Embracing Mission Starts: African National Ministry

Date posted: Friday 25 October 2019

The Anuak are a small ethnic minority in the Upper Nile region of Africa, concentrated mostly in Ethiopia and South Sudan. After genocide broke out in the early 2000s, the Anuak and many thousands came to the United States through refugee resettlement programs. These Anuak refugees, many of whom had to leave family and friends back home amidst continuing violence, were heartsick. Support was rallied to bring an Anuak evangelist to minister to them—an effort led by Gillo Madho, the custodian at Our Savior’s Lutheran in Stillwater.


Gilo Gora Agwa, a member of the Anuak people, came to the United States to bring the good news of the Gospel. Gilo completed seminary coursework at the University of Dubuque while his asylum case worked its way through the court system, aided by the tireless efforts of an attorney who offered her services pro bono. As a spiritual leader to a persecuted community, it was not safe for Gilo to return home. He was granted asylum in 2011.


Understanding his ministry to be for the entire Anuak community in Minnesota, Gilo’s call was likely not going to be to a single congregation. At the suggestion of Orv Johnson, a member of Our Saviour’s Lutheran in Stillwater, Gilo contacted the synod office and met with the bishop. Relationships and partnerships grew over the course of the next several months and years.


The congregation began meeting organically out of the community’s desire to worship, study scripture, and be in fellowship in their own language. In May of 2017, the Rev. Gilo Gora Agwa was ordained and the African National Ministry (also known as the Anuak Refugees Ministry) was launched, supported by a partnership between the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) and the Saint Paul Area Synod. Pastor Gilo describes the ministry of Anuak Refugees Ministry, which is now one of the synod’s eight new mission starts, as “holistic” because it tends to the physical as well as spiritual needs of its people. Having fled genocide and war, most members have survived a variety of hardships, with many having lived in refugee camps for years before coming to the United States.


For many members, the church is the primary place where they find comfort in a new country. Martha, a member of the congregation, puts it plainly: “God has helped me—on the journey and in everyday life—from the refugee camp to the United States; He still does now.” The congregation now provides classes in leadership development and integration into U.S. culture.


The Rev. Justin Grimm, Assistant to the Bishop and Director for Evangelical Mission, reports that it has been a joy to witness the power of the church as it journeys alongside our new neighbors, to watch how it supports its people as they learn how to not just survive here, but to flourish.


The ministry extends beyond the 50-70 people who worship together on a weekly basis. Pastor Gilo is known throughout the Anuak networks in the state, and there are never enough hours in the day to care for all of the people here and the people back home. His phone rings constantly, often with news of the continuing violence and threats back in Ethiopia. Orv Johnson sees in Pastor Gilo a deep wellspring of energy and a commitment to serve God in this way.


Justin participated in a Christmas Eve service with nearly 400 Anuak refugees at Luther Seminary in 2017. He said, “These women, men, and children are Anuak immigrants who have moved to Minnesota to flee the tribal violence directed against them in Ethiopia and South Sudan….Their joyous celebration of Christ’s birth reflects the new hope that God raises up for people again and again across the globe.”


When asked what the most exciting thing about our partnership with the African National Ministry is, Justin said, “Evangelism is completely central to who they are as a community, and it’s a beautiful thing.” Justin adds that our history as Lutherans means we have always been an immigrant church, which is one of the reasons the synod is so happy to support ethnic-specific ministries among its mission starts. Our continued support in the form of prayer and financial resources are important. But so is getting to know the people.


Pastor Gilo issues an open invitation: “If the people want to know us more, let them come and hear our story.”



NOTE: The African National Ministry was featured in a synod video on congregational vitality earlier this year. (Advance to the 4:10 marker in the timeline for the Anuak section of the video.)



The Saint Paul Area Synod also currently supports eight other mission starts:

  • Cristo Rey - a community seeking to connect the Latino population in New Brighton
  • The Depot Church - a mission exploration in partnership with St. Andrew’s in Mahtomedi, meeting at an elementary school in Hugo
  • Good Samaritan Lutheran Church - Hmong community outeach on St. Paul’s East Side
  • Hope Lutheran Parallel New Start - a new start growing out of an established congregation on St. Paul’s East Side
  • Humble Walk - a worshipping community of seekers in St. Paul’s West 7th neighborhood
  • Joy Fellowship - an outreach to Chinese Christians in the northern St. Paul suburbs
  • Lydia Place - a community centered along the University Avenue Green Line light rail and Raymond Avenue
  • Shobi’s Table - a food truck ministry for folks struggling on the margins of community

This blog post is part of the 2019 edition of Stories of the Synod, which features a few of the life-changing stories that happen here in the Saint Paul Area Synod. View the complete Stories of the Synod booklet.