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Press Photo by Nadya Faulx Rev. Amos Byamungu, left, leads a prayer session Friday at the River of Life Church in advance of his Easter Sunday service. Since coming to Dickinson two years ago, his Adonai Evangelical Church has grown to about 60 members.

A religion boom: Churches respond to new faces, new needs in Dickinson area

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When Rev. Amos Byamungu moved his Adonai Evangelical Church from North Carolina to North Dakota two years ago, his congregation consisted of just six people: his wife, their two children, his two brothers and him.

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Today, his Sunday services, held at the River of Life Church International in Dickinson, can draw in as many as 60 worshipers, most of them of African descent.

“Our main goal is to reach Africans, but we are growing,” Byamungu said. “We have all nationalities. Some Americans, Mexicans, people from Asia, too.

“Even if you have a goal, you cannot limit God.”

Byamungu came to Dickinson “to plant a church, and to look for a job,” he said. The jobs were there when he arrived — in addition to leading his congregation, he works at St. Luke’s nursing home as a CNA and part-time at Wal-Mart — but his target audience was slower to arrive.

Just 2.5 percent of North Dakota’s population was foreign-born in 2010, according to the bipartisan policy group the Immigration Task Force. But the oil boom has brought an influx of new faces to town — more are “coming every day,” Byamungu said — and it’s reshaping the role of churches in the community.

A growing congregation

Recent Census data shows that whites make up 93 percent of Dickinson’s population. Byamungu’s diverse congregation is connected primarily through worship, but they come for “the community aspect” as well, he said.

Rev. Liliana Rodriguez, also faced a shortage of parishioners when she came to Dickinson about four years ago. She started with a congregation of one, “then two, then three, then four…” she said.

Her Hispanic ministry at River of Life Church International, the first in Dickinson, now has a fellowship of about 70 parishioners — many of them from as far away as Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala, Belize and Colombia. Most are first-time church-goers, Rodriguez said. Like most other new arrivals to North Dakota, they’ve come for work out on the oilfields.

The Latino population in Dickinson has grown steadily, fuelled by the spike in the energy industry. When Rodriguez arrived from Brownsville, Texas, she said she felt “like the black bean in the white rice.”

Today, Latinos make up roughly 2.1 percent of the population in the city, and the number continues to increase, enough so that St. Joseph Catholic Church also offers services in Spanish.

“(God) brought me over here before my people started coming,” Rodriguez said. “I was on time, because now it’s a lot of Hispanic people here.”

Offering some grace for change

Churches are having to respond to growing pains beyond Census demographics.

Rev. Dan Freed’s congregation at the United Methodist Church hasn’t grown as much as the the Catholic or Mormon communities in the almost three years he moved from Sioux Falls, S.D. to Dickinson. But while the numbers haven’t changed much, the needs certainly have.

“We’re seeing tremendous needs” out in the oilfields around the Bakken, Freed said. “Tons of loneliness, lots of addictions, drugs, alcoholism. All different issues.”

Freed said the oil boom — and the booming population — is changing “what it means to be a small-town community, the culture of what it means to be a small town.”

There’s no longer the comfort in knowing that “everything stays the same,” he said.

“Now there are faces you don’t recognize. There’s a grieving then, that has been and is required,” he said.

The unfamiliar faces “could use a little kindness,” he added.

“They could use some grace,” Freed said. “[God] gets that we’re struggling with all the change.”

‘Day of Victory’

Pastor Rodriguez said religion will help with the transition Dickinson is undergoing, especially for her Hispanic congregation.

“If we continue to put Jesus and the word of God in Hispanic people’s hearts, it’s good for the community,” she said. “We want to be liked.”

Her Easter mass will be about “The Day of Victory,” she said.

“I expect that the message will encourage people to continue, to persevere,” she said.

Both Rodriguez and Byamungu said they’ve felt welcomed in Dickinson—and they’re expecting full houses on Sunday.

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