The Kingdom in Columbus
The day they arrived at the church's doorstep on a sweltering July morning in 2010, Venant and Nshimira were weary travelers losing faith in God's provison. Refugees from the volatile eastern Congo, the couple had been resettled the previous September in Columbus, Ohio. Among their few possessions was a box stuffed with legal documents, leftovers from their case recently abandoned by a resettlement agent. When they arrived in Columbus, they had joined a French-speaking group for African expats, whose leader, Emmanuel Sotondji, invited them to accompany him to his church of a decade, Vineyard Columbus (VC), in suburban Westerville.
"The first time I saw Venant, his face showed so much fear," remembers Chris Childers, a social worker at VC since 2009. "He wasn't sure where he was in his faith."
And for good reason. Venant had been tortured by soldiers of a Rwandan terrorist group and suffered severe back and neck pain. He and Nshimira spoke zero English. Their furniture was a mattress and chairs with no backs; their six children slept atop blankets strewn across the linoleum kitchen floor of a two-bedroom apartment.
Childers immediately brought her 25 years of social service work to bear. She discovered they were eligible for food stamps and health benefits and could reduce their electric bill, which was burning through 10 percent of their income. She recruited another VC minister to gather layette supplies and furnishings for the couple's seventh child, arriving any day, and e-mailed VC's staff members, who brought a truckload of furniture in two days. She located an esl class within walking distance of the apartment (learning English is required for continued federal benefits). And, in a gesture unseen at their resettlement agency, Childers, Sotondji, and associate pastor Bill Christensen prayed for complete healing of Venant's scars.
The couple represent 1 of the 104 nations now gathered at the largest church in the Vineyard movement, a loose association of 1,500 congregations that infuse evangelical distinctives with the "signs and wonders" of the charismatic movement. VC's multicultural push over the past decade marks the next wave of a denomination taking its strong "kingdom of God" theology to the ends of the earth—or, rather, welcoming the ends of the earth to its Western center.
'A Serious Tipping Point'
It's no happenstance that VC's international flavor has been driven by a culturally Jewish, formerly atheist lawyer. "My passion for immigrants and racial reconciliation comes from the sense that I'm not an insider to white evangelicalism," says Rich Nathan, 56. The New York City native came to Christ when a friend, Marlene, took him to a Messianic Seder meal his freshman year at Case Western Reserve University. "When the pastor broke the matzo and explained the connection between the Last Supper and the Passover, the Holy Spirit hit me in the chest," says Nathan, whose wiry dark hair and 5'8" frame betray his lineage. Nine months later, Nathan was president of the college's InterVarsity chapter. He eventually married Marlene, and while he was teaching law at Ohio State University in the mid-'80s, they attended a revival in Harrogate, England. John Wimber, a leading founder of the Vineyard and a charismatic church-growth enthusiast, had planned to teach on healing, but at the last minute, sensing a Spirit nudge, spoke on the pearl of great price. "Some of you tonight are wondering about whether God is calling you into full-time ministry. You will know it's the Lord when there is no more time." Nathan says he gripped his seat, knowing God had answered his prayer for a sign.