Planting Mighty Oaks
Pastors John Ronel and his wife, Francoise Kayari Ronel, know what it is like to flee for your life in the middle of the night, to live with no electricity or refrigeration, to cook every meal over an outside fire, and to live with your entire family of 10 in a one-room home you built with the supplies you were able to find. After fleeing the gorilla gunfire attacks in their village in the Congo, the Ronel family lived as refugees in Kenya for four years before being relocated to a small town in Wisconsin in 2004. Although John had been to seminary in Africa and they both had worked in ministry there, in Wisconsin Francoise worked in a cheese factory while John worked as a security guard and as a certified nurse assistant (CNA) at a long-term care facility.
In 2015, after hearing that many refugees were being relocated to Wichita, Kansas, the Ronels felt God leading them to move here and start a church where refugees could worship God in their native language of Swahili. When they first moved to Wichita, John worked as an interpreter for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and began contacting churches, looking for one that shared his vision. He connected with the Heart of Kansas Southern Baptist Association who were excited to help. The Ronels were given a slot on Sundays from 2 – 4 p.m. to worship in the Sharon Baptist church building. The Oaks’ first worship service in November 2015 consisted of only eight people. Through word of mouth and his connections at the Wichita IRC, Pastor John identified newcomer families from Africa and set about going door to door to meet them. He was truly the hands and feet of Jesus to them, not only inviting them to the new Oaks Fellowship, but also ministering to them in many mundane ways, helping them adjust to this fast-paced, rule-oriented, amazing new place they would call home. John and Francoise still spend countless hours serving their flock (as John likes to call it), answering questions, giving rides and supplying small physical needs as they are able.
Gradually their flock grew to more than 20 families. God was glorified as they praised him in their lively Swahili songs! Francoise and Gadi, their 24-year-old son, led the music. Soon they started a choir and added drums and guitar. Music is such an important part of their worship that their choir practices every Thursday night and Saturday afternoon. They also hold four-hour long prayer meetings every Saturday morning. Since most of their flock could not drive, John and Francoise, with the assistance of their older sons, drove their 16-passenger van (and any church bus available) to pick everyone up for each choir practice, worship service and church event. This was quite a time-consuming task, taking nearly an hour and a half to pick up and again to drop off!
Pastor John met Pastor Mike Goolsby in 2016 and they were immediately drawn to each other as brothers in Christ. When Mike arranged for John to speak at Eastminster, the journey of our partnership with them began. Eastminster formed the Refugee Immigrant Outreach Team (RIOT) within our Local and US Mission Council to focus on ways that our church could serve God by partnering with and serving the Oaks Fellowship. After brainstorming at our first meeting, we realized that we needed to meet with them and get to know them as individuals and see what THEY would like for us to do instead of trying to come up with our own ideas of their needs.
After meeting Oaks members and asking them questions through interpreters, we came up with several ideas. RIOT members began a simplified child care time during the Oaks worship service at Sharon Baptist so that the adults could focus on worshipping. We also helped with transportation to and from church, and to doctor’s appointments, Department for Children & Families (DCF) & IRC appointments, job interviews and to the Asian markets to buy food similar to what they ate in Africa. Eastminster members were recruited to meet with the Oaks women in their homes to help them learn English and to be their friend and advocate. These friendships blessed both groups as Eastminster members helped enroll kids in school, provided Christmas gifts, taught women how to knit, taught women to cook hamburgers and pizza and delivered welcome bags provided by one of Eastminster women’s Bible studies. They helped answer questions about everything from insurance, to cars, bills received, and how to work heating/AC. Several Eastminster business men helped Oaks members write resumes. One man even taught an Oaks friend to fish. Other families have taken kids to musicals, swimming, to soccer & football games and to Eastminster youth events. When we were reminded of the importance of being read to, Eastminster members volunteered to go into Oaks homes to read books to their kids.
In April 2018 the Oaks were able to join us at Eastminster and hold their Swahili worship service in our Student Center at 11 a.m. This was a huge blessing, enabling us to spend more time together and allowing them to worship earlier in the morning than they had at Sharon. The Oaks kids were able to join Eastminster kids in our Sunday classes while the adults went to an ESL class we started. A fantastic Children’s Church was conducted during their Swahili service, providing the kids an opportunity to learn God’s truths through drama, songs and crafts. Despite the language difficulties, during this time Eastminster got a little glimpse of heaven (“from every nation, tribe, people and language” Revelation 7:9) when we held joint services or took advantage of the opportunity to attend the Oaks services.
The first week of October 2019 the Oaks were blessed to move to a building of their own where they can worship and hold their choir practices and prayer meetings, as well as hold dinners and other activities. But even though they are no longer worshipping on our campus, we still have ample opportunities to partner with them. Lots of work is needed to help refresh their building. Many Oaks members are still waiting for an English partner to practice speaking English. Kids still need readers. As their English and skills have improved, several Oaks men need help finding and interviewing for better jobs. There are still lots of opportunities to give rides. If you enjoy cooking, are a fix-it guy, are good at math or computers, know how to sew or have any other skill or passion that you would like to share, chances are there is someone who would love to learn from you! To get involved or find out more, contact the missions office.
On November 3, our Oaks Fellowship friends had a celebratory service rejoicing in their move to their new facility. With their beautiful sign on the outside, they finally have a home of their own. Pastor Mike was invited to speak as they offered thanks to the Lord for providing for them a large sanctuary with sound equipment for them to joyfully praise the Lord, Sunday School rooms, a larger room for prayer, and a kitchen for fellowship. They welcome anyone to come worship with them at their new home, 242 S Edwards St.!
This year our Christmas Eve offering will go to support the continuing ministry of The Oaks among the Swahili-speaking community in Wichita. You can give at any of our four Christmas Eve services (3, 4:30, 6 or 8 p.m.) or anytime through the end of the year when you note “Christmas Offering” with your gift.