COLUMBIA — Bare white walls and uncomfortable metal chairs with little padding seem to be easy obstacles to overcome for worship leader Felicite Uwingabire.
When Uwingabire, who comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, picks up a microphone to praise God — in Kinyarwanda, her native language — the rest of the congregation at Agape Fellowship Church stands up and joins her. No one is too shy to dance or sing.
For two years, African refugees from countries including Kenya, Congo, Burundi and Rwanda have attended Agape Fellowship Church, which meets in a room at the J.W. "Blind" Boone Community Center, 301 N. Providence Road. There, they are able to express their faith in their own languages, such as Kinyarwanda and Swahili.
Pastor Aaron Ruvugwa, a Rwandan refugee, helped found the congregation. When he moved to Columbia, Ruvugwa, a lifelong Christian and a pastor in Rwanda, saw a need for a church in which African languages were spoken. He leads the 70 or so congregants who attend Agape Fellowship.
Now, the church is working to get its own building.
"We are praying for a building," Ruvugwa said. "When God opens the door for a building, there will be great progress."
Having a church home is important to the refugees. "Moving to some place new is hard, a tough transition," Ruvugwa said. "It is good to have a community with people that understand everyday living as you see it."
The congregation considers itself part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and is being specifically assisted by four mid-Missouri congregations: Trinity and First Presbyterian in Columbia, Curryville Presbyterian in Curryville and Osage Beach-Lake Presbyterian in Osage Beach, all part of the Missouri Union Presbytery, based in Jefferson City.
Vicki Schildmeyer, the office manager at Missouri Union Presbytery, said a plan to formally establish the church within the denomination was approved in late October 2009. Missouri Union Presbytery, the Synod of Mid-Missouri and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) are helping Agape Fellowship financially and in navigating the necessary paperwork. The process should take about two years.
"It was Pastor Ruvugwa's idea to start the church — we have just given him financial support," said the Rev. Raymond "Rim" Massey of Trinity Presbyterian. Ruvugwa approached Massey about getting help.
Ruvugwa said he decided to join the Presbyterian denomination because he saw the good work it did with other immigrant churches, and the people he got to know, such as Massey, were kind.
"We are a connecting body," Schildmeyer said, "so essentially all 72 churches in our Presbytery are helping Pastor Ruvugwa and his congregation in some way or the other."
Ruvugwa said some members attended other churches in town but struggled with the language barrier. "That was frustrating," he said.
"We started as a prayer meeting three years ago and then moved to the Imani Mission Center, but more people started showing up," said Caritas Habimana, who has been with the congregation since the beginning. Soon they needed more space.
Ruvugwa thinks having a building rather than a room will emphasize stability for the members as well as for visitors who might want to attend.
Deborah Meberarugo, 9, and her grandmother have attended the church since members began meeting in the Blind Boone center two years ago. Deborah said her grandmother, who does not speak English, loves to come to Agape Fellowship and pray every Sunday.
Ruvugwa joked that Agape Fellowship runs on "African time," which means that even though it is suppose to start at 5 p.m. it usually does not start until 6 p.m. On a recent Sunday, the service lasted for two hours and singing and praising took about half of the time. Thirty minutes were devoted to personal testimonies in which members walked to the front of the room to share. Several times, individuals prayed out loud for the congregation.
Throughout the service, Habimana translated the preaching and testimonies into English for the few who needed it. Almost everyone who attends the church speaks Kinyarwanda, the language in which most of the service is conducted. Swahili is also sometimes used.
Uwingabire, 20, who is finishing up at Rock Bridge High School, leads worship every Sunday. She sang in a high voice that carried over the music coming from the small sound system. With one hand holding the microphone, she danced and held the other hand up high.
The other congregants were more than happy to join Uwingabire in praising God, whom they refer to as Yahweh.
"For me," Habimana said later, "this is like being with your family."