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Lutheran minister reaches out to other immigrants

*Church reaches across cultures

- Tom Heinen, Milwaukee Journal

(Monday, July 11, 2005)

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"The Rev. Chris Ikanih, a Nigerian Immigrant who came to this country in 1974, is a Lutheran missionary-at-large to African immigrants for the synod's South Wisconsin District."

Rev. Chris Ikanih [Photo Left: Rev. Chris Ikanih ]
Thousands of miles from his original homeland, yet close to his Nigerian spirituality, the Rev. Chris Ikanih has taken on a new role of reaching out to African immigrants here on behalf of a denomination whose members historically have been largely of northern European descent - the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Ikanih is inviting African immigrants of all faiths on Sunday to wear ethnic clothing and to attend a cross-cultural worship service, where they will pray for an end to violence in Milwaukee. Mayor Tom Barrett, state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), state Rep. Annette Polly Williams (D-Milwaukee) and other community leaders are expected to attend.

The event - his first as missionary-at-large to African immigrants for the synod's South Wisconsin District - will include African musical instruments and readings and hymns in major African languages. "They are very much concerned about the violence," said Ikanih, who immigrated in 1974 and still finds that immigrants are surprised by attitudes here, especially those coming from areas not torn by civil war. "Every day you wake up, you hear about violence. Killings here are no longer big news. But back in Nigeria, when you hear that somebody is shot or killed, oh my goodness, for the rest of that month it is very big news. "We've got to do more to enrich spirituality. What is really wrong is the spiritual life of the people here, which is lacking. There are a lot of churches in Milwaukee. Every block has a church and also a tavern. You can see the devil side-by-side competing with Christ. The people, they go to church, but they don't live that spiritual life."

The service will be from 4 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Gospel Lutheran Church, 1535 W. Capitol Drive. It will be a Missouri Synod service, but members of other denominations will be recognized and then invited to socialize afterward.

Growth of African immigrants

Okey Peter Akubeze, 55, of Milwaukee came to Wisconsin in the late 1970s for university studies and decided to remain here. "Chris Ikanih has begun this African immigrant ministry, which is really a novel idea," said Akubeze, who is a research associate at the Institute for Survey & Policy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "A lot of the Africans in this community belong to different denominations. There are some Catholics, some Methodists, and all the different Christian denominations. And there are substantial numbers of them that are Muslims. He's trying to bring everybody together, which is something he should be commended for."

Drawing upon U.S. Census data, Akubeze estimates there are about 1,500 immigrant African families in the Milwaukee area. In past decades, most came here to attend college and then remained after graduation. In the last five to 10 years, less-educated refugees from war-torn countries have come, he said. The number of African-born immigrants in the U.S. is small but growing, rising from about 364,000 in 1990 to 1 million in 2002, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. And, while Christianity is declining in Europe, it has undergone dramatic growth in Africa, going from 8.7 million Christians in 1900 to 389 million in 2005 to a projected 596 million in 2025, according to the International Bulletin of Missionary Research.

Ikanih attributes part of this to the inherent spirituality of Africans. They generally are raised with a belief in a supreme being and have cultures that are open to religious beliefs, he said, adding, "We respect elders and ancestors, those that have gone before us. That makes us more open to spirituality, too." Some immigrant pastors with small flocks here are looking for a conservative Protestant denomination to affiliate with, and they find the Missouri Synod a good fit, said the Rev. Daniel McMiller, former missionary-at-large to the city and, as of Friday , the mission executive for the Missouri Synod's South Wisconsin District. "They seem to have a very conservative outlook for the home, the family, the community, the social structure," McMiller said. "Most of these immigrant families are two-parent, with male leadership, high education standards and strict standards within the home for their children."

About 15 African-immigrant families attend various Missouri Synod churches in the city, he said. Rather than gather them all in one congregation, Ikanih will reach out to them and to other African immigrants - some of whom have no church affiliation - through workshops and events to create a sense of unity and identity. At least 100 African immigrants attended when Ikanih was installed and ordained at Gospel Lutheran in February. Prior to that, he had pastoral duties as a deacon at Mission of Christ Lutheran Church, 912 W. Center St., and he attended interdenominational events where immigrants gather. "This is a first for us," McMiller said. "He's uniquely qualified."

Education and experience

Ikanih has master's degrees in theology and divinity from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., and a doctorate in counseling from Trinity Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Ind. Originally an Anglican, he was preparing for ordination in the Methodist Church when he applied for membership in the Missouri Synod and entered the synod's Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology. He also is responsible now for starting an ex-offender ministry, working with the Rev. Gary Ruckman, a synod minister who is chaplain at the House of Correction in Franklin. Ikanih worked about two years as a state probation officer and nearly three years as a chaplain at Racine Correctional Institution. He earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and a master's degree in operations management at University of Arkansas campuses.

The Ethnic Immigrant Institute is offered through Concordia Seminary in St. Louis as an alternative path to ordination. It is intended to diversify the denomination and its outreach, McMiller said. It requires some time on campus, but most of the study is done over the Internet under the mentoring of a local pastor. Although it is normally a three-and-a-half-year program, Ikanih was able to complete it in about a year because of his background. Three other immigrants here are in the program now, one from Liberia and two from Nigeria. Nationwide, there are about 100 men in the program, McMiller said. There also is an alternative ordination path for Hispanics.

In addition, 12 African-American men are taking courses in a pre-seminary program at Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon. Some are on a six-year path to ordination in the Missouri Synod. Others are on shorter paths to lay certification as congregational workers or assistant pastors, McMiller said. "We recognize our church body is very, very Anglo and we are behind the curve on that," said McMiller, noting that there are 212 congregations and about 150,000 members in the synod's district here. "But we are thankful we are trying to address that."

First English Lutheran Church
[ Photo Above: First English Lutheran Church ]

*Article originally published on Milwaukee Journal

Related Links:- 
Lutheran African Immigrant Ministry(AIM)
Grace Church - African Immigrant Ministry

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