CHARLOTTESVILLE — Songs of worship emanated from the small white chapel on Gilbert Station Road.
A motorist passing through that part of the Virginia countryside with his windows down in the recent balmy weather likely could have detected every syllable of every word sung in praise.
“Krismasi njema” isn’t frequently heard in this corner of northern Albemarle County.
It’s a typical seasonal greeting for the Swahili-speaking natives of Africa’s Great Lakes region — countries in the heart of the continent.
At Africa Lighthouse Baptist Temple, more than 15 nationalities from those countries gather every week for worship.
“We have people from Sudan, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania,” said the Rev. Peter Chege, the church pastor.
Previously Holy Trinity Church, the white chapel with green trim is the congregation’s new home for the holidays, Chege said.
It’s a Christmas gift unlike any other for the congregation, primarily composed of immigrants and refugees from war-torn central Africa.
Derick Gasore Muchembe, who sings in the church choir, came to America in 2009.
Chege’s daughter Tina Njoroge translated for Muchembe, standing outside the church with his family and friends.
Muchembe sang as a boy in the Congo before immigrating to Kenya and America through the International Rescue Committee, Njoroge said.
“He is very happy to come here in America,” she said, listening as Muchembe spoke in his native Swahili. “It’s a very nice country — with peace.”
Today, Muchembe works part time at the University of Virginia’s Nutrition Services.
A large sum of his money every month goes to support his wife’s family, refugees in Kenya.
He has yet to find his own family. He finds strength in God, through Chege and the church.
“We know the Lord is wealthy,” Muchembe said. Muchumbe, like so many in Chege’s congregation, relies on the church as a community center. It’s a place at the crossroads of assimilation and accommodation. There, Muchumbe can practice his English and network in Charlottesville’s immigrant community in a place that is culturally familiar.
The congregation is in a rent-to-own agreement with the landowners, and the group has three years to raise $100,000 to purchase the property. An additional $20,000 is necessary if the church plans to add a mobile unit for a children’s Sunday schoolroom and a bus service.
“We want this to be a lighthouse for the community,” Chege said.
Money will be the deciding factor. The new church, Chege said, is a home, a base, a springboard.
“This place empowers us,” he said. “We now belong. We have a place to call home.”