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How cultivating a heart of compassion sparked a multicultural church community

Some of the guys from Campbell Forlong's running group.
Some of the guys from Campbell Forlong's running group.

‘What did Christ value?’

This was the key question the people of City Bible Church (CBC) in Hamilton asked when they began developing their church’s values and vision. Their desire was for these values to become identifying markers of their church community.

One of the six values they landed on was this: We value compassion for the needy. Senior Pastor Campbell Forlong says that at the time this was one area where they needed to develop: “We felt like out of all the values we had identified, this was our weakest—that this was a muscle we needed to exercise and grow.”

So, the whole church spent three months delving into what it means to have compassion for the needy—reading the Bible together, hearing testimonies, and getting involved practically in their community. Their prayer was that they would have eyes open to see where God was leading them.

One of the results of this time of praying, seeking and listening was the development of the Agora Community Trust. CBC had just purchased 13B Kent Street in Frankton which provided the opportunity to express their love for their local community in the form of an event centre and café.

And as their desire to practically love their community grew, so did the opportunities.

The profits from the café are given away to charities, many of them based in the local community, through the ‘50 cents a cup’ initiative—where Agora has pledged to donate 50c from every hot drink sold to the designated charity of the month. Over the past 9 years more than $130,000 has been given way to meet local need.

One of the first charities the café ever supported was Refugee Services (now Red Cross). At that time Campbell was invited along to a pōwhiri welcoming a group of Colombian refugees to their new home in Waikato. “God, if there’s someone here from another country who you want me to befriend, let me know.” He prayed. “I was open to where God was leading and what he had in front of me”.

And that’s where Campbell met Abelardo, Doralba and their family who were fleeing violence and civil unrest caused by a 50-year civil war between the Colombian government’s armed forces and guerrilla soldiers, paramilitaries and drug cartels. After striking up a conversation, Campbell and Abelardo began meeting regularly for coffee to help Abelardo develop English conversation skills.

Through Abelardo and his family the wider Colombian community became a part of the CBC family—people started coming along to church, joining life groups and making friends. Along with CBC, some of the Colombian Christians organised and hosted a Fiesta, a celebration for their wider neighbourhood.

As needs developed CBC was able to employ a Community Worker, Victoria Forero, to help facilitate and support the church’s outreach, and Campbell says that CBC’s partnership with the Colombian community opened up the door to the wider former refugee and migrant communities: “Many Latino families have connected with our community and now once a month on a Sunday evening we gather upstairs at Agora for Spanish Worship. Every Sunday morning our regular worship is also translated live into Spanish by Victoria.”  

The church now runs ‘Converse’ a conversational class for ESOL students: “What began as an informal English class several years ago has developed into a multicultural community of migrants, former refugees and Kiwis who gather each Wednesday for English lessons, as well as regularly connecting through seasonal events and experiences.” But it’s not just formal events or meetings, say Campbell: “We’ve really tried to focus on the importance of relationship, and encourage people in our church to connect with one another. These friendships have built community and encourage us to practically love one another.”

More recently, some people in the church have been deepening friendships with those in the local Muslim community—particularly with refugees. Abul is a young man who fled bombing in his home of Kabul, Afghanistan, after his father went missing. Abul’s mother managed to get him and his six brothers and sisters to relative safety in Pakistan, and then after two years to New Zealand.

Campbell met Abul and his family at Converse two and a half years ago. They’ve been friends ever since, and Abul and his younger twin brothers are part of Campbell’s trail running group. Through contacts at CBC Abul and one of twins are now employed full-time, learning the trade of building: “We were running recently and Abul pointed up to the hill with pride and told me, ‘I’m building that house’. It had been a dream of his to build houses since he was a child in Kabul.”  

As the years have gone on, and the church family has become more and more multi-cultural. “It’s taking us a while to fully embrace the rich diversity that is developing,” says Campbell. But in the past few years people from the church have started to engage in seeking to contribute to growing a multicultural community. They have seen this in a number of ways: “From offering knitting classes to baking supper, teaching card-making or woodwork, helping teach English or offering transport.”

Coming together as a variety of cultures is not always an easy process; there are different ways of doing things, language barriers, and—in the case of many refugees—often complicated emotional and physical health needs. “Stories have been a helpful way of grounding why we should show compassion, why we should care,” says Campbell, “for us, telling the stories of refugees and former refugees has been powerful in helping Kiwis realise what people have been through.”

It’s personal for Campbell—he’s become good mates with Abelardo and their families are close friends. Abelardo is now a fully-trained arborist working in Waikato, and his wife Doralba serves on CBC’s leadership team representing her Latino community.

City Bible Church’s vision to become a growing multi-cultural community grew out of their desire to live like Christ, and as they followed that desire God led them to opportunities. As a leader, Campbell encouraged people to ask: ‘Who is my neighbour and how am I loving them?’ “We aim to help people see what’s practical and in reach, but to contemplate the next step out of their comfort zone. We’re in the process of reviewing our church mission again—looking at how we can reinvigorate and revive a church-wide passion for what Christ values.”

Story by Sophia Sinclair.


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