The envelope in Fay Painter’s mailbox that looked just like a Christmas card turned out to be the best present the members of the Africa Lighthouse Baptist Temple could receive.
The congregation of more than 40 African immigrants, led by the Rev. Peter Chege, found inside that envelope a new home.
Well, it wasn’t really a new home. It did, however, make their current home officially theirs.
“It was a miracle in many ways,” Chege said. “It is a reminder that God is rich.”
Last year, just in time for Christmas, the Albemarle County congregation moved into the former Holy Trinity Church off Gilbert Station Road. Previously, the church had rented a classroom for one hour each Sunday from the Charlottesville City Schools, but that arrangement limited time for fellowship, Sunday school and efforts to assist the congregation.
The congregation worked all year to come up with the $120,000 they needed to buy the church built in 1957 and the two acres of land on which it stands, a bus of some sort to transport congregants who don’t have licenses or cars and a trailer for Sunday school classes.
“They needed their own facility because the church tries to step in and fill a gap between the community and the immigrants,” said Painter, a retired local executive with the Multiple Sclerosis Association who has helped the church with fundraising. “This is a challenge for people who maybe grew up in a small African village or spent years in a refugee camp. The language is different. Living conditions are different. Some may have been in the camps so long, they’ve never had a job.”
Mind you that money isn’t easy to come by when your congregation is comprised primarily of immigrants from 15 different countries in Africa’s Great Lakes region, including Sudan, Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi and Tanzania.
“Many in our congregation are helped by the International Rescue Committee but after they have been here, they need more help to be successful,” Chege said. “That is what we try to do. We help provide a village, to help them succeed.”
To raise funds to buy the church, Painter turned her 205-mile walk to the coast of Spain on the 900-year-old Way of St. James pilgrimage into a fundraising effort.
“I called it my no-worries walk because ‘hakuna matata’ is Swahili for ‘no worries,’ and that’s the only Swahili I knew,” Painter laughed. “I walked the pilgrimage for 12 days, averaging about 17 miles a day.”
Even with a year to work on it, and Painter’s efforts, $120,000 is some serious scratch when most church members are working at minimum wage jobs and spend their pay on rent, food and transportation with little left over to tithe.
“Many of our members work for housekeeping or at facilities maintenance at the University of Virginia and many only work part-time. Many send money to family in Africa to help support them,” Chege said.
“One thing we try to do is to help immigrants find better jobs. We are working on helping them get their [certified nursing assistant] degree because a CNA can earn $12 to $15 an hour. That is good money and the jobs are available in many places,” he continued. “We don’t want to just give them money for rent. We want them to be able to pay their rent from their job. We don’t want to give them a hand out. We want to give them a hand up.”
Chege understands. He came to the U.S. in 2007 and found himself without work.
“The first three weeks, I was depressed. I saw lots of successful people and had lots of help, but what impresses you when you are from Africa is to see another African, like you, who has made it,” Chege said. “I met other Africans who came and had made it. They may not have had much, but they were successful. They had jobs. I thought, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’ It made the difference.”
That, Chege said, is how the Africa Lighthouse Baptist Temple came to be.
“I wanted to help others. I was lucky. I grew up in a former British colony and my parents forced me to learn English,” he said. “Others come from other former colonies and they may speak French and Swahili. The first thing they must learn here is English.”
The church congregation helps new members not only learn English, but learn to drive and get their driver’s licenses.
“You must drive to be successful,” Chege said, adding that he has helped many immigrants learn to drive in Charlottesville.
“I have helped to teach many to drive and sometimes I have felt close to death,” he laughed. “We hope to have a driver’s education program sometime that can help immigrants learn to drive with classes they can afford.”
As Christmas Day approached and the congregation’s first year in the building came to a close, purchasing the building seemed to be just out of reach. The church members were $52,000 short.
Then came the envelope.
“I was out of town for a couple of weeks, and I finally got to looking through my mail and I found what looked like a Christmas card,” recalled Painter, “I opened it up and it was a check.”
Specifically, it was a check for $52,000 from a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.
“It was the answer to our prayers,” said Chege. “It gives us a true home, our own home. It is the best Christmas present.”