By Grayson Hester
CBF church starters Felix and Nicole Iyoko may very well have the answer. Since they were first featured in 2018 for starting a church – their 15th – the Congolese couple have continued to do what they’ve been doing since fleeing from their native Democratic Republic of Congo years ago: They’ve pressed through adversity and maintained presence, no matter the obstacles.
“For me, ‘present’ is not only to meet each other physically, but to be present to somebody’s life in distance,” Felix said. “I can give you an example. There was one of our brothers here who moved from North Carolina to Indiana. And I was always in touch with him, and I encouraged him to respond or to help refugees in Indiana. And then through those encouragements, we came up with an idea for him to start a ministry there.”
There’s the practical, get-your-hands-dirty side of keeping a ministry going through upheaval. But, of course, there’s also the spiritual side, with which Nicole is well-acquainted.
“In prayer. Pray, too, that you can be in business with somebody or form the network. You can show the word of God. You can pray for people,” she said. “So, there’s no distance. There is none of these things. There’s no obstacle or whatever because there are many ways to be in touch with someone’s life. Wow!”
Clearly, their efforts, of which prayer is one, are working. In the four years since Blake Tommey’s initial feature about the couple, their ministries and successes have only grown.
For one, the office of the governor of North Carolina, Roy Cooper, a Democrat, presented the Iyokos with an award for the volunteer work they did during the height of the pandemic in 2020.
“The pandemic didn’t affect Shiloh Restoration Church,” Felix said. “We are always present when, arm-to-arm, distributing food. Every Friday, we are able to distribute 65 food packages to families. That’s every Friday for 15 months.
Naturally, the church kept its protocols of physical distance when meeting for worship. That did change. But, in terms of the church’s mission and the ministerial presence it offers to refugees, that persisted even in the face of an international public health crisis.
In a season of widespread mental and emotional distress among young people – brought on,in no small part by Covid lockdowns and virtual schooling – the Iyokos provided hope to scores of youth. Felix explains, “It started by teaching them to discover their gifts. And then once they discover their gifts, now we use them to become a priority. I say, ‘Dream.’ We teach them how to set goals, to achieve those dreams…and now we give them the assignment to walk with those dreams everywhere they walk in this life.”
Since launching this initiative, Felix said that 56 have gone back to school and become high school or GED graduates.
The couple started even more churches in the past four years, including the aforementioned congregation in Indiana and, of particular excitement to the two, a church in their homeland, Africa. (They took their first CBF-sponsored mission trip there in 2019.)
To top it all off, they’re in talks to plant a church in Michigan, too, which boasts a strong community of refugees, particularly in the Detroit metro area.
“We are going to Michigan to start another church there, to respond to people’s needs. So, a lockdown does not affect our way to serve God or even with social distance,” Felix said. “Because I can be, I can stay maybe at six feet or 12 feet distance, but that is not an obstacle for me to respond to someone’s needs.”
For refugees like the Iyokos , this paradox of present-yet-distant isn’t merely an interesting thought exercise or theological conundrum. It is a lived reality.
Although distant from their country of origin, separated by thousands of miles of ocean and even wider gulfs of colonialist strife, their people, their ancestors, their culture, their home – these all are present. They carry Congo with them. It is distant, yet it is always present.
The same could be said for the God they worship. “That presence has taught us a lot of lessons, because if today, we still continue to see God, our God and in our life, is because we are always present in people’s lives also,” Felix said. “So being present in people’s lives is helping us to become more committed to God, to trust God more, because you cannot respond to somebody’s needs if you don’t have anything to give to him. So, we know that our source is God.”
With this theological source and ancestral ground, this unbreakable tie to a resilient land and a robust Spirit – and, of course, with considerable support from the Offering for Global Missions – the Iyokos show no sign of stopping.
They’ll continue to partner with CBF field personnel Kim and Marc Wyatt at Welcome House in the N.C. Research Triangle. They’ll continue to pray. They’ll continue to plant. And they’ll continue to remain present.
“Covid-19 is an opportunity for us to minister more to people,” Felix said. “Because, during the time of Covid-19, when the church was locked down, we have been ministering at home.”
This article will appear in the Fall 2022 Edition of fellowship! magazine. Read online at https://cbf.net/fellowship-magazine