When the Psalmist proclaimed “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” surely he had the Universal Christian Ministries in mind.
On a recent Sunday, the largely African-born congregation was making a joyful noise, and then some. It’s a worship style that one of the church’s neighbors calls, in a small gem of Scandinavian understatement, “pretty expressive.”
Expressive is right. The joyful noise didn’t just pour forth from every throat; it reverberated from the walls and the ceiling to the accompaniment of drums, clapping and a syncopated beat that wound itself into the spontaneous dance steps of the congregants.
Inside the unadorned Raymond Avenue building, the hundred or so members of the church celebrated the Sabbath with the kind of unselfconscious enthusiasm that more inhibited worshipers can only dream about.
The Ministries, which has occupied the site of a former Pentecostal church in south St. Anthony Park since December of 2006, is a “deliverance church with a mission of healing,” according to its pastor, Nigerian-born Fatai Jubril.
Jubril emphasizes that his is “an open church” that welcomes everyone, including those who can “bring in more American ways.”
For the moment, though, his congregation is a small outpost of Nigeria on a cool Minnesota May morning. It’s as gloriously African as an exotic hibiscus blooming spontaneously in a monochromatic Midwestern landscape.
Jubril’s congregation has no interest in casual dress on the Lord’s Day. No blue jeans or come-as-you-are sensibility for this group.
“When you go see the president in the White House, you put on your best,” the pastor says. “When I come to God, I put on my best.”
And he’s not just talking about clean shirts and shined shoes. Many in the congregation wear traditional African dress, the men in shades of green and grey and the women in stiff, starched Nigerian “gele” headdresses that resemble brilliantly colored medieval cornetes. Each gele is coordinated with shoes, sash and contrasting print robe.
The small girls are as impeccably turned out as their mothers, dressed in old-fashioned Sunday school frocks with black patent-leather shoes and painstakingly arranged hair.
A young mother is resplendent in a black-and-white silk skirt with a black beaded top and gold earrings. On her hip she balances a solemn toddler in white tights, a lavender dress and a diminutive gold bracelet.
As the mother and child sway to the music, a procession of pink-and-black-clad choristers dances slowly up the aisle, leading the crowd in a rhythmic hymn.
A visitor finds the words to the song unintelligible, and the worshipers sitting close at hand are not in agreement on the language.
One woman suggests that the choir is singing in Yoruba; a Nigerian man in the row behind her says the song is in English.
Pastor Jubril explains later that the singing was in an English dialect used in Liberia.
The temporary confusion points up some of the uncertainties of a group suspended between memories of an African past and realities of immigrant existence, where even the comforting sounds of home can be a relative thing.
Though the majority of the congregation comes from Nigeria, there are also members from other African nations, as well as some American-born parishioners.
During the rest of the week, many of Jubril’s flock work hard at difficult, exhausting jobs sometimes far removed from their chosen professions.
“In Africa,” he says, “some of them were teachers, administrators and engineers. But in America, they have no job opportunities.”
Here, they go to work as nursing assistants and medical orderlies, caring for the elderly and the institutionalized infirm.
It’s tough work, but there are few shirkers in the crowd.
“In Africa, we say, ‘Tough mind, tough heart,’” explains Jubril.
Six days a week they labor, but on the seventh day they trade their medical scrubs for radiant finery. And when their pastor invites them up to the front of the church to offer testimony, they say things like, “Thank you, Jesus, this is now my sixth year in America,” and “I want to thank God for my new job.”
They pass a cordless microphone from hand to hand and talk about a drinking problem overcome or a financial burden to be shouldered, but always they acknowledge the ties of family and hopes for the future.
Their Sunday-go-to-meeting colors may be a little bolder, but in other ways the congregation is not so different from the immigrant forbears of their new neighbors in south St. Anthony Park.
Like the Andersons, Olsons and Johnsons who used to worship at nearby Norwegian and Swedish immigrant churches a hundred years ago, this church is made up of tough, determined people who persist in a harsh, sometimes unwelcoming, New World, with only the melodies and faith of their distant homeland to remind them of how far they must travel in life.
Before the service begins, Pastor Jubril conducts a Bible study at the front of the church for a small, dedicated group of early arrivers.
His texts today are taken from Timothy and Proverbs, but he might just as well have chosen the familiar verse from Psalm 30 for its special relevance to his struggling but triumphant flock: “Joy cometh in the morning.”
A young woman named Burmi puts it in her own way. In her lilting Nigerian-accented English, she says, “When I come into our church, I always feel happy.”