They were singing, swaying and praying in the pews at Crestview Park Free Methodist on Sunday morning.
Women in African print dresses and colourful headscarves waved their hands in the air. Little girls in their Sunday best skipped up the aisles. The house band lit into a hymn and the congregants raised their voices in joyous celebration. It was a typically exuberant Sunday at the small St. James church, one of dozens that attract recent African immigrants and their extended families.
These churches, some of them with a handful of celebrants and others with 100-plus attendees, form the backbone of Winnipeg’s burgeoning African community.
"One of the things our church does really well is work with immigrants," says Scott Larson, Crestview Park’s chairman of the board. "Our church is very, very active. When African people come here, their commitment is always to make their lives better here, but to also make (better) the lives of their families back home, too."
His wife, Abigail Tackie Larson, came to Winnipeg from Ghana when she was 18 months old. The couple has three young children and support a 12-year-old cousin in Ghana.
The church community helps new Canadians find work, feel settled and quickly learn the local customs.
"This is the type of congregation where you greet and hug," says Larson. "Everyone is an uncle and an auntie."
When the band pauses and a speaker encourages people to turn to the person next to them and say "I love you," they do, smiling and chuckling.
Crestview Free Methodist is multi-ethnic, with a large African, primarily Ghanaian, population bolstered by West Indians, South Americans and Caucasians.
Larson says that mix is reassuring to newcomers.
"They may feel like they’re in a foreign culture," he says. "They see us mixing and mingling with other cultures. They know white faces, other cultures are nothing to be afraid of."
Frank Indome, treasurer of African Communities of Manitoba Inc., (Acomi) says every African community in Winnipeg finds a place to worship. Many don’t have their own churches or mosques but use space in other parishes. Some rent rooms wherever they can. What’s important is they continue to observe their faith.
"They are practising what they had at home, trying to keep their children involved," Indome says.
Some churches, such as the French Catholic parish of St. Kizito, offer their mass in a blend of French, English and African languages. A recent Sunday saw the congregation sing Prayer of the Faithful in Igbo, one of the languages of Nigeria. Drummers sat in the pews with the choir and set the beat.
At offertory time, the faithful danced up the aisle to place their donations in a basket.
The Living Gospel Church on William Avenue has an Ethiopian congregation and holds services in Amharic.
Rev. Joseph Seidu of Crestview Park Free Methodist Church says his church had 20 to 25 regulars six years ago. Now they average 100 people for their Sunday service.
"Part of it is the influx of African immigrants. All Africans are brought up with the fear of God," he says. "I think we have a community that is warm and welcoming. I think people like the preaching and the teaching I do."
The church works to support families with children, trying to help kids stay out of trouble.
"We know all the crime rates and kids being misled," he says. "The main part is how to give support."
Pastor David Edosa, the former spiritual leader of All Nations Full Gospel Church, says the churches give Africans a ready-made community.
"It’s a place (where) you meet people who share your experiences and beliefs. They understand your language. There’s comfort," says Edosa, who recently moved to Hamilton. "In Africa, church plays a very important part in life."
Edosa also believes the churches play a role in helping immigrants settle in.
"One of the beauties of the African churches is they help the people to socialize and to integrate into the community. They are encouraged to find work and stay off welfare. They are guided," he says. "The church plays a huge role in ensuring the African assimilation into Canada and society."
Pastor Peter Okaka came to Winnipeg seven years ago as an international student. He leads a small congregation out of a rented meeting room at the Quality Inn on Pembina Highway.
The dynamic preacher says church-going is essential for Africans. "Part of our strategic role is to find that place where people can actually find solace. Spirituality is always here. We want people to breathe in, breathe out, find hope. You find a place that you can call home, someone who speaks your language, knows your language. It is a huge help. It helps them settle."
Okaka helps his flock work on their resumés and job seek.
Back at Crestview Park, voices are raised in song. It is a place where handshakes, hugs and hallelujahs are shared. It is home for many new Canadians.