Spartanburg County has long been one of South Carolina’s most ethnically diverse areas of the state. Going back to the 1950s, it has been a place where people from around the world moved or resettled for work or education.
About 70 countries are represented in Spartanburg County, where international businesses (including Swiss and German textile mills, BMW, and Michelin) and eight colleges have a history.
Jim Goodroe, recently retired director of missions for the Spartanburg County Baptist Network, reflected on his county’s multiethnic history while telling the story of a new Swahili-speaking church that meets at a local Baptist church.
The story of the church plant is how God brought many people together under a vision to reach multiethnic people groups in South Carolina.
“When I first came to Spartanburg, I got more interested in missions because of the multiethnic environment here,” Goodroe said. “The Swahili congregation is an outgrowth of a 2008 commitment by our Baptist network to concentrate on meeting the needs of people of the world whom God is sending here.”
Goodroe’s excitement for reaching multiethnic people goes back to 2005, when he credits former SCBC church-planting director Dino Senesi with inviting him to a national ethnic ministries conference. It was there the Lord gave Goodroe a vision to reach people groups beyond Hispanics, African-Americans and Asians, groups the state convention had a history of supporting.
“Our association came up with a model for our new direction in multiethnic ministry,” Goodroe said. “In 2009, we began taking new-plant ministers to the Ethnic America Network summits, and we were the first Baptist association to join. We hosted the summit here in Spartanburg in 2012. It’s three nights of worship, and then Friday and Saturday there are seminars about reaching immigrants and refugees.”
The excitement was stirred in the associational network. A lunch meeting was organized with Matthew Soerens, who is currently the U.S. church training specialist for World Relief, which is the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. Soerens helps churches and denominations address immigration issues from a biblical perspective. At the time, Soerens was in the United States to help connect American churches with immigrants and refugees.
About 70 people attended the luncheon with Soerens, including pastors, missions leaders and state convention leaders. “That luncheon got people very excited about reaching the people groups God was sending here,” said Goodroe. The growing excitement led to a World Relief office opening in Spartanburg in 2015.
“The biblical mandate to welcome the stranger is as strong as the pro-life mandate,” Goodroe said. “We don’t hear about it as much, but it’s there. The Great Commission, which appears more than once in Scripture, actually says, ‘As you go, make disciples,’ and we are to go everywhere to reach people, beginning right here in our communities. The Great Commission isn’t about arriving somewhere and making disciples, it’s about making them as you go.”
Enter Ryan Dupree.
Dupree is the full-time minister to internationals at First Baptist Church in Columbia and is also the part-time multiethnic church consultant for the SCBC.
“I do a lot of international and refugee work here in Columbia,” Dupree said. “Once each month I like to get our ethnic pastors together for a meal and fellowship. Through that, I learned that there was a resettling of about 75-80 Congolese people in Spartanburg.” The Congolese people are those from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in central Africa.
“I called my friend Samuel Kioko, who is pastor at Sunpoint Community Fellowship in Greenville,” said Dupree. “I asked Samuel to meet with me, Jason Lee of World Relief, and Jim Goodroe about the possibility of starting a Swahili-speaking church in Spartanburg. Many of these refugees were living in two apartment complexes very near one another — and very near Abner Baptist Church.”
The men visited the apartment complexes, stepping into the homes of the refugees. Kioko was able to communicate with them and afterward agreed to travel to and from Spartanburg and lead weekly Bible studies in the apartment complex.
“People began coming to the Bible studies,” Dupree said. “That’s how the church got its beginning, by meeting for study in homes as a home church.”
Dupree said refugees go through a two-year process when they flee their country. Following the background check process, refugees are registered by the United Nations, which works with host countries on resettlement. The process also includes connecting refugees to churches and individuals for a three-month support commitment. World Relief and, for a longer time, Lutheran Services have been South Carolina partners in resettlement.
“The majority of refugees are not English-speaking, and so they are plugged into English-as-a-Second-Language programs,” Dupree said. “Some of those attending the Swahili church do speak pretty good English.”
In February, Jason Lee began work with the SCBC as a people-groups strategist, helping cast a vision for engaging different ethnicities in South Carolina. For the past two years, Lee worked in the Greenville-Spartanburg World Relief office. His credentials for loving and serving people of the world include service as a pastor and missionary, and refugee work with the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Because I was in the Upstate working with World Relief, I was able to be a part of that group that visited the Swahili-speaking people living in the apartment complexes,” Lee said. “I had met Samuel Kioko while I was serving as a missionary in Kenya. Samuel knew Ryan Dupree at First Baptist, Columbia, and conversations had started about a Swahili-speaking church plant in Spartanburg. I knew Jim Goodroe because of the multiethnic passion born in the association. It was a coming together of several people to plant a church to reach this people group.
