WESTBROOK — When the International Christian Fellowship bought a building on Portland’s Munjoy Hill in 2001, Pastor Mutima Peter thought he’d be preaching there until he retired.
“I felt it was the best place for me,” Peter said about the white, one-room church on Lafayette Street.
But the neighborhood grew, and so did the congregation. Although it is more common to see churches closing, this one was bursting at the walls. As more African immigrants settled in Portland, its 20 members turned into 150, exceeding the building’s capacity.
At the same time, the houses nearby were renovated and middle-class tenants with multiple cars moved in.
Sunday morning services made for the parking crunch from hell.
The congregation wanted more room, less hassle and a safer place for their kids to play. Like a growing family getting weary of city life, the church moved to the suburbs this summer. Its grand opening is next Sunday.
“I’m so happy. It’s big. I have parking. To find parking was so hard,” said Nagaju Nandorimana, taking a break from spackling the wall of her new church building in Westbrook.
A former daycare center off Larrabee Road, the location – amid a sea of car dealerships and office parks – isn’t exactly the picture of suburbia. But children can wander outside the building without their parents worrying about cars.
In addition to the sanctuary, there’s the Fellowship Hall – a huge room with high ceilings, where a wedding reception and memorial service have already been held. Sunday school classes, which were in the basement of the old church, can now separate by age groups into different rooms.
The new location on Patrick Drive is also more convenient for about a third of the members, who moved from Portland to Westbrook in search of more affordable housing, Peter said.
And then there’s the parking lot with 50 spaces. The old building had two parking spaces.There have already been five services in the new church, purchased in August, the day after the old building was sold. But the congregation has yet to celebrate, or show off its new space to the public.
“We want people to come and see what God has done for new Americans in Maine,” said Peter, known as Pastor Mutima to his congregants.
A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Peter left Africa for America after finishing his theological studies in Kenya to become an evangelical pastor. He landed first in Washington, D.C., before God told him he had to go to Maine, he said.
He started the African International Church with seven members in 1993. At first, the group met at St. Luke’s Cathedral on State Street in Portland, then moved to the Chestnut Street Methodist Church, now the restaurant Grace.
Since its inception, the church has been a refuge for African immigrants trying to navigate life in a foreign land. It is non-denominational but mostly has evangelical members.
Claude Rwaganje, Peter’s brother, remembers how much it meant to him to be able to sing with others in his own language when he first moved to Portland in 1996. He said the community has been most vital for Africans who lost family members fleeing genocide and for the single mothers trying to make it in Maine alone.
“It was horrible if they couldn’t find a place to worship,” the only thing that brought them solace, he said. “Despite the problems they’re going through, you still see a joy in their faces.”
Now, many members of the church consider Maine their home. Most of the younger members were born here.
Still, the services tend to operate on what’s known in the community as African time.
The church bulletin listed the start time last Sunday as 11 a.m. At five minutes after, only a handful of the 200-some seats were filled.
But the energy in the sanctuary was high. Vessels of Praise, the rock version of a church choir, belted out songs from the stage, accompanied by a full band.
Families poured in in waves and, by half past, there were few empty chairs.
The music continued in the background through the opening prayer. Hallelujahs and amens, words that need no translation, were exchanged between the preacher and the parish.
During the two-hour service, members of the congregation read Scripture aloud from their seats and others asked to give their own testimony. All speeches are translated, either to English or from English to Kinyrwanda or Kirundi, languages understood by almost all of the members, who come from more than 10 nations.
Right now, Peter said, the church tries to balance its two cultures.
Although he wants the dancing and music that define African worship to continue, he also wants to rein in the extemporaneous nature of the services and maintain structure.
The grand opening is scheduled to start at 1 p.m., so there’s no going late on the worship service next Sunday.
“We are really pushing it, a sense of timing, becoming Americanized,” he said.
Peter eventually wants to hold one all-English service a week, both to appease those who were born in America and to attract more non-immigrant members. He wants to offer classes on computers, job skills and English as a second language. He would like to open a daycare, both to serve members and bring in revenue.
There are already groups for teens and women. He expects they’ll make good use of the Fellowship Hall for dinners and birthday parties.
Rwaganje, Peter’s brother, said the church has always been as much about the social experience as the spiritual one. But before, there wasn’t enough room to do everything they wanted.
“Now, we can create a better future for our members and grow bigger within the community,” he said.
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: