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How Refugees Revived One White Iowa Church

Meet the congregation that traded in a homogeneous heritage for a diverse future.
How Refugees Revived One White Iowa Church
The members of Zion Lutheran Church's "oikos" committee, which works across four people groups to organize the church and its ministries, place their hands together in a sign of solidarity.

DES MOINES – On a 90-degree Sunday morning in June of 2010, a group of Zion Lutheran Church members followed their traditional service with their first-ever outreach to a local apartment complex. Lugging boxes of fried chicken, beans, potato salads, and chips to feed more than 100 people, the church also brought soccer balls and craft projects to share with the building’s younger tenants. While adult residents curiously observed from their doorframes, children bounded out to play: hanging on to the volunteers, dancing, and wolfing down the food.

What appeared in the moment to be a generous but simple gesture was, in reality, a tectonic shift for both the church body and its community—one made up largely of Burmese refugees.

Zion Lutheran’s motto, “where the nations worship,” is bold for a Midwestern, traditionally German congregation. Over the past several years, however, the church has proven its slogan’s brazen claim. On any given Sunday, five services in four languages take place at Zion, and congregants and visitors speak 12 languages, from Arabic to Swahili.

“Why Do We Exist?”

But how did this church of 1,900 attendees transform from 98 percent white to nearly 50 percent minority groups?

Zion is 157 years old—one of the oldest church bodies in the city—with a strong German heritage. In 2010, John Kline, who had pastored the church for five years after a stint teaching at a Christian college in Latvia, began pondering what difference their congregation was actually making in Des Moines. That June, he posed the question to his board. They weren’t sure their presence would be missed; without Zion, members would likely disseminate to other nearby Lutheran churches.

“Imagine being a pastor of a church that wasn’t passionate about its survival,” he said in an interview with The Local Church. “There are really great churches in the city. What is it about this church? Why do we exist?

“That began an existential quest, if you will, that caused us to pray. God revealed his plan.”

First, Kline knocked on the doors of neighboring homes, offering gift cards to local restaurants to residents. The question of “how can we bless you?” was met by courteous nods, but few answers. Next he turned to local businesses and hospitals, asking, “How can we partner with you?” Still, little panned out.

Frustrated, Kline turned to Scripture. He was struck by Luke 14, the parable of the wedding feast, where Jesus tells of a man who prepared a feast but was rejected by all his invited guests. Instead, he turned to “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame,” passersby and travelers, and invited them to the banquet. “How can we bless people who are in a place where it’s not possible for them to bless us back?” Kline asked himself.

With that question, the church’s first outreach jolted into motion.

A Church of Many Tongues and Nations

After visiting the neighborhood apartment complexes and giving astute attention to the needs of Des Moines’s refugee community, the church realized that children presented the largest opportunity to help. Soon, they started an English language class for refugee and immigrant children.

“That blew doors off the church,” Kline said. “That’s when we started to see our diversity as a congregation really begin. It’s the children who lead. . . . Kids brought kids. Refugee kids brought refugee kids. We got into more apartment complexes.”

Four original students quickly burgeoned into what is now 300 weekly, with a total of 900 different students having passed through the church door since the program started. Zion had to purchase two school busses and three vans and rely on cars from volunteers just to transport the students to and from the church.

Word spread. Soon, they were approached by a group of Mizo people, an ethnic group from Myanmar who wanted to worship in their language but needed a pastor and a building. Zion decided to incorporate them, encouraging them to be a part of their mission while carrying on services and Sunday School in their native tongue.

Nowadays, if you walk into Zion on a Sunday, you’ll hear the clamor of a dozen languages, see women in hijabs eating donuts and drinking coffee, and dodge energetic groups of elementary-aged boys—the church’s largest demographic. The church offers two English-speaking services, as well as services in Swahili, Arabic, and Mizo.

“We worship in four [languages] and pray in twelve,” said Kline. “Probably more than that. . . . We have Arabs, Caucasians, African Americans, Congolese, Liberians, South Sudanese, Mizo. We’re comfortable with that because we believe that the gospel should be available to anybody. You’re not going to make disciples if you’re not building relationships.”

