The Public House in downtown Missoula generated more than a little attention from passersby on Sunday, as pedestrians slowed to look through the windows at the source of the singing, clapping and music
One main source was Gilbert Hategeka, the Congolese refugee whose microphone-amplified voice projected a Swahili sermon to the rest of the Universal Revival Church.
Hategeka started the African-style church in Missoula earlier this year along with fellow Congolese refugee Joel Kambale, both of whom were resettled in the city by the work of the International Rescue Committee.
The Universal Revival Church held its first Sunday services in St. Francis Xavier before moving to the Public House last month for its afternoon gatherings. The International Rescue Committee, which started settling refugee families from Africa in Missoula in 2016, invited the public to attend Sunday’s Easter service.
Hategeka paused during the event to ask each of the visitors to identify themselves and say how long they had lived in Missoula, translating the answers back into Swahili for the rest of the congregation, which gave each person a round of applause.
“This congregation has a goal to keep our culture from the Congo and Africa alive,” Kambale said. “We invite all to join us so we can do the work of God together.”
Hategeka, who was resettled in Missoula along with his family in September 2016, led the services in Swahili, with occasional English translations and a backing from Kambale, who went up to the stage to interject with his own prayers or a guitar riff to back up his co-founder.
Hategeka’s wife Chantal Nyiramanza, one of the roughly 40 in attendance at Sunday’s service, bounced one of the couple’s five children on her knee while her husband spoke in ever-faster Swahili, raising his hand and stamping his foot for emphasis. A dozen other children in attendance laughed and clapped along.
Jen Barile, resettlement director with the International Rescue Committee’s office in Missoula, said the start of the African church is particularly relevant given the recent interest in the history of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, which existed in Missoula’s Northside neighborhood in the 1920s.
Kambale said even though refugees like himself have been in Missoula for a couple of years now, they still need spiritual and physical support. He’s hoping the Universal Revival Church will continue to grow and perhaps even get its own permanent location at some point. Until then, he is committed to making sure all are welcome in the congregation.
“God doesn’t know if this is black or white, American or African,” he said.