettled. They knew Mwene from the refugee camp and his church there.
The African refugees who became leaders of Swahili Baptist adopted Baptist beliefs from several different denominations, said Owens. He taught them and provided training materials in Swahili he collected from International Mission Board missionaries in Tanzania.
Mwene, while pastoring Swahili Baptist and working to support his family, stayed in contact with several Free Methodist churches in Africa via cell phone and Skype. A church in Baraka, DRC, he was advising decided to become Baptist. So last year he traveled there despite some dangerous conflict in the area to meet with them. Mwene also took the congregation, which had adopted the Baptist doctrine and had grown to about 700 meeting under trees, funds to start a building.
The funds, $10,000, were given by Swahili Baptist and Woodmont Baptist.
This year Swahili Baptist is going to give the church, New Life Baptist Church, Baraka, $4,000 to help them continue the building and $600 for a center for widows and orphans. Mwene is able with some help from Woodmont Baptist to travel this year with a deacon of Swahili Baptist, Apumba Wiyamba, to deliver the funds and meet with the leaders and their church plant leaders.
Mwene said he always has fears about returning to the DRC because he knows people who lost their lives there because of warring factions. He is glad Wiyamba can travel with him this year.
Owens said the fact that the Swahili Baptist congregation, which has about 60 in attendance each Sunday morning, is helping the new churches in the Baraka area is amazing because the church members mainly have low wage jobs. The adults are still learning English and can’t transfer the skills they had in Africa such as being tailors or operating a bakery easily to America. Thankfully Mwene recently began receiving a small salary supplement from the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
Another fact that makes their giving so astounding said Owens is that they have large families here and they also send money back to family in Africa.
“Many are tithers and many give above their tithes,” said Owens. “I think their generosity is a great measure of their faith.”
While in the DRC Mwene will ordain 15 young men of New Life Baptist as ministers as well as teaching and preaching. The congregation has seen nine new Baptist churches start in the area. Mwene also will visit and encourage Bujumburu Baptist Church, in Bujumburu, Burundi, another Free Methodist church he saw switch to Baptist, and other churches there.
Owens noted that currently the DRC is peaceful and the International Mission Board has missionaries in the country, but they can’t be identified for security reasons.
The missionaries will not be able to help Mwene and probably not the churches in the Baraka area because the country is so large, Owens said. Missionaries in nearby Burundi may be in contact with the Baptists in Baraka in the future, he said.