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He Led Churches in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp. Now He Waxes Floors.
Nobody naps on Saturdays in the Gatera family.
If anyone has a right to, it’s Jean Pierre Gatera. Most weekdays the 43-year-old drives his wife, Appoline, to her tomato-packing job in Minneapolis at 6:30 a.m. Then he sends their kids—Joel, 15, Emmanuela, 12, and Deborah, 8—off to school and does a few hours of work for his degree, a master’s in leadership from Bethel University. He preps some rice and meat for dinner, since Appoline is usually exhausted when she gets home. Then, at 4:20 p.m., he leaves for work: waxing floors for a janitorial company until 1 a.m. He sleeps about four hours a night.
But if he’s fatigued on a Saturday afternoon in July, Jean Pierre does not show it. He and the kids pile into the family van and one of them says a prayer for safety before heading to the Hosmer Library, just south of downtown Minneapolis. He leaves them at the stately, hydrangea-framed historic building to kill a few hours while he drives to Jonathan House, a ministry in neighboring Saint Paul where immigrants seeking asylum can stay for up to six months while they find their feet.
Jean Pierre stands waiting at the door of the small, forgettable white structure, unornamented except for some gray shutters. He is about 20 minutes late for a 1 p.m. appointment with Gabriel Wilson, an immigrant from Liberia. But Wilson is still asleep. He works nights too.
Asylum seekers like Wilson have almost no safety net; they are not eligible for welfare cash assistance or other government benefits. Which is why Jean Pierre is here today, to see to it that Wilson never needs a net.
Still groggy, Wilson shows Jean Pierre into the front room, where they review several goals they’ve set together for Wilson: get a driver’s license, find a better job, and save up some money. Goal setting is crucial, Jean Pierre says, so that when Good Samaritans do offer help, they can just “push you along the track.”
In Liberia, Wilson drove trucks. America faces a shortage of truck drivers in the era of online retail, but Wilson can’t get one of those higher-paying jobs until he takes a five-week, $6,000 class for his commercial driver’s license. For now, though, he still needs a basic driver’s license to get to other jobs and job interviews—like one this week with FedEx. Jean Pierre asks Wilson how he plans to get to the interview. Wilson, who only has his driver’s permit, sheepishly admits it would be at least 45 minutes by bus but only 15 in his car. “Ok, so 45 minutes then,” Jean Pierre decrees, a not-so-subtle warning to play by the rules.
When Wilson gets home from work each morning—he, too, waxes floors—he showers and collapses. Then his phone blows up with messages from family back in Africa, accusing him of being ungrateful and not sending enough cash back home.
Jean Pierre tells him a Swahili saying: “If you can’t stand, you can’t dance.” They can ask you for whatever they want, but you have to establish yourself first, he says. A sign on the wall in the Jonathan House shouts encouragement in all capital letters: “Take pride in how far you have come and have faith in how far you can go!”
Jean Pierre’s face might as well be on the sign, the admonition wrapped in a speech bubble. On September 11, 2016, he left Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya, where he had lived for 20 years and worked his way up to serve for a decade as chairman over a network of dozens of churches. From the soaring heat of Kakuma, at one time the world’s largest refugee camp, Jean Pierre and his family arrived on a pleasant late-summer day in Minneapolis, wearing layers of clothes because it was the easiest way to bring them. It was the second time in his life he would start over from scratch in a land that was not his own.
Jean Pierre quietly began rebuilding life in Minneapolis with his family, learning to drive and working his night job. Ordained in Kenya by the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, Jean Pierre does not lead a church but still uses the title of “pastor” in all correspondence. Everyone seems to address him that way, even his own pastor, because Jean Pierre spends every spare moment doing exactly what he did in Kakuma: exhorting refugee leaders and refugee churches that they are too rich to live stuck in some helpless-immigrant narrative.
It’s hard to imagine the man running out of steam. When Jean Pierre speaks, he sometimes snaps his fingers to make a point. He believes that in any environment, God has already supplied everything necessary to survive. “You need only to identify these resources,” he says. “When you share what you have, it will attract other sources. If you don’t use your gift to shine, then nobody will come for it.
“If you sit down, you will lose everything,” he says, wiping his hands for emphasis. “Wasted time.”
As someone who built a ministry career in one of the world’s most desperate places while waiting two decades for the UN to decide his fate, Jean Pierre is especially annoyed that anyone would see him as just sitting, waiting for help.
