Congolese refugee becomes church leader

A Congolese refugee fled his home country to escape a violent civil war. Papy Amani is now an unofficial leader at All Saints Church for the refugee community.

In the front pew of All Saints Church, Papy Amani stands with his Bible in hand. Sunday mornings here are filled with the sounds of Congolese men and women dressed in colorful garb, raising their voices in joyful praise.

"Hosannaaa, Hosanna eyyyyy Hosannaaa, Hosanna eyyyyy."

Photo: Elliot Williams
Amani’s three daughters play in living room at their Croly Street apartment. While too young to understand Amani's refugee status, he said he makes sure they pray before every meal and each night before bed.

Such joy was hard to find where Amani came from, he said. Papy (pronounced pah-pay) Amani is the unofficial leader of the rapidly growing Congolese refugee community in Syracuse.

“The way I used to live was miserable,” he said. “There was no hope. Not even food to eat. No peace.”

Amani, 30, was born in Uvira on the eastern border of Congo. In 2004, he fled to Mwaro because of the Congo civil war that put civilian lives at risk. His family, those who weren’t killed, fled further west to a refugee camp in Gatumba. They later joined him in Mwaro.

Amani passed the screening process, which he described as a series of interviews with the UN Refugee Agency, UNCHR, and by “the grace of God,” Amani said, he migrated to Louisville, Kentucky. Amani’s wife then migrated from Mwaro to Syracuse, where he finally joined her in 2010.

“We fled the Congo because of division,” Amani said. “But here at All Saints, we are one.”

The influx of Congolese into Syracuse is only increasing, as two or three families come each month, Amani said. Now, almost 30 refugee families reside in the area, and most attend All Saints. The Congolese community at All Saints has developed in large part due to Amani’s commitment to leading bible study. The Gospel readings and a special hymn are translated into Swahili, at the 11:30 a.m. liturgy.

Last Christmas, the Congolese performed a traditional African liturgical dance, which they taught to the rest of the congregation. Still, some of the divisions of war traveled with the refugees to Syracuse. Amani revealed how refugees from different regions of the Congo don’t associate with or acknowledge one another outside of church. There are at least five languages in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the largest countries in Africa, Amani said. These languages correspond with different ethnic groups, some of which have been at war years. The most recent conflict began in 1996.

“Even though we’re all from Congo, someone from South might look at me and say, ‘He’s from East,’ and we can’t even say hello,” Amani said. “I can’t even invite him if we have a party.”

Amani said that one of the main goals the handful of refugee elders share is to make sure that these divisions don’t carry on to the next generation of Congolese-Americans. Amani wants the communion they enjoy at All Saints to extend beyond the church walls, and he teaches the children to be more welcoming to people of all origins. It is because of his vision and insight that Kathy Meus, the recently retired director of faith formation at All Saints, called Amani a natural leader.

“Papy is right for this role,” Meus said. “He’s sort of in that younger group, but he has the wisdom of the older men to lead the community in the right direction.”

The elders gave Amani the reigns because his communication skills and understanding of the Gospel surpasses theirs. 

Rev. Frederick Daley is the pastor at All Saints and supports Amani's leadership and the refugee community at his church. He said by next year, Amani will be the first Congolese refugee parishioner at All Saints to buy his own home.

All Saints members believe the church's welcome should go beyond a simple greeting at the door, Daley said

“Radical welcoming means we will change as a community in order for new members to share their gifts,” he said.

Thus, when Amani asked Daley if his refugee community could gather after Mass for Bible study in the parish center each Sunday, Daley agreed without hesitation. Sherika is practiced in Congo as an opportunity for the community to share their personal understanding of the Gospel after it is given at Mass.

“The African refugees come here with literally nothing,” Daley said. “They have all lost a brother, mother or nephew. But what they haven’t lost is their self-esteem and their rich dignity as human beings.”

As someone who has worked

As someone who has worked closely with refugees and informal asyless from the DRC, this especially hits home in more than one way. What an awesome story!

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