Missionary Hiruy Gebremichael
The first thing to say is that this blog is not about an outreach to Spanish speaking people, or those who love fried chicken. It is affirmation for a growing trend of mission in American churches – the so-called “Taco Bell- KFC” church. This particular TBKFC church started a long time ago. Below is the story.
Rev. Hiruy Gebremichael did not plan to become a missionary in America. He was happy being a youth worker in Eritrea, East Africa. Unlike in other parts of the world, the church in Eritrea is functioning and Hiruy could share Jesus with young people, shaping their lives for service to the Lord. Then his wife took advantage of an opportunity to study in America and Hiruy went along. They ended up in Atlanta, and lived in a small town outside of Atlanta called Tucker.
St. Mark Lutheran Church in Tucker, Georgia is known as “A small church with a big heart.”
In 2005, seeing the needs of immigrants in the community around them, the church opened its doors to Eritrean refugees. Hiruy and other Eritreans were welcomed as brothers and sisters in Christ. Hiruy asked if they could have space to worship in their language. That’s when St. Mark decided to begin a separate mission, a church inside a church. The churches had the same Bible and the same Creeds but they were to be different churches because they came from different cultures.
One time early on, Hiruy was in downtown Atlanta, a black man, he saw a white handicapped man in a wheel chair struggling to get out of the rain. It was pouring but Hiruy went out of his way to help him. The boy was taken back, “Why did you help me?” Hiruy was surprised because in Eritrean culture if someone was in need others rushed to help.
All the new church needed in the beginning was a small room. Now they could use their native language and sing their old songs, praising God the way they worshipped the Lord in Africa. As did the German, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian and other first generation immigrants. That was at first.
Then the new church outgrew the room and a larger space was provided. That would not be the end. In 2009, St. Mark reached a new level. The two churches decided to become one. Like Taco Bell and KFC. Two different restaurants, often found under the same roof. When this happened the church moved to one set of elders, one church council composed of members from Anglo and Eritrean worshippers. The new St. Mark gave financial support to Hiruy so he could complete the EIIT (Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology) program to become ordained. In time Hiruy was called to be the pastor of the united St. Mark Lutheran.
I asked Hiruy “Knowing what you know now, what do you want to tell a church about your experience at St. Mark?” He had several things to say.
First, they still maintain two separate worship services, one in English and one in Tigrinian. But they also plan joint worship services during the year – like on Pentecost. Then they use hymns that have tunes familiar to both groups, but the people sing the words in their own language. Then it sounds like the worship St. John describes in heaven (Revelations 7:9).
Second, it was important for the immigrants, but especially the children of the immigrants to learn English. They speak English in school and when they go shopping. In the church the Bible studies for children are in English. The younger generation is growing up in a diverse population. They look for that in the church where they choose to worship. The days of the mono-cultural church will diminish.
Finally, Hiruy believes God has sent him and other dedicated Christians to America as a sign of God’s blessing for the church in America – which for centuries has sent missionaries overseas to his and other countries. Today the church in America is under severe stress. “They taught us how to be missionaries. Now we are blessed to return the favor.”
I believe we will see a growing Taco Bell-KFC like church “franchise.” As America becomes more diverse there will be growing opportunities for young immigrant families to bring vision and energy to Anglo churches with mission eyes. As missionaries from other countries supplement resources of older churches the favor of the Lord’s blessing will flourish.