The Redeemed Christian Church of God, International Chapel of Brooklyn sits at the end of a quiet dead-end street along an industrialized stretch in Canarsie. But every Sunday, amid the auto repair shops and shuttered buildings, that unassuming corner awakens as parishioners, most of Nigerian origin, stream into an old warehouse pulsating with reminders of home.
Vibrancy abounds at ICB, as it is known. From the brightly colored geles and dresses women wear to the rousing music and preaching punctuated with fervent prayers and collective shouts of ‘Amen’ and ‘Hallelujah’ that echo in the space like a sports stadium.
The service begins with a rousing 30-minute music set. The color coordinated praise team leads the congregation in song, as one up-tempo songs blends into another. Ushers two-step in the aisles as congregants sway, clap and sing along. A woman decked in white and gold shakes her tambourine feverishly in rhythm. The songs are predominantly Christian Contemporary Music and the entire service is in English.
Just the way the pastor wants it.
Though ICB provides a familiar space for West African immigrants in a new country, it is in the middle of a heavily Caribbean neighborhood. Now, ICB leaders, taking the ‘international’ portion of their name seriously, are brainstorming ways to go beyond the familiar and connect with their Caribbean neighbors.
When Pastor Kunle Omotoso arrived in New York from Nigeria to lead ICB in 2011 he had a specific vision.
“My own concept of church is a church that everyone can come to, all nationalities,” he said.
He set about restructuring, insisting that all services be in English, that ministerial staff not wear traditional Nigerian garb—though congregants can and do—and that musicians use contemporary music. His goal was to make ICB more welcoming to non-Nigerian visitors.
“Even if you have a pastor that is friendly to other cultures, when people come in, if the person to your right, to your left, is African, you most likely feel isolated or lonely.”
Omotoso estimates the congregation of 300 members is mostly Nigerian, with other West African countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone represented.
ICB did a demographic survey of the neighborhood in 2013 and found the area was predominantly Caribbean. There are more than 30,000 Caribbean immigrants in Canarsie compared to just over 600 Nigerians, according to the city’s Newest New Yorkers report.
For Omotoso, the mandate to reconsider outreach strategy was clear. For the church to grow, it would have to embrace its new environment and be more deliberate in welcoming their Caribbean neighbors.
ICB has advertised on Caribbean radio stations and newspapers, completed door-to-door surveys, and hosted events featuring Caribbean speakers and food. A citywide convocation in October featured a well-known Caribbean gospel artist.
It can be a difficult adjustment for some members who find comfort worshipping in a culturally familiar setting.
“It’s been a challenge,” Omotoso said. “My Nigerian audience doesn’t like it. They feel this pastor is abandoning their community and is tilting more to the Caribbean community.”
The Redeemed Christian Church of God was founded in 1952 in Lagos, Nigeria by Josiah Akindayomi who, according to the church’s website, received a vision that the church would “go to the ends of the earth.” And it may be close. Following a growth “explosion’” in the 1980s, there are at least 23,000 parishes spanning six continents.
ICB is one of the 700 parishes in the church’s North America division, including 70 in New York. Established in 1998, it has been at its Canarsie location since 2012.
Most congregants understand and support the vision, said Omorho Obogbaimha, assistant pastor at ICB. But she understands the resistance.
“There will always be a few people who think ‘I’m away from home, I’m looking for a home away from home’,” said Obogbaimha, also known as Pastor Omo. “It’s true that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America. People want to worship where they feel comfortable.”
The tension around shifting to be more inclusive is not unusual, said Dr. Moses Biney, assistant professor at New York Theological Seminary. Sometimes adaptation compounds other internal issues.
“If you take the Redeemed churches, for instance, you’ll see there are Igbos, there are Yorubas, there are other groups in there,” Biney said. “So sometimes they themselves are wondering how to live together. By bringing different people in you seem to dilute that culture that seems to bind them together.”
“When I got there, I loved the singing, I loved the preaching, I loved everything about it, said Patricia Eno, a Trinidadian ICB parishioner. “They really embraced me and my family.”
Eno has been a member of Redeemed churches since 2004, after accepting an invite from her coworker. She has attended ICB for the past three years. She knows entering another cultural space can be hard.
“If you’re not strong it can be intimidating,” she said. “Because with every culture we tend to be clannish, [and stay] where we are comfortable.”
Familiarity with Nigerian culture from her previous church made it easy to fit in at ICB, Eno said. She appreciates the pastor’s efforts to lower cultural barriers and increase exposure to overcome stereotypes that impede interactions between the two groups.
She led the church’s first missionary trip to the Caribbean–to her native Trinidad– this summer, providing a learning experience for her Nigerian colleagues. And she continues to invite several of her Caribbean coworkers to weekly services and special programs.
Cultural heritage is not completely ignored, said Pastor Omo. The church’s small groups facilitate more cultural specific activities, such as traditional naming ceremonies for newborns, so Nigerian members don’t feel neglected.
“In trying to interact with the international community, you don’t want to lose the people you have,” said Pastor Omo. “You don’t want them to lose their culture. It’s something they can pass on to their children, and their children’s children.”
Though comfortable, ICB’s Caribbean members would like to see more cross-cultural sharing, so members can learn more about each other.
“For the Nigerian audience it’s very challenging and for the new audience we’re trying to bring in, it’s not good enough,” said Pastor Omotoso.
“I see myself as a pastor who needs to make peace with the Nigerian community, while trying to win the Caribbean community.”
Though Caribbean participation is not at the levels Pastor Omotoso anticipated –“My projection was that by now we’d be 50 percent Caribbean in this church”—there is progress. But he is determined to find the right balance in his vision for a multicultural congregation.