October 7, 2013

Growing church finds home in Westbrook

The International Christian Fellowship’s grand opening is Sunday.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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Members of Vessels of Praise sing during a recent Sunday service at the International Christian Fellowship’s new church in Westbrook.

Photos by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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International Christian Fellowship members worship at their new location. Many immigrants find refuge and community at the church.

Additional Photos Below

“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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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A woman prays at the church filled with “new Americans.”

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Senior Pastor Peter Mutima, second from left, prays with other church leaders during a Sunday service.

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Members of the International Christian Fellowship worship at the church’s new location in Westbrook. The community group has expanded since its beginning 12 years ago on Munjoy Hill and needed a larger space.

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