Revival in East Lansdowne: Alumnus Moses Suah-Dennis’s ground-breaking ministry
“God has a way of preparing you for your life ahead,” explained the Rev. Moses Suah-Dennis during an interview on Christ the King Sunday at Faith-Immanuel Lutheran Church in East Lansdowne, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. “If you trust that God is in charge, that God reigns, then no matter what life throws at you, if you keep your eyes on God you will find a way to get through it. After the storm the sun will shine.”
Suah-Dennis knows something about the storms of life, as does his native Liberia, suffering through an Ebola epidemic, and the congregation he serves, which almost died before Suah-Dennis, an alumnus (MDiv 2005) of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP), arrived as a mission developer to re-energize the place.
As then Immanuel Lutheran Church was experiencing its darkest days with dwindling membership in a transitional community, Suah-Dennis was experiencing his.
As a young man in Liberia in 1989, Suah-Dennis found himself part of a nation embroiled in civil war. “You would hear gunshots on the way to church or heading out to play soccer,” he remembered. “Young men were in danger because if they did not fight they were considered enemies of the revolution.” And so Suah-Dennis and others eventually decided to flee. “I left everything behind except my faith,” traveling on foot and by car to a refugee camp in Ghana. He lived there nearly nine years, attending Ghana Christian School part of the time and on weekends engaging in leadership projects, including the founding of a Lutheran Church for camp refugees.
“The refugee camp was a hard experience to describe,” he recalled. “There were no houses. We lived in tents. We walked miles to get drinkable water. It was a wilderness experience. Life in the refugee camp either makes or breaks you.” He made the best of it, serving others as he could while he studied at the Ghana School.
In 2001, he came to the U.S. with his sister. As a church leader, it was natural for him to attend seminary at LTSP. He had been a Lutheran his entire life. “The seminary really provided a community for me that I needed, because I was alone, and experiencing real culture shock. At the seminary everyone prayed, worshiped, and studied together. We supported each other. It was family for me, a warm, welcoming place.” Professor Gordon Lathrop inspired him in teaching about worship and liturgy, and Professor Timothy Wengert “grounded me in the Confessions and the foundation of the faith,” he said. He’s now studying for a DMin at LTSP, with his project focusing on the importance of ecumenical partnerships.
He believes that, while the church is having its share of ups and downs, overall believers must be cautious not to become doomsayers. “These are not the first times where the church has faced great difficulties,” he said. “I believe we are going through a transition and the church will be strong again.”
“While in seminary I was exposed to the work of the larger church,” he recalled. He became interested in mission development work and received training for it. Then Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod Bishop Roy Almquist worked to put Suah-Dennis together with Immanuel Church. The congregation did not want to close, but was struggling to figure out how to be relevant in its changing neighborhood context. It also had been struggling to find enduring pastoral leadership. “I’ll get you a pastor,” Almquist promised the traditional church members, who were white, “but you have to agree to host a congregation he works to establish.” East Lansdowne had been becoming increasingly Roman Catholic, and with an expanding West African and African American populace. Enter Suah-Dennis.
“If it hadn’t been for him we wouldn’t be here,” explained Joyce Mkitarian, an older parishioner who has known Immanuel Church her whole life. “We’ve been reborn, thanks to his leadership. He’s collegial. He doesn’t impose himself. He’s not bossy. He works with all of us. He works for consensus.” Mkitarian recalled the “old” days of Luther League and Vacation Bible School, but now appreciates the unfolding contemporary story of her church, now merged together to be called Faith-Immanuel Lutheran Church, a collaboration of the original congregation and Faith Worship Center, which Suah-Dennis established and grew by visiting in the community. “We have increasing attendance now, a new daycare center, and a thriving Sunday school. I still feel this is my church. I don’t want to go anywhere else. We haven’t lost our identity. We still have our Lutheran identity.” An attractive exhibit of the history of the original congregation is near the entryway to the sanctuary. Mkitarian worked on the display with encouragement and support of Suah-Dennis and others.
Joyce Adams, an African American member from Philadelphia, worked in that city’s criminal justice service for 30 years, serving as a prison warden before stepping down. Now she is the congregation’s administrative assistant and works in the day care center.
“This congregation is truly a welcoming place,” Adams explained. “When I first came here I didn’t know anyone. Now it feels like family to me. In a transitional community like East Lansdowne this church’s foundation is based on love for each other and the love of Christ.” She explained that the congregation’s foundation is the study of Scripture, with Bible studies often led by Faith-Immanuel members. New members are always given a copy of the Lutheran Study Bible, Adams said. (The congregation adopted its new name two years ago when Suah-Dennis transitioned from being a mission developer to a called pastor. Immanuel Church was founded in 1906.)
“Pastor Suah-Dennis is honest and sincere,” Adams explained. “He is truly committed to this church and loves the Lord and the Lutheran Church. A lot of the growth is happening because the congregation is such a sincere and caring place.”
About a half-dozen “original” members like Mkitarian attend an early prayer service and Bible study on Sunday. At 11:30 am about 140 worshipers, many of West African descent and from the neighborhood, attend a lively and enlivening worship service with musical leadership by members, praise songs, but with clearly defined Lutheran elements. The worshipers clearly embrace stewardship support. The passing of the peace and greeting features dancing and laughter where parishioners make their way throughout the entire congregation.
Outside the sanctuary near the front door is a large collection of medical supplies for the people of Liberia, with Ebola concerns in mind. A previous shipload of such goods, provided by congregation members and donors from surrounding churches, has already left for West Africa,” Jacqueline Togba explained.
The Gospel for the day is from Matthew 25. Parishioners enthusiastically sing their way into worship…”He’s a mighty God…Can you see your blessing coming? Take it now…”
Suah-Dennis’s teaching sermon focuses on ministry to “the least of these.” On this day he admonishes his listeners to “choose your inheritance carefully…Live the way God wants you to live…Have conversations with your children about the choices they make…Your faith heritage impacts your family heritage…God promises to never leave you or desert you… God’s gifts are given to you with a purpose…If you live only for yourself you live in the past…If you live for God you are living for the future…Choose the inheritance God wants you to choose…”
At the end of the service a young mother, Florence Dorkor, comes forward with her newborn child, Jamelle. She asks for a prayer for her child by Suah-Dennis, and the pastor prays that the new life will be given to God, and for the future direction of Faith-Immanuel and its six-generation family.