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‘A unique place:' African congregation celebrates second year

Press Photo by Nadya Faulx Rev. Amos Byamungu, pastor of Dickinson’s only African service, points to a display of flags in the River of Life Church International on Wednesday. Byamungu’s Adonai Evangelical Church celebrates its second year in Dickinson Sunday.

When Enoch Ohene-Ntow moved to Dickinson four-and-a-half years ago, he stopped going to church.

The Dickinson State University student, who said he grew up in “a semi-religious family” in Ghana, had been attending Sunday services at the River of Life Church International, but “the messages just weren’t encouraging enough,” he said.

“I felt bored or something, like I just had to come,” he said. “Where I’m from, we get more engaged in church. We actually get involved with songs and dancing and clapping.”

Enoch said he has found that involvement since joining the Adonai Evangelical Church, a congregation at River of Life Church International led by Rev. Amos Byamungu, a transplant from North Carolina by way of East Africa.

The city’s first and only African church service, the Adonai Evangelical Church celebrates its second year in Dickinson on Sunday, and third year overall, a milestone Byamungu said is a “big achievement for me and for the church” — and for the many African immigrants in Dickinson who find a second home there.

Enoch’s older sister, Karen, said there’s a “comfort level” at Byamungu’s services that she hasn’t found elsewhere.

“It meets my African need,” said Karen, a longtime member who encouraged her brother to join the congregation in October. “It’s like back home. It feels like a family.

“We pray louder, we sing louder, we dance. The music is louder; our hands are in the air. The hallelujahs are louder.”

Byamungu’s 60-member congregation now represents nine nations, most of them African. Sermons are given in English, Swahili, French and sometimes other Central African languages, with interpreters on hand to translate into English.

“We feel free to talk, to communicate easily,” Byamungu said. “I’m really close to my people.”

Karen credited both Byamungu and the River of Life Church International with filling an important need among the immigrant community in Dickinson.

Byamungu had already started branches of the church in North Carolina and Rwanda when he came to Dickinson with plans to open a new one. He approached Rev. Jim Hessler, the head pastor at River of Life International going on 36 years, and told him about his plan to start a church for African immigrants in the area.

“I said, ‘I think that would be a great idea,’” Hessler said.

Hessler’s own congregation included immigrants from Nigeria, many of them students. But the benefit of Byamungu leading his own services, Hessler said, is that fellows “are able to worship in their custom and in their own way.”

He said when he started his church more than three decades ago, the “international” in the name simply referred to the Norwegians, Swedes and Ukrainians who attended. Today, the church hosts not just Byamungu’s African service, but a weekly Hispanic service as well, led in Spanish by Rev. Liliana Rodriguez.

Enoch said the international congregation has made him feel welcome in a city where, when he first arrived, “a lot of people made me realize I wasn’t from here.”

“In spite of the fact that we have three different services in this building, we all serve the same God,” he said. “No matter what language it’s coming in, or what pastor it’s coming from, it’s the same message.”

Sunday’s celebration, which runs from 12:30-3 p.m. at the River of Life Church International, will feature sermons, music, traditional Rwandese and Burundese dance, and African food.

Even as he celebrates his church’s third year, Byamungu is already looking forward to his fourth, with a possible new branch in Ghana and a bigger congregation here in the city.

“This is a really unique place I’ve found in Dickinson,” he said.