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African immigration to Maine fuels boom in new churches, bringing distinct forms of Christianity

Worshippers at City of the Lord Church in Westbrook during Sunday prayers. At a time when church membership is declining across the U.S., immigration is fueling the creation of new congregations in the Portland area.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Worshippers at City of the Lord Church in Westbrook during Sunday prayers. At a time when church membership is declining across the U.S., immigration is fueling the creation of new congregations in the Portland area.

Surveys show that Americans are becoming less religious, and church membership across the country is in decline. In Maine, that’s forced some churches to close their doors. But a very different trend is playing out in some of the states African immigrant communities, where recent arrivals are fueling a proliferation of new congregations.

In a parking lot in downtown Portland in late May, a cadre of Congolese and Angolan immigrants, dressed in green-and-white uniforms, was reviewing its marching formation as it prepares to parade down Congress St. Vemakondolo Manuel, of Westbrook, was leading the maneuvers.

"We're here today in Maine, celebrating the nativity, that is to said, the birth of Christ," Manuel said, in French.

Portland's Kimbanguist congregation parades down Congress St. in late May. The Congolese branch of Christianity celebrates Christmas in May, on the birthday of their founder's son, who they believe to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Portland's Kimbanguist congregation parades down Congress St. in late May. The Congolese branch of Christianity celebrates Christmas in May, on the birthday of their founder's son, who they believe to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

Vemakondolo is part of Maine’s small but growing Kimbanguist congregation. Kimbanguism is a Christian movement born in the Congo under Belgian colonial rule in the early 1900s. Its leader, Simon Kimbangu, preached Black liberation and anti-colonialism, and was jailed by the colonial regime until his death.

Kimbangu’s followers celebrate Christmas in May, on the birthday of his son, who they view as the reincarnation of Jesus. Today's parade has drawn Kimbanguists from as far away as Atlanta.

"It feels great," said George Mbungu, of Portland. "Because there's all different people from our church coming from different states. We're going to be playing together. So it's fantastic."

George Mbungu, left, plays euphonium in the Kimbanguist church band. Mbungu said he grew up in a Kimbanguist congregation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
George Mbungu, left, plays euphonium in the Kimbanguist church band. Mbungu said he grew up in a Kimbanguist congregation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mbungu was in the marching band, playing the euphonium. Mbungu said when his family moved to the U.S. from DR Congo, they went first to upstate New York, but relocated to Maine to join the Kimbanguist church here.

"I was happy because like, I saw people that were like me, people that believed in the same religion like me," Mbungu said.

The church meets in a rented hall in Westbrook, and it's part of a growing number of new congregations in the greater Portland area led by, and serving, African immigrant communities.

It's a growth that defies national trends in organized religion: Recent polling from Gallup finds both church membership and the importance of religion in people's lives are falling to record lows.

Marchers in the Kimbanguist Christmas parade in Portland. The Congolese branch of Christianity originated under Belgian colonial rule in the early 1900s.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Marchers in the Kimbanguist Christmas parade in Portland. The Congolese branch of Christianity originated under Belgian colonial rule in the early 1900s.

Nicolette Manglos-Weber, a professor at Boston University's School of Theology, said immigration is a major reason why those levels haven't fallen even lower, and that many traditional Christian denominations in the U.S. are taking note.

"The United Methodist Church, or the Episcopal Church or the Presbyterian Church are now looking towards immigrant populations to really build up and recover some of the losses," she said.

Manglos-Weber added that it's increasingly common to see independent African immigrant churches in the U.S., mirroring the growth of the Pentecostal movement in countries such as DR Congo and Angola.

A woman takes notes during a sermon at City of the Lord Church in Westbrook.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
A woman takes notes during a sermon at City of the Lord Church in Westbrook.

In Maine, some African immigrants are also joining long-standing Catholic, Orthodox, and Jehovah's Witness congregations.

But Magalie Lumiere, a Congolese translator who lives in Portland, said sharing a cultural connection with fellow worshippers is important to her. That led her to a Pentecostal church in Westbrook whose congregants also hail from Central Africa.

"Just like that connection of where you came from, you're like, 'Okay, we can pray in the same language,'" she said.

For Lumiere, that language is often Swahili – especially, she said, if it’s something really important.

"I think Swahili goes straight to God," she said, with a laugh.

Pastor Placid Mowa, center, blesses a child at City of the Lord Church in Westbrook. Many of the new African-led churches in Maine are Evangelical in nature.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Pastor Placid Mowa, center, blesses a child at City of the Lord Church in Westbrook. Many of the new African-led churches in Maine are Evangelical in nature.

Also in Westbrook, Sunday morning services at the City of the Lord Church have an almost concert-like feel, with a full band and live singers leading a multilingual worship.

Pastor Placide Mowa, originally from DR Congo, said he started the church about a decade ago, when he first arrived in Maine. Back then, he said the congregation consisted of four people meeting in his house to pray. Today, he’s preaching to about 100, packed into a rented American Legion Hall.

Live music at City of the Lord Church in Westbrook.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Music and song figure prominently in worship services at City of the Lord Church in Westbrook.

Mowa said his goal is to push back against declining religiosity in the U.S.

"There’s a lot of work to do," he said in French, "in this country and in this state, so that we can bring people to Christ."

Today, though, that work may be cut short. Mowa told the congregation they have to wrap things up right on time, because another Congolese church had the space booked after them.

Worshippers at City of the Lord Church in Westbrook. At a time when church membership is in decline across the country, African immigrant churches have proliferated in Southern Maine and beyond.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Worshippers at City of the Lord Church in Westbrook. At a time when church membership is in decline across the country, African immigrant churches have proliferated in Southern Maine and beyond.

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