The family did receive assistance during their first three months in America, as many refugees do. But Jean Pierre is still bothered by one particular moment during the resettlement journey: A hotel manager offered the family some leftovers from the kitchen, assuming they didn’t have the ability to pay for food.
“There is this idea [among Americans] that being a refugee is begging,” he says. “I want to grab that idea from them.”
Jean Pierre was born in Rwanda in 1975. In 1994, while he was 19 and away at school in another province, his country exploded in violence as Hutu soldiers and civilians massacred hundreds of thousands of Tutsi men, women, and children and re-ignited a simmering civil war. Jean Pierre’s parents fled the genocide, unable to send word to him. He wandered both geographically and spiritually, with no possessions or documentation, traveling mostly alone in a region beset by conflict.
After checking a refugee camp for his family, Jean Pierre was jailed by Rwandan authorities who assumed him a rebel. At one point he fled on foot from violence in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, walking more than 180 miles in a week out of Rwanda and eventually landing in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At another point, when Jean Pierre was at a refugee camp in Tanzania, the government began forcibly removing refugees. He hid in the bush as officials hunted them like animals.
Jean Pierre crossed into Kenya after a 300-mile walk, during which he subsisted on water, salt, and sugar that he’d gotten from the Tanzanian camp and edible plants found along the way. In Nairobi, he learned about Kakuma and was able to get there in 1998.
Officials strategically chose to locate Kakuma in remote northwest Kenya, close to the border of South Sudan—a country which alone has produced 2.4 million refugees. The camp has no walls, and inhabitants can move freely in and out until curfew, but pervasive banditry in the wilderness outside the camp has turned the region into Kenya’s Wild West. It is consistently windy, dangerously dusty, and always hot.
When Jean Pierre arrived at Kakuma, he lacked documentation, which made it difficult to qualify for UN rations. He was taken in by a church leader who, at a revival meeting one evening, shared his testimony. The leader had been left for dead in a mass grave and was rescued by passers-by.
“He shared his story, then I realized my problems were not big,” says Jean Pierre, who responded to an altar call after that. He marks that night as a major shift in his perspective—from negative to positive, from hopeless to hopeful. He says it was then that God became real for him.
Jean Pierre started high school in the camp at age 25 and got heavily involved in his church, which provided him food and shelter until he received official refugee documents. (“I did not sit down,” he says.) He met his future wife, Appoline, who had also fled Rwanda. She attended his school and also sang in his church choir. They were married in 2001, the year Jean Pierre obtained his papers, and lived together in Kakuma for the next 15 years.
It’s not unusual to spend long periods of time in a refugee camp. Most refugee-producing African conflicts have been going on for 20 years or more, and estimates on the average length of stay in a camp vary from 9 to 25 years or more. World Bank experts say that as of the end of 2015, half the world’s refugees had been in exile for four years or more.
Which is why refugees often struggle deeply with identity issues. Living in Kakuma didn’t make Jean Pierre Kenyan, but he had nowhere else to go. In Kakuma he settled into something resembling a normal routine. Along with 75,000 other people in the camp at the time, however, he and Appoline also lived in constant tension: putting together a life while waiting for government officials to decide when and where their next life would begin.
“The people there are stuck,” says Tom Albinson, president of the Minnesota-based International Association for Refugees (IAFR). “They’re in a space; they’re not in a place.” Jean Pierre, for his part, had resigned himself to the idea that his family of five might never get out.
Kakuma, like other refugee camps, has structurally evolved as a result of such long stays. Families might live in tents but might also have a home with mud walls, patched over time. The UN distributes corrugated metal sheets for use in construction, but refugees must make their own mud bricks.
A mini-economy has emerged as Kakuma has sprawled (walking across the camp could take two or three hours). Residents use cell phones to spend and bank money through Kenya’s mobile transfer system, called M-Pesa. Hotels have popped up. Residents congregate in bars and coffee shops as they would anywhere else. In other words, camps like Kakuma that were originally constructed to be impermanent are becoming quite the opposite.
Churches form naturally in camps when refugees live there for so long. Kakuma had at least 67 when Jean Pierre was starting his family and ministry career there. But partnerships between camp churches are uncommon. That’s according to Albinson, who says African churches are often quite competitive.
In 2002, as a newlywed in his late 20s, Jean Pierre accompanied his pastor to a morning meeting where several pastors wanted to resolve an ongoing conflict.