“In South Carolina, about 5 percent of our population is considered foreign born. If you open your Bible, the message from Genesis to Revelation is there: God has a desire to be worshiped among all nations. No longer do we need to go ‘over there’ to reach internationals, because God is bringing them here.
“Church revitalization is a big initiative right now among Baptists, and rightly so. What if the key to a historic church’s renewal and revitalization is partnering with the internationals whom God is bringing here? When you worship alongside people who have been persecuted for their faith and fled their homes to come here, well, it takes your freedom of worship experience to a different level.
“Many of the refugees coming here are Christian and are fleeing persecution over their faith. Some are fleeing the genocide and civil war that comes from new government regimes, but many are already Christians facing persecution.
“I think it’s interesting that, a century ago, Christian missionaries went abroad to share the gospel with people in other countries, and now the families of those who became Christians are coming back here so we can minister to them as our missionaries once did over there.
“I know all of this is politically controversial right now, and the issues of refugee resettlement are confusing and complex, but we have a commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, and many of these refugees are looking to have what we have — freedom of worship.”
A Church Is Born
Jim Goodroe remembers the day he was asked, “Will the network help start this church?”
“I said, ‘Yes, of course, we will.’”
Samuel Kioko, driving twice a week from Greenville, had been leading Bible studies and prayer meetings for the Swahili-speaking residents. The group had outgrown meeting space at one of two apartment complexes and had relocated to Abner Baptist Church, located very near the apartments.
Now it was time for Kioko to step out of the picture so he could remain in Greenville with his church. He enlisted two men to serve as co-pastors of what was growing into the Swahili-speaking congregation.
Augustin Mutabesha is a Congolese refugee who was fleeing Tanzania when his family was killed. He spent years in a refugee camp before landing in Spartanburg. Dr. Charles Kenya, from Kenya, came to Spartanburg in 2002 to attend college and then Sherman College of Chiropractic in Spartanburg. He is now an Upstate chiropractor.
“I was in school and learned of Samuel Kioko meeting with this group from Africa,” Kenya said. “I was asked to get involved, and I began going every Sunday to have services with them. When Samuel said he couldn’t continue coming, he asked me to step in as one of the pastors, and I agreed.” Kenya, like Mutabesha, has been ordained and is now fully involved in the new plant ministry.
“Our biggest challenge, the challenge of a new work, is that we must begin teaching ground-level theology, Baptist doctrine, and teach everything from a biblical perspective,” Kenya said. “That’s not always easy when you have a lot of people joining together from different backgrounds, and you say, ‘This is what we believe and do.’”
“It’s also a challenge to help them with the resettlement process,” Kenya said. “Some are still in process with paperwork, some are working and some are not, and we are teaching about financial giving to the church and that a local church supports itself.”
“Jim Goodroe and area churches have helped with the supplies we need,” Kenya said. “We need a Bible translation that we can all use. We need Sunday school materials and hymnbooks for Swahili, because our services are in Swahili and our church is advertised that way.”
Kenya was saved in 1981, along with his entire family, when United Methodist missionaries from Iowa came to his home. In 2001, a missionary asked him if he would come to Iowa and lead Bible studies, and it was the decision to attend school and become a chiropractor that moved him from Iowa to South Carolina. Kenya and his family are involved at Gateway Baptist Church in Boiling Springs. His co-pastor, Mutabesha, is involved at Hope Point Community Church, an SCBC congregation, which also supports the new Swahili congregation.
The Swahili congregation had its first service on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, with 25 Swahili-speaking attendees and 12 guests. At one recent service, there were 35 adults and 10 children meeting. Kenya said that two are awaiting baptism, and he plans to use that service as a teaching moment for those attending.
Says Goodroe, “As I kind of ride off into retirement, it’s exciting to see what God is doing here and how He is bringing people together for kingdom work right here in Spartanburg.
“Not lost in all of this is the cooperative spirit of Abner Baptist, which allows the Swahili Church to meet there on Sunday afternoons.”
Tim Rice, director of missions mobilization for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, says, “Our desire as a state convention is to know the South Carolina immigrant, refugee and international visitor, and to reach people with our ethnic language churches. Jason Lee and Ryan Dupree will be helping us find pockets of people with whom we can share the gospel, organize small groups, and start churches. That’s our goal.”
— Scott Vaughan writes for the South Carolina Baptist Convention.