Despite the snow that kept many members of the congregation away one recent Sunday, the ten or so people that did attend the service in Grace Lutheran Church took seriously the biblical injunction of Psalm 100, to make a joyful noise unto the Lord. [Congregation sings.] The faithful at the Sunday noon services are mostly immigrants from Ghana, although a few Nigerians and other West Africans attend, as well. The pastor, Nana Opoku, says he was working in a near-by gasoline station when he was offered the opportunity to begin an African ministry.
“Where I was living, it was close to Peace Lutheran Church,” he says. “The pastor used to come -- I was working in a gas station -- and he comes there, and when he found out I was not just a Christian but a minister, he said, 'Why don't you come to our church?' Then he said, 'We want to start an immigrant ministry. We send missionaries to Africa and other places, but if you guys have come here, then we must take care of you here, as well.' So that's how it all began.”
In fact, however, Nana Opoku's journey to the elegant, modern edifice that is Grace Lutheran Church began quite a bit earlier. Young Nana was converted to Christianity by Baptist missionaries in Accra, where he had been sent to school, when he was 12 years old. His decision had an impact on his immediate family - his father, a tribal chief, as well as his mother, one of the chief's five wives and mother of 11 of his 25 sons. (He also had 19 daughters.)
“When I went home that vacation, I talked to my father about it. At that time my father was around 96,” says Pastor Opoko. “I witnessed to him, and both my father and mother gave their heart to Christ. And then he gave all his - his [ceremonial] stool and other things -- away, and said he wasn't going to be a chief any more. He became a Christian for about 16 years before he died. In those years, you know, all the time you go to him you see him kneeling down, praying, and praying, and praying. So in fact I learned a lot from him, even though he was a young Christian. And that had a lot of influence on my life.
Given the realities of Ghana at the time, Mr. Opoku pursued two career paths. He received a degree in statistics from the University of Ghana in Accra, and also attended a seminary for a Master's degree in theology. For many years he worked in the audience research department of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, while devoting his free time to pastoral work among his countrymen.
Political circumstances led to his emigration to the United States in 1991. His wife and three children followed later, and not long after that came the offer to start an African ministry. “So it was only myself and my wife,” he recalls, “and we started gradually, and sent out flyers, and started praying seriously. Our first service was April, 1997. And since then we increased gradually, and now we are about 100 people, but due to problems facing immigrants, they don't normally come, normally we have about 30 to 40 people who are regular in attendance.”
No matter what the level of their education back in Ghana, Mr. Opoku says, most immigrants settle for menial jobs when they arrive in the Washington area. Some members of his congregation work as nurses' aides in old age homes or hospitals, others as clerks or stock boys in grocery stores or in a large local home building supplies company. “When we come, most people don't have the right type of papers to work, so they are underemployed or underpaid.,” he says. “And sometimes when you are hired you're told that if you don't work on the weekend, then they can't employ you. And so many Christians who come here find it difficult to attend worship services on Sundays. And these are some of the problems facing us, facing immigrants.”
Mr. Opoku spends a lot of time visiting members of his congregation, especially those that are troubled or depressed or sick. He counsels them and prays with them. The ministry does not bring in much money, so to support his family Pastor Opoku works nights as a nurse, caring for the elderly. His children, now teen-agers, are a source of great satisfaction to him. He says they are all doing well in school. All are musical and play various instruments. The two boys are captains of their respective soccer teams. But for all their successful adaptation to America and their hopes for the future in this country, Nana Opoku makes sure that his children don't forget their Ghanaian heritage. “In fact, it's one of the things that you don't want to lose,” he says, “When they go to school, they speak English. So when they come home, I tell them 'Speak our language'. And I tell them stories about things that go on in Ghana. We go on the Internet to read Ghanaian news. They have friends in Ghana, and they e-mail them. It's something I want them to keep on remembering, that they come from Ghana!”
This spring Nana Opoku will be ordained as a Lutheran minister. He hopes then to be able to stop working as a nurse, and devote all his time to serving his African immigrant congregation.
[Sound of joyful music from Peace Lutheran congregants]