Two years earlier, a nonprofit had given some musical instruments to the then three-year-old United Refugee Churches (URC), an umbrella association for several dozen Protestant churches in the camp at the time. Churches fought bitterly to use the donated drumset and keyboard, prized luxuries in a place where dances form around crude shakers made from foil and gravel. The instruments were so divisive that, only a year later, the nonprofit took them back. But the damage was done.
Looking around the room for a mediator, the leaders of the meeting picked Jean Pierre—he was not involved in the URC and the only one there with no prior allegiances. Jean Pierre dissolved the dispute and went on to improve other processes. He revamped the URC’s communication methods and resolved a denominational argument about baptism.
The association promoted Jean Pierre to chairman. He got a cell phone for work use and built relationships with outside groups, including the National Council of Churches of Kenya.
Jean Pierre’s descriptions of the URC in his early time there harken back to early infighting among the tribes of Israel, before Jethro confronted Moses about his lack of leadership structure. They were God’s people, trying to seek God—but also foreigners with little pastoral oversight, in a foreign land, wasting time and energy on squabbling. Jean Pierre set up networks for better management and communication—six churches would report to one pastor, another six to another pastor, and so on.
According to Jean Pierre, URC churches began operating more smoothly and the association flourished. He helped identify and pool church resources for group use. If one church had a great evangelist and another had a great set of musical instruments, he taught them to swap. Some congregants had a desire to go to Bible schools, and others had already been; soon a newborn ministry school, Kakuma Interdenominational School of Mission (KISOM), flourished—even if within a condemned, abandoned primary school with collapsing walls. The association itself did not plant churches but did provide assistance for those who wished to.
Soon, the pastors felt that God wanted even more from them.
Just outside Kakuma roam nomadic people groups, the Turkana. The Turkana are considered part of the “host” community but not in the American sense of the word.
Kenya has forgotten the Turkana, Jean Pierre says. They’re “behind even the refugees,” because they aren’t eligible for the UN rations that camp residents receive. Turkana groups, frequently in dispute over livestock and grazing territory, are allowed into Kakuma to sell goat meat and firewood, but not to stay. Many Turkana resent the steady stream of visitors bringing donations to Kakuma residents, who construct fences from thorns around their homes to prevent theft.
Brian Doten pastors Northwood Church, the Gateras’ home church in Minneapolis, and has traveled twice to Kakuma. He first watched Jean Pierre preach in the camp at a pastors conference in 2013. Jean Pierre stood in front of a chalkboard with a large chart drawn on it. Passionately, and in Swahili, he explained his proposal: If all the churches pooled their UN rations of rice, oil, salt, and soap, they could have enough to give to the Turkana people. He was asking them to tithe.
If each church sets aside $1, Jean Pierre told the pastors, the association could have a budget of $70—no small amount in Kakuma. “It has to start with you. Are you tithing? If you’re not tithing—if we’re not tithing—nobody will do it,” Albinson, who was traveling with Doten, remembers Jean Pierre saying.
Doten says Jean Pierre regularly spoke this way to churches in Kakuma when they complained they didn’t have what they needed to do ministry. With a commanding presence, “he had a way of holding pastors accountable” that made people listen.
“His message was, ‘We can’t wait for resources from the outside. What has God put into our hand?’ ” Doten says. “He was always trying to challenge people not to see themselves as poverty-stricken and as ‘just’ refugees.”
Sarah Miller, a regional director with IAFR who oversees the Jonathan House in Saint Paul and also now oversees Jean Pierre’s ministry in America, has worked in refugee ministry since 1992. She says the kind of sacrificial giving Gatera promoted is not unheard of in refugee camps—she met a congregation at a camp in Malawi that tithed enough rice rations to start an orphanage. “God’s people who have so very, very, very little still want to reach out and help others, to be a part of what God is doing in the world,” Miller says.
In Kakuma, relationships between churches inside and outside the camp improved so much that several Turkana churches have joined the URC. Jean Pierre amended the URC’s constitution to create the United Refugee and Host Churches (URHC), creating trust in a place full of misinformation and suspicion.
“The distrust ran so deep,” says Jamie Aten, director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) at Wheaton College, which studied the URHC in 2012. He cites an incident where a goat had been killed outside the camp. One tribe blamed another, retaliations escalated, and soon churches were facing a major tribal conflict. Through church partnerships, pastors learned to cut off such sequences prior to another retaliation.
“People no longer fear moving between camp and host community churches since they have become one community,” the researchers wrote in a recent article for the Christian Journal for Global Health.
