Three brothers sleep in Lawum Kayamba’s office in Portland, Maine. With city shelters overflowing from an influx of asylum seekers, Kayamba allows people to stay temporarily in his office—as many as eight at a time—knowing the landlord may revoke access to the space.
“Sometimes the social services (at the family shelter) will call me in the middle of the night and say, ‘Pastor, we have a family here outside,’” says Kayamba, who has also opened his home for families to sleep. “You look at the situation (and say), ‘What can I do?’ and then try to help.”
The brothers in Kayamba’s office are just some of the hundreds of immigrants coming to Maine’s largest city.
Eighteen years ago, Kayamba was one of them.
“Because I’m an immigrant myself, I can relate to those people,” Kayamba says. “This is why I began to help because I went through (it) myself. I knew war, lack of food, lack of clothing. I share the same experience as them.”
The pastor of Disciples International Christian Church (DICC), Kayamba serves Portland’s immigrant community by helping with interpretation, transportation and more, in addition to pastoring and working full time.
From DRC to the U.S.
Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kayamba hid in the bush with his family to escape the violence of civil war for three years as a child in the 1960s. Mennonite Central Committee brought Kayamba and others to safety in Kikwit, the location of the MB church office in DRC, and Kayamba later dedicated his life to serve God following his miraculous healing from a serious illness.
With MB church support, Kayamba attended seminary at Kinshasa Evangelical School of Theology. He earned master’s degrees in theology from the Bangui Evangelical School of Theology in the Central African Republic and the School of Theology at the University of Natal in South Africa. His ministry in DRC has included planting Ville Basse MB Church in Kikwit, teaching New Testament and Greek in Kinshasa and helping translate the Bible to his hometown language of Kituba.
In 2004, Kayamba’s knowledge of English led to an invitation to translate for a U.S.-based organization’s church planting conference in DRC, and in 2005, that organization invited him to San Diego, Calif., for a similar opportunity. Kayamba agreed, unaware that civil war back home would make it impossible for him to return to DRC.
For two years, Kayamba was separated from his wife, Suzanna, and their seven children. In 2006, he applied for and received asylum in the U.S., where he settled in Maine after stints in Connecticut and Ohio.
Kayamba’s family came to the U.S. in 2007, and they made their home in Portland, where Kayamba had already been connecting with immigrants. In 2010, they planted DICC, which he describes as a refugee church of 100-150 people. Today, in addition to pastoring and working in health care as a direct support professional, Kayamba trains pastors, trains immigrants to work in health care and continues to serve the immigrant community.
Portland: A popular place
The city of Portland is a popular destination for immigrants—the term includes refugees and asylum seekers—thanks to its General Assistance and Resettlement programs offering vouchers, housing assistance, casework services and other resources.
“There are many people coming now to Maine because the social services are very good,” Kayamba says. “People hear about Maine even from Texas.”
According to Ruben Torres, communications and policy lead for the Portland-based Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC), Portland has as many as 3,000 asylum seekers and 1,000 refugees, but numbers are difficult to verify. Both refugees and asylum seekers have fled their home countries to escape persecution, but while refugees have already received protection under international law, asylum seekers arrive at the border intending to apply for such protection.
Portland has in the past 10 years primarily welcomed asylum seekers from the U.S.’s southern border. Maine has been popular with asylum seekers because of its proximity to Canada, whose favorable asylum laws were appealing to those whose cases may be rejected in the U.S. However, the expansion of the Safe Third Country Agreement between the U.S. and Canada in March 2023 prevents asylum seekers from crossing into Canada from the U.S. unless they qualify for an exception.
The city of Portland operates two shelters, but in 2023, an uptick in arrivals exacerbated a housing shortage. Around 1,650 asylum seekers relocated to Portland between January and October 2023, says Portland’s director of communications and digital services Jessica Grondin in an Oct. 20 email. The city temporarily sheltered 300 people in the Portland Exposition Building, as it had in 2019, then contracted with three nearby hotels to house families.
“We had so many people come into our city that it overwhelmed the resources that we had,” Torres says, adding that MIRC and other organizations have come together to find a housing solution with plans for additional shelters underway.
One reason it is difficult for asylum seekers to afford things like housing and a lawyer, Kayamba says, is that it can take six months or more to receive a work permit. It takes even longer to receive asylum.
Part of the backlog, Torres says, is lack of funding and lack of federal judges and attorneys.
“In the state of Maine, we have something like 13 attorneys who can legally represent people,” Torres says.
Some members of Kayamba’s congregation applied for asylum in 2014 and still have not received anything but a work permit, he says.
“The system is full, and people keep coming,” Kayamba says. “I don’t know what will happen.”
Kayamba does what he can to help, assisting immigrants with shopping and appointments, taking the bus and interpreting at the immigration office in Boston. In the past, Kayamba served as liaison for 40 families housed in a Freeport hotel.
In 2021, the city awarded Kayamba a certificate of recognition as part of its Natural Helpers Leadership Program.
In late October, a team from Mennonite Central Committee drove from Pennsylvania to Portland to assess needs and bring relief supplies, including winter clothing for about 30 families who arrived unprepared for their first winter in Portland, hygiene kits, 150 to 200 comforters and more than 1,000 cans of meat.
According to Andrew Bodden, MCC East Coast program director, the contingent delivered aid to DICC and walked through the neighborhood, noting construction of an apartment complex nearby and the gentrification happening as a result.
Bodden says he saw people facing challenges from lack of financial and housing resources.
“Despite this situation, people are friendly, happy and welcoming,” he says, adding that MCC is continuing to engage, with possible future opportunities for peace education, immigration law training and participation in the Summer Service program for young adults of color.
Kayamba helps where he can and serves without complaint, Bodden says.
“The pastor role is not the same (in an immigrant setting),” Bodden says. “In a white setting, the pastor is the preacher. Sometimes the pastor has an associate pastor or a pastor of pastoral care, a visiting pastor, a youth pastor. In immigrant settings, the pastor does everything. The pastor is the chauffer. The pastor is the counselor. The pastor is the psychiatrist. The pastor is a taxi driver. That’s the role of Pastor Kayamba, and on top of this, he has a full-time job.”
For Kayamba, the work is personal.
“I remember all the trauma we went through,” he says. “These people don’t come only because they like America, but there are real problems that they are facing like sexual violence and civil war. Politically it’s a problem, but as Christians, the Bible is asking us to welcome the foreigners.
“We remember that people came from Europe and other places the same way these guys are coming,” Kayamba says. “Biblically and theologically, I think that God is bringing mission here, too. Most (immigrants) are Christian. They are coming to revitalize our churches, to revitalize the kingdom of God.”
For more about the resettlement process, read this Christian Leader resource article: https://christianleadermag.com/a-refugees-journey/
Janae Rempel Shafer is the Christian Leader associate editor. She joined the CL staff in September 2017 with six years of experience as a professional journalist. Shafer is an award-winning writer, having received three 2016 Kansas Press Association Awards of Excellence and an Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals award in 2022. Shafer graduated from Tabor College in 2010 with a bachelor of arts in Communications/Journalism and Biblical/Religious Studies. She and her husband, Austin, attend Ridgepoint Church in Wichita, Kansas.