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Neema Community Church in Kansas has music and language that makes the congregation feel right at home

Posted by Administrator on March 16, 2012

The Rev. David Nzioka led a recent Sunday service at the church, which provides an opportunity for Kenyans to worship in their culture.

The Rev. David Nzioka led a recent Sunday service at the church, which provides an opportunity for Kenyans to worship in their culture.

Hellen Waithuki of Lenexa left Kenya and all of her family two years ago to study nursing in the United States.

Her mother knew the pastor of the Neema Community Church in Overland Park and told her to look up the Rev. David Nzioka, who also is Kenyan.

The Presbyterian church quickly became the 21-year-old’s “family away from home.”

Waithuki said she doesn’t feel alone.

“If I need something, I can call on someone at the church,” she said. “And I have made some really close friends.”

She was one of the singers at a recent Sunday service where the congregation meets, a building at 9900 Mission Road. Village Presbyterian Church provides the space, which despite the rain and the daylight saving time change, was packed.

What started with six people in 2004 as a prayer group in the apartment of Nzioka and his wife, Dorothy Ndavi, now has between 250 and 300 members and visitors. All ages came dressed in a variety of styles, African and American.

Before the service, attendees greeted one another and caught up on the latest news. Swahili music, native to Kenya, played in the background.

The praise team began the worship, mostly singing in Swahili and moving to the beat of the instruments. Worshippers joined in, singing, clapping and swaying to the rhythms. Song lyrics appeared on two large screens.

Even the opening prayers were sung before Nzioka, 42, gave the welcome.

In between Scripture readings in English, a large choir and two smaller groups sang. Then Nzioka sang “Kumbaya, my Lord,” explaining that it means “come by here, my Lord.” The message to follow was positive and encouraging but also challenging.

After more singing and the final blessing, a line of members formed toward the hospitality table filled with Kenyan treats.

“It may seem that there’s no order to the service, but there is order. Only I am led by the Spirit,” Nzioka said. “If the Spirit tells me to sing, we sing.

“I want people to feel accepted and want to come back.”

‘We feel community here’

Members say the biggest plus is that the church brings Kenyans together in an environment that “feels like we are back home,” said Purity Nzioki of Olathe.

And “we feel community here,” said Lorna Muroka of Lenexa, a nurse who in May will marry a fellow Kenyan.

“This is where my heart desires to be,” said her fiance, Dennis Nguutu of Shawnee, who is a pharmacist. “The pastor understands you as a person and meets our religious needs.”

Martha Eastwood of Lenexa said the church gives Kenyans a sense of belonging even though they are far from home.

“We understand each other culturally,” she said. “You can’t get that at other churches. At other churches, there is a barrier you have to break.”

Music plays a big role in the worship at the Neema Community Church.

Music plays a big role in the worship at the Neema Community Church.

Muroka also said the church allows the people an opportunity to freely express their culture — even in the way people dress. And the services are “more energetic than at other churches,” she said, reminiscent of worship in Kenya.

Anthony Kisivo, a real estate broker, said members help one another, especially new immigrants who are trying to get settled.

Kevin Auld of Olathe, who tries to greet every new face he sees, has been attending the church for three years, ever since a Kenyan invited him to visit.

“The people are really sincere,” said Auld, who has learned some Swahili. “The service has a special spirit, and it’s an awesome experience.”

‘A mission church’

Nzioka’s story starts in Kenya, where he was an ordained Presbyterian minister and a musician. Young and full of energy, he was in charge of 30 churches in different villages, conducting six services a week for five years.

By the time he came to the United States in 2002 to study at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, he had trained two other pastors to take over the work.

He heard about Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, and he and his wife started attending right after their arrival from Kenya. They had one child then and now have three.

“We were well-received and felt we had found a church home,” he said.

Despite that, he realized that people coming from Kenya needed a support group, as they had received from Village.

In 2004, the couple started the prayer group in their seminary apartment to bring Kenyans together for fellowship and prayer.

As the number of people grew, they briefly moved to a nearby church. Soon afterward, Village offered the Overland Park location.

There are at least three other local Kenyan congregations, but with the Kenyan population growing, Nzioka believed there was room for one more. He estimates there are 10,000 Kenyans in Kansas City area.

Nzioka’s mentor has been the Rev. Dwight Tawney, administrative pastor at Village, who also serves as a leader for Heartland Presbytery.

He helped Nzioka’s congregation through the process of becoming a part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Last year, Neema — which means “grace” in Swahili — formally was accepted as a Presbyterian church by Heartland Presbytery.

“David is an extraordinarily gifted pastor,” Tawney said. “He came to this country to get more formal education and received his doctorate last year from (University of) Dubuque Theological Seminary.”

Nzioka just returned from a two-week mission trip to Kenya, along with two other pastors from Heartland, three nurses from his church and a Kansas City lawyer.

They visited villages, preached, commissioned a well that recently was completed and provided a free medical clinic that treated 840 people in two days in his village.

“Our church is a mission church,” Nzioka said. “We want to go out and reach people for Christ, and we want to help people as much as possible. Although we don’t have a lot of money, we want to do what God has called us to do.”

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