Even on smaller, denominational disputes, like one over baptism, Jean Pierre stressed unity in Kakuma—something he would also stress in his ministry in America.
“The main thing,” he says, gesturing in a circle to connote commonality, “is salvation. If it is the church . . . we are one. There is no kind of superiority. We can come together and do Jesus business together.”
Kakuma defies many refugee stereotypes. The #IAmKakuma hashtag on Twitter showcases inspiring stories, like a class of girls learning computer programming. Earlier this year, Kakuma hosted the first-ever TEDx talk held within a refugee camp.
Still, depression runs high in refugee camps. Suicide rates are going up in Kakuma, according to Jenny Hwang, managing director of HDI. Sometimes, she says, people suffering from depression—especially if they have been traumatized—display a phenomenon known to psychologists as learned helplessness. “If a series of circumstances keep telling you that your own responses won’t succeed, you just kind of lose hope.”
Albinson never saw any helplessness in Jean Pierre. They first met in 2011, in Kakuma, when Jean Pierre had already been leading the URC for some time. “The first surprise, always, is someone finds you a cold Coca-Cola,” Albinson says. “We’re sitting on plastic chairs in a mud building, with a dirt floor. He starts to tell me what they’re doing.”
What really surprised Albinson: Jean Pierre wasn’t asking for help or to partner with IAFR. “They were telling me, ‘If you want to partner with us, we’ll consider that.’ He wasn’t asking me if there was something he could do with me,” Albinson says.
Many NGOs visit Kakuma and offer donations or other assistance. Often, they don’t return.
In an effort to create a healthy boundary for pastors and churches, Jean Pierre explains, the association started “screening” visitors. Each Friday, visitors would meet with a committee to plan their week. That committee held the power to decide how visitors could help, matching skills and resources with needs in the camp. (This was also a way to screen for false teachers, Jean Pierre says.)
“Our default [as humans] is to be transactional: ‘What do you need from me?’ ” Albinson says. But in Kakuma, “they are leading.”
Albinson kept coming twice a year, and Jean Pierre finally started sharing some needs and ideas.
Saturdays are when Jean Pierre’s cell phone is “open,” when the eight refugee pastors he mentors through IAFR know they can reach him.
Once when his phone rings, Jean Pierre answers with a “Yes, Pastor!” and a cheery “Hello, Pastor!” greets him on the other end. He chatters in Swahili for a while, then hangs up. A Congolese pastor is facing a conflict at his church in Fargo, North Dakota: A young minister in the congregation wants to strike out on his own. Jean Pierre has advised the pastor not to be threatened but to help the young man go. “Keeping him is keeping trouble,” Jean Pierre says.
With his passion for leading other ministry leaders, it’s tempting to speculate: Had Jean Pierre been born in the United States, would he be heading a megachurch by now?
He strongly dislikes the idea. He calls the megachurch model unbiblical, especially the practice of simulcasting sermons: “If on a Sunday I preach to 20 churches, what is the work of the pastors there?”
Jean Pierre says a pastor’s job is to find what he calls manifestations of the Holy Spirit within the congregation. Without identifying those, he says, the church becomes little more than a social gathering. “It’s the work of a leader to expose the potential of a subordinate,” he says. “Otherwise you find people are only sitting.” He mimes putting a DVD in a player and leaning back, arms folded.
It’s possible to imagine a correlation between Jean Pierre’s seemingly boundless—even restless—apostolic energy and his nomadic history. Refugee advocates at World Relief, for example, readily point to other refugee pastors whose stories and initiative mirror his: A Sudanese man threatened for his faith now juggling a church, family, part-time job, and an online degree program in the Chicago suburbs. Another pastor, leading a church just a few miles down the road, who also fled Sudan and held Billy Graham–style crusades in South Africa before coming to an American seminary.
According to Jean Pierre, refugee ministry leaders are naturally on the move. “That,” he says, wiping his hands, “is automatic.”
A series of minor miracles brought the Gateras to Minneapolis.
Even if the UN deems a refugee family eligible for resettlement, the family can’t move without an invitation from a specific country willing to resettle them. When Jean Pierre and Appoline were first married in 2001, the UN briefly offered them tickets to Australia. But Australia at the time was prioritizing the most vulnerable for resettlement—especially single women and children—and as young, healthy newlyweds, the Gateras never got called.
