Songs come from the hearts of African immigrants who love Jesus.
Daniel J. Laitinen
On a typical Saturday afternoon when most people are doing chores, watching TV, or just checking out after a long work week, you will find African native Israel Asongo making music at his church in Austin, Texas.
Israel and his pastor have gathered a group of African immigrants from the area who meet every week to learn Bible stories, practice English, pray, eat, and sing together for the entire afternoon. With every Bible story comes a new sense of awe about God’s rich love for them. Scribbling down a weekly Bible passage in English, they are eager to practice their pronunciation.
Then Israel plugs in his keyboard, turns up the speakers, and cues his choir. His bright demeanor is enough to fill the space. When the music begins, you are transported to a country and culture far away from a little church in central Texas. “It’s not like the music you’re used to in church,” Israel says with a smile. They worship all afternoon using every vocal chord and muscle: singing and swaying for Jesus. The music is unlike anything this church is used to.
God’s grace in Africa
So how did God bring about this opportunity to bless both immigrants in the Austin area and Holy Word Lutheran Church?
Born in the Congo, Africa, Israel has had an incredible journey. His father was a Christian preacher, his mother a full-time parent of 11. His first memories of the gospel and music were with his family in the home. They would sing traditional African hymns and songs late into the evening.
Israel’s love for sharing the gospel is inspiring. He once went into the African bush to share the gospel with a primitive—and sometimes suspicious and violent—pygmy tribe. Israel says, “If you want to share the gospel with them, you must first find a translator from their tribe willing to accompany you. Then, before you go, you must dress like them. I had to change out of my clothes and put on basically leaves you find along the way. Otherwise you are a threat and they will not speak with you. Then you must eat whatever they put before you. They roasted a small animal on a stick over a fire and told me to eat it like they do. Then, once they saw me eat it, they were pleased and said, ‘Okay. Now give us your message.’ You cannot start by just telling them about Jesus. You must start with who God is because they do not know. I told them, ‘The rocks and trees and river, these are not gods, but there is a God who created it all.’ It all takes time to teach them what they never knew.”
Life in the Congo can be dangerous for Christians like Israel. His father was persecuted and killed for his faith. “Some of my family, I don’t know today whether they are alive or not,” he says. Faced with persecution himself, Israel made a daring escape. “Many people wanted to kill us Christians. They gathered hundreds of us in a stadium to be executed. As the executioner was on his way, we ran for the exits—some of us this way, some of us that. They began shooting. By God’s grace, I escaped.”
After living in the bush for ten days surviving on only sugar cane, Israel crossed two countries and could have been deported back to Congo. Finally he arrived at a refugee camp in Kenya. “All by God’s grace,” he says.
Life in the refugee camp wasn’t easy either. Divisions between religious groups, poor shelter, sickness, and persecution continued. However, Israel met his wife, began a family, and shared the gospel even in this harsh environment. Speaking six languages and understanding ten, he became a teacher and interpreter for the United Nations.
Finally, one day he and his family were selected by lottery to be relocated in the United States. His son was very ill at the time, and the news came as a huge relief. “It was an answer to prayer!” Israel says.
God’s grace in America
Today Israel lives in Austin, Texas, with his family. Life in America was another major adjustment. He recalls one summer evening in his new home when he heard what seemed to be gunshots, bombs, and explosions outside. Remembering similar violence in Africa, he feared for his family’s life. He assumed that death was imminent. He gathered his wife and children into the corner of their apartment. He prayed to God to spare them. The next morning they woke up, alive. He went outside. To his amazement there was no damage or injury to people or property. It was the morning of July 5!
One day Israel was at a store when he heard a man singing a Christian song one aisle over. Israel began singing along. The two voices found each other at the end of the aisle. They laughed and introduced themselves.
“Do you have a church home?” Israel’s new friend Stacy asked.
Israel said he did not.
“You do now!” Stacy said, inviting him to his church, Holy Word.
Months passed, but Stacy still hadn’t seen Israel in church. When they ran into each other once again, Stacy said, “Israel, come home.”
Israel smiled and said, “I like that!”
From then on Israel began attending Holy Word. I invited him to Bible information class. As we studied the Word together Israel soon knew he had found a home.
“Why did you choose our church?” I asked.
He replied, “Because you teach us about the Bible: sin and Jesus. Not every church does that.”
One Sunday Israel approached me with a request: “I want to share what I learned here with more people like me. Can I invite some immigrant friends in Austin to meet here, sing, and learn God’s Word with you?” Within a month Israel’s Saturday group was studying God’s Word, praying, and singing. After several months, the group performed an African music concert for the congregation that drew in many visitors and other immigrants to Holy Word.
Israel’s choir has changed the perspective of Holy Word members as well. Lynn, a weekly volunteer who brings food for the group, says, “Israel’s group is such an encouragement to my faith. Most of the choir members are older teens and young adults, and it is so inspiring to experience their joy as they worship the Lord. In their young lives they have undergone trials and poverty that I as an American cannot really imagine, yet they are filled with thanksgiving for what they have. Their joy and love for Jesus shines in their faces and through their voices. It is a blessing for our church to be able to connect with brothers and sisters from across the world, and they remind us of how much we too have to be thankful for.”
One Saturday evening on the car ride home, a choir member asked Israel, “Why is this church doing this for us? What have we done to deserve food and kind treatment?”
Israel replied, “Because they have Jesus in their heart.”
Dan Laitinen is pastor at Holy Word, Austin, Texas.
Check out a short video of the African music concert at Holy Word, Austin, Texas, at https://vimeo.com/300502188
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Author: Dan Laitinen
Volume 105, Number 12
Issue: December 2018
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