One of Kline’s favorite aspects of Zion’s ministry has been reconciliation work. African families from both the Hutus and Tutsis—opposing tribes in the Rwandan Civil War—attend Zion and worship together.

Maintining Unity Amidst Increasing Diversity

But while the work may be thrilling, Kline is the first to admit that the church has faced devastating challenges.

“It’s hard to bring people together. You have to teach people to suffer, and understand that when you’re doing the right thing and trying to honor people in your church, suffering might result,” he said. “I think we honestly believe that if we do the right thing, we’ll prosper. But really what we have to get people to understand is that doing the right thing might lead to suffering because we live in a broken world.”

Changes were also met with resistance. In the years following 2010, many original congregants left, taking their money with them. Soon, the church was forced to slash its paid staff, leaning more heavily on volunteers and sacrificing luxuries (such as a paid organist). After Zion cut its traditional service, more congregants fled—along with their tithes.

“What we’re asking people to do is to live as missionaries—people would be much more comfortable to do short-term trips, and go back home,” Kline said. “We’re asking you to go to church and sit next to the people you’re serving—become one in Christ with them, be reconcilers. If the church isn’t a place of reconciliation, what are we? We have to reconcile income differences, racial differences, political differences, etc.”

With such swift changes also came a loss of identity and a struggle to find unity in the face of both cultural and theological differences.

“How do we maintain unity when we are Pentecostal, Methodist, Evangelical Free, Seventh-Day Adventist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran? We just keep going,” Kline said. “We do baby dedications, baby baptisms and immersions—unity demands it.”

Linguistic diversity brings its share of difficulties, as well. When decisions are being made and conveyed in 12 languages, communication takes tremendous intentionality—especially when not only languages, but whole methods of communicating can vary between cultures.

And then there’s the problem of building a sense of unity. Bringing together such a mosaic of cultures is a difficult task, especially when people want to silo off into their own communities. It’s even difficult to carry on events outside of church, since many attendees now work second and third shifts. The church approaches unity as a work in constant progress. “We are working on being one church together and frequently worship and serve together,” Zion’s website testifies.

In response to these challenges, Kline has worked to maintain the church’s sustainability by raising up leaders to carry the work in years to come. He believes the work of unification in the church will pay off for future generations, who will be more integrated into American society.

“Is there a high chance of failure? Is it really hard, and do we run the risk of closing the church? Yes,” he admitted. “It must be God calling us.”

A Sense of Home and Hope

Meanwhile, the list of Zion’s community engagements seems endless. Its building, for instance, serves as a potential shelter in the county’s emergency management plan and houses English classes on Wednesdays with a partner organization. They offer meals on Wednesday nights and a clothing and food pantry, and they maintain a good relationship with their local police department as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Church volunteers even help the local school district by using church vehicles to transport students who are outside of the busing zone and who might otherwise skip school—and have worked to change the school’s busing zone.

“There’s homework help, tutoring if they need it, and with many of the kids now, we’ve moved on to life skills training—that is everything from how to dress on a budget, how to apply for work, help getting driver’s permits, how to change your oil. Everything we can think of, anything that someone’s got to teach, we try to pass it on,” Kline told the Des Moines Register last June.

“As somebody who has been to many churches, I really appreciate them,” said Nancy Mwirotsi, who uses the church building rent-free for her nonprofit, which teaches computer coding to refugee students. Without the church, she said, many people would be missing a sense of home—and of hope. “This church has done a very good job of welcoming everybody.”

Despite the challenges his church has faced, Kline has the answer to his question from six years ago: Zion Lutheran, now an essential fixture in its community, is undeniably making a difference for Christ.

“We’ve got to keep remembering that the church is his,” said Kline. “He didn’t build the church for us; we built it for him. Now it’s time to live that out. One day you realize that you’ve done something beautiful for Jesus, and it’s all worthwhile.”

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