In 2008 the UN took up their case again, and the Gateras applied to go to both Canada and the United States. Jean Pierre says he felt God telling him their US application would move faster, and it did—if one can conceive of eight years as fast. Finally, a Minneapolis-based group called Arrive Ministries, a World Relief affiliate, put in a request to bring them to Minnesota.
The Gateras prepared to leave Kakuma in 2016 for the United States, after seeing one last miracle. The year before, Jean Pierre had finally embraced his father—for the first time since he was a teenager. They had reconnected on Facebook. Jean Pierre learned that his mother had perished during the attempted escape from Rwanda in 1994, but his children met their grandfather, at least, in Kakuma just months before they left it behind.
In the end, Albinson, Doten, and other Americans who had visited Kakuma met the Gateras at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport. Doten says that for people at Northwood Church, it was like meeting a celebrity. When the Gateras arrived, exhausted, in their new apartment to a takeout dinner from a nearby East African restaurant, enthusiastic Northwood families just wanted to sit around and watch them eat.
The Gateras were among 78,761 resettled by the United States in 2016, according to UN statistics. It was a peak year due to the Syrian crisis, up from an average of 51,000 in previous years. Even though the United States still takes in more refugees than any other country, the numbers are falling precipitously. In 2017, the government accepted just 24,559; by the end of this year, experts expect the number to shrink to 22,000. And in September, the administration lowered the ceiling on refugee admission for next year to 30,000, the smallest cap since the 1970s.
Through the Evangelical Immigration Table, 400 pastors and local leaders have urged the administration to reconsider this number, pointing out that it puts persecuted people of all faiths at risk.
“Seeing yet another drop in refugee numbers should be a shock to the conscience of all Americans,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, in a statement following the announcement.
Resettlement, Jean Pierre says, was like getting thrown into the sea. But his strongest memory of that first winter isn’t the frigid temperatures. It’s the time Appoline missed her bus stop and got lost in the Minneapolis public transit system.
Refugees in America often cite loneliness as their hardest initial struggle. Without transportation, or neighbors dropping by, as is more common in African countries, refugees are often stuck in their apartments for weeks without human contact. Northwood had resettled a few families prior to the Gateras’ arrival and gave the family a list of church members to call for help with almost anything.
“If you have a car problem, you call Joel. If you have problems with the kids’ education, you call Kristi,” Doten says.
One church member drove an hour each way to take the Gatera kids to youth ministry events. And once Jean Pierre had his driver’s permit, he told the church he needed practice time behind the wheel. “I told them, ‘This is where I have reached, and I need you to come in and be helpful to me,’ ” he says. Someone volunteered to teach him, and Fridays—once the day he passed out ministry assignments to visitors in Kakuma—became his day to practice turn signals and highway exits.
Church members have also assisted the Gateras with their $7,500 travel debt. But just as he drew boundaries around the URHC, Jean Pierre draws a line around his family when well-intentioned friends take a little too much direction—like giving his kids cash or clothes. “Freedom isn’t freedom without healthy boundaries,” he says. He feels no need to grasp at straws, perhaps because God has already answered one of his biggest lifelong prayers: not to allow his children to wander the earth like he did. “That is why my aim is for them to get citizenship,” he says.
On a hot Sunday morning in July, the day after Jean Pierre’s visit with Wilson, the Liberian asylum seeker, he and Appoline harmonize exuberantly to “Holy, Holy, Holy” at Northwood. If the Gateras were looking for an American church that embodied their personal “no sitting” philosophy, they have found it. Music leaders caution attendees: Don’t let this become a “listening” service. The pastors commission a team of youth about to leave for a summer trip to a Kenyan orphanage.
Jean Pierre hopes to go back to visit someday. “I still have Kakuma DNA with me,” he says. “Kakuma is my home.” Among other places, he’d like to visit the KISOM ministry school he helped launch, which has prepared over 1,000 men and women for ministry since 1999 using teachers from Kakuma communities.
Jean Pierre has no official leadership role at Northwood but preaches occasionally. He focuses mainly on his studies and on the eight refugee pastors that he mentors. On any given Saturday, he might be driving to Iowa City to meet with more pastors or traveling to Denver to help a Sudanese pastor understand the legalities of marriage in America. “Gatera’s full wattage is mind-blowing, how much that guy can do,” Albinson says.
After the service at Northwood, someone in the church invites the Gatera kids over to swim. Jean Pierre says maybe later that afternoon—first, he has carved out some time for the family to spend together. They leave to pack lunches at a food pantry for a couple of hours.
Laura Finch is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area.
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