Guy Lombela helps minister to Champaign-Urbana's growing Congolese population

By JESSICA BOURQUE

URBANA — On a Saturday night at Stone Creek Church in Urbana, a crowd of French-speaking African immigrants, mainly Congolese, are lifting their hands, squinting their eyes and crying out in sporadic fits of praise. The whole congregation seems to be under the spell of the holy spirit.

Or maybe it's just their pastor.

He is a big man, standing 6 feet 4 inches tall, but on stage, Pastor Guy Lombela is surprisingly graceful. His movements are swift, precise and powerful, like a maestro conducting an orchestra, and his booming voice reverberates like thunder throughout the church's crowded sanctuary. By the end of his sermon, he is darting across the stage, howling into his microphone and punctuating every other phrase with an impassioned, "Alleluia!"

Lombela has come a long way from the intimate, Saturday prayer groups that he once hosted in his small Champaign apartment. Back in 2001, he would preach to no more than 10 other African immigrants, while at the same time disturbing several neighbors, who would often file noise complaints.

Eleven years later, more than 150 African immigrants come each week to hear him sermonize in French, a language spoken throughout West and Central Africa. Today, at least one other church in Champaign-Urbana is also catering to the area's increasing Congolese population by offering French-only sermons.

"I mean, the population has really boomed in the last 10 years," said Lombela, who has made a yearly practice of surveying the number of Congolese families in the area. "By my estimates, there are about 500 Congolese people living here now."

When Lombela, his wife and two daughters first arrived in Champaign in 2000, they were a sizeable addition to the mere handful of Congolese immigrants already here.

"There were, like, five other Congolese families living in Champaign-Urbana. I could count the number on my hands," Lombela said. "I knew them all by name because most of them came to the prayer group."

This growth can be traced back to the proliferation of what Lombela calls "sponsorships." Lombela said that he and roughly 95 percent of the Congolese immigrants living in Champaign-Urbana, according to his yearly survey, came to the United States through the Diversity Visa Program, more commonly known as the "diversity lottery."

This is different from a refugee who comes to the U.S., invited by the government, from an overcrowded refugee camp that needs to be downsized, or an asylum seeker who comes fleeing political persecution.

Rather, the diversity lottery is a form of selective immigration in which the winners are chosen at random every year to receive full, permanent U.S. residency. Each year, the U.S. government hands out 55,000 diversity visas. Anyone with a high school education is allowed to apply for themselves and everyone in their households. If selected, the winners must go through an interview process and provide the permanent address of their sponsor, often a friend or family member living in the U.S.

"My original sponsor was an acquaintance in New York, but he backed out at the last minute," Lombela said. "I had something like 36 hours to get a new one. Eventually, I found a friend of a friend who knew someone. I had to call this stranger at like 3 a.m. and ask for help."

Lombela finally found a sponsor in "some city I'd never heard of" — Bloomington, Ill. In 1998, the 32 year-old Lombela and his family became permanent U.S. residents.

"Every city has different immigrant DNA," Lombela said. "If you look at Dayton, Ohio, for example, it's a great community for African immigrants. This is not so for Champaign-Urbana. No one was here when we came. But little by little, it has grown because one person sponsors this person who sponsors another and so on. Now, this place is getting a DNA of its own."

Lombela, like many of the Congolese living in Champaign-Urbana, did not immigrate from a life of squalor. They left established lives in the Congo for the promise of receiving full, no-strings-attached U.S. residency. Lombela said the somewhat unstable political landscape in Congo and the promise of a U.S. education were also motivating factors in coming to the U.S. in the first place.

Anh Ha Ho, East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center's co-director, said the center has seen an influx of Congolese immigrants, many of whom worked as lawyers or doctors in their home country, but who are forced into factory work when they arrive in Champaign because they do not speak English.

Lombela's family, which "wasn't poor but wasn't filthy rich either," lived in an affluent neighborhood in Congo's capital city, Kinshasa. There, Lombela said, he received his bachelor's degree in mathematical economics/econometrics and worked for 10 years in research and development for a electrical company. He also taught mathematics and statistics at a local college and volunteered as a pastor.

But with no English, no job and no friends, Lombela struggled to build a new life in Champaign.

"Everything was just wiped away," he said. "That was the most difficult part. Back home, you were an educated person. You had a college degree. You had a good job. But you arrive in a society where people look at you like you're an alien. It didn't matter that you had a college degree."

He discovered that the average person was ignorant about life in Africa and learned to expect questions like, "Did you have to sleep in the trees?" and "How did you live with all of those animals?"

His first job was as a security guard. While at work, Lombela, who can speak five languages, would carry around an English grammar manual, studying constantly, and told all of his co-workers to correct him whenever he misspoke. After about a year of work, Lombela's big break came when he saw his supervisor working on her math homework.

"In my broken English, I asked what she was working on," Lombela said. "She brushed me off and said, 'Oh, this is college algebra. Way above your level.' But I was a college instructor, remember, so this is easy for me. I tell her, 'I can do that, no problem. Give me 5 minutes.'"

His supervisor received an A+ on her assignment, and Lombela earned respect from his co-workers. Yet, everyone wondered why such an intelligent man would work such a menial job.

"I told them, 'With no English, what do you expect me to do?'"

With encouragement from his supervisor and 1-1/2 years of English behind him, Lombela left Bloomington in 2000 and enrolled at the University of Illinois to pursue a master's degree in actuarial sciences. After completing his degree, Lombela was ready to go back home.

"There was nothing left for me to do, so I went home to re-establish old connections and try to find work," Lombela said, "but the political situation was still very shaky, and I was not satisfied."

When Lombela returned to Champaign less than a year later, he decided to pursue a master's degree in statistics. When he finished, Parkland College offered him a part-time teaching position and Stone Creek established an official French-speaking ministry, two factors that have rooted him in Champaign until today.

"For some people coming from Congo, winning the lottery, it is the light. It is a miracle. They can be OK with working factory jobs or whatever," Lombela said. "But for others, for me, it is not so. I see friends and family who stayed in Congo doing much better financially and they still get to be with their families."

Lombela left his mother and father, some of his 11 siblings and many close friends when he came to the U.S. He goes back about twice a year. Lombela said that despite the wonderful community that is growing in Champaign-Urbana, he is confident he, and probably others in his position, will eventually go back home.

Jessica Bourque, a University of Illinois senior, wrote this story for journalism Professor Walt Harrington's advanced-reporting class.

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