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Man with a mission: African-born pastor fills unique niche at Worthington church

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WORTHINGTON -- Andrew Henry has called a lot of places home.

There's his homeland -- Sudan, and his exile homes in Africa -- Uganda, Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria.

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His first home in the United States was in Jackson, Miss., where he and his wife, Comfort, were newlyweds and started their family.

And now, the Henrys have moved to Worthington, their newest home, where Andrew is serving as a pastor at the Christian Reformed Church, 1100 First Ave., S.W. They hope this home will be a permanent one.

Andrew spent the early years of his life in Sudan, where he was the fourth child in a family that eventually numbered 15 siblings. But war sent them into exile in Uganda.

"We came back, and war erupted again, and again I am in exile. I went through many missions and finally settled in Nigeria," he said. "I was there eight years as a refugee."

Although his family is not Christian, he accepted Jesus as his Savior and first thought about becoming a pastor while in Sudan. He was initially trained through the Church of Christ synod there, a sister denomination to the Christian Reformed Church in the United States, which has sent missionaries to Africa since the 1930s. At first, he thought it was an impossible dream, but revisited the possibility when he was in exile in Chad.

"Then when I settled in Nigeria, my first job was in a church. I was an assistant welfare officer at the Cathedral Church of Christ, an Anglican church. My desire for ministry began to grow and grow and grow as I worked with the needy in the church. I was so convinced that it was God's calling, although I had many other opportunities in Nigeria. I could have ventured into many different areas."

Andrew enrolled in a Bible college, the Reformed Theological College of Nigeria, but he had no money, no means of support and very few material goods. During his initial weeks there, he slept on the floor. A friend, who was in similar straits, questioned the wisdom of staying at the school and eventually left. But Andrew persevered.

"I said, 'I don't think I will leave. I lost my job. I have no money. Where would I go? I think I will see to the end of it,'" Andrew related.

Shortly thereafter, Andrew began to receive steady financial support from the Church of Christ in Sudan, and he was able to help out other students at the college. He graduated in 2000 from the Bible college and was ordained in 2001 as a missionary pastor of the synod of the Church of Christ in the Sudan among the Tiv people of Nigeria.

"When I was ordained, the (decision) was whether to go back to Sudan," he explained. "The original plan was to return to Sudan as a missionary."

But another plan soon came to the forefront. The director of the Bible school Andrew attended had earned his doctorate degree at the Presbyterian Church of America seminary in Jackson, Miss., and he encouraged Andrew to continue his schooling there.

"But how can I do this, to come here and study?" he reflected. "The war was too serious (in Sudan) to go back, but that offered another way to come to the U.S. The government of the U.S. granted me asylum. So that's how I come here in the year 2001, as a refugee and as a student."

In the meantime, Andrew had met a woman who shared his faith and fallen in love.

"Comfort was also a refugee in Nigeria. She was from Liberia. She left her country because of war. I left my country because of war. We met in the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees."

The couple had planned to marry a few months later, but the wedding was moved up prior to Andrew's departure for the U.S. After a long year spent apart, they were finally reunited in Jackson in 2002. They had a son, Christopher Nyola, who is now 3 years old.

Andrew spent three years at the Presbyterian seminary, which is close in doctrine to the Christian Reformed denomination. After graduation, he didn't go straight into the ministry. As he contemplated a return to Africa, Andrew worked at a major grocery store chain and the forestry service in Jackson. Then he was broached by an offshoot of Campus Crusade and recruited to return to the Sudan.

"I took that group of missionaries into southern Sudan," he explained. "For the first time in 18 years, I returned there. It was an opportunity for me to see home and champion the ministry."

While there, he reconnected with only one member of his large family, although he believes all his siblings are still alive.

"But they're not Christians," he emphasized, "so they are alive without love."

He spent two months in Sudan, and upon returning, was exploring ways to go back again, perhaps through the same ministry.

At the same time, Worthington's Christian Reformed Church was exploring ways to strengthen its ministry among Worthington's growing African population. According to Pastor LeRoy Christoffels, the church had called one African-born pastor who declined the opportunity, and other candidates were scarce.

"We had specified that we wanted someone who was ordained, preferably African-born, and Reformed in theology," Christoffels detailed. "We've had a lot of African-born people in our church, people who have been cultivated by members of our church. We thought it would be a great encouragement to them to have an African-born pastor as one of the leaders of our church."

Just prior to a meeting of a frustrated search committee, Christoffels listened to a message left by a Reformed seminary student who had filled in for a time at the Chandler Christian Reformed Church. The student had seen the congregation's ad in a denominational newsletter, and thought he knew someone who would fit the bill.

That person was Andrew.

"I went into the meeting and told them about the message, and asked if they wanted me to call on this right away," Christoffels recalled. "So I left the meeting and called the student, who gave me Andrew's number. ... I called Andrew right away. He was surprised, but interested. He said, 'My wife and I will be praying about this.' I went back into the meeting and said, 'You're not going to believe this ...'"

Andrew came to Worthington for an interview in April, accepted the call to be a missionary pastor, and the Henrys moved into the church's parsonage in June. Since then, he's been making inroads among the city's immigrant populations -- African and other nationalities -- and has become a partner in ministry with Christoffels. Andrew preaches about two sermons a month, lightening Christoffels' pulpit load, helps with the liturgy when not preaching, and they cooperate on visitations and other pastoral duties.

"It seems as though it's been one of the greatest joys of being in this congregation," said Christoffels about the new ministry. "We have no intention of starting a separate church. ... Andrew is pastor of all (members), as I am pastor of all of them. We just each have our own focus."

One of the challenges of the ministry, according to Andrew, is that Africans who have settled in Worthington speak many different languages and dialects. His own mother tongue is Bari, spoken by one of the biggest tribes in southern Sudan; Arabic is his second language, English, third, and he can also speak Swahili. In addition, his ministry studies have included Hebrew and Greek. His frustration is finding a common language in which to engage many of Worthington's newest immigrants.

Soccer is a big interest for Andrew, as it is for many in Worthington's immigrant population. He has offered his services as a coach on the high school level, and he also uses soccer games as an opportunity to reach out to others.

"I also keep watch wherever I go -- shopping, just in places around town. I talk to people," he said, adding a few observations about the community. "Worthington is a very unique city. You can find all kinds of people here. Second, it's also a very peaceful city. I told a friend from Jackson that I haven't heard a single gunshot since we've been here. There, it was every night."

Andrew looks forward to getting to know the community better and is already pleased with relationships they have established. He hopes to expand upon those friendships and that people will want to get to know his family better.

"They need to know that we are an intercultural family and that we have a lot of experiences in life. We went through a lot of hardships, but also a lot of blessings, and we have a lot to share. We would love for them to be open to meeting us and sharing our experiences with them, if any would step forward."

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Beth Rickers
Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  
(507) 376-7327
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