Struggling Lansdowne church saved - and expanded - by its Liberian pastor

Pastor Moses Suah-Dennis at Faith Immanuel in Lansdowne at the 9:30 a.m. service for original members, top. Above, the 11:30 service for the African congregation. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff
Pastor Moses Suah-Dennis at Faith Immanuel in Lansdowne at the 9:30 a.m. service for original members, top. Above, the 11:30 service for the African congregation. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff
Posted: June 27, 2012

The mostly aging white congregants of Immanuel Lutheran Church in East Lansdowne had no clue that their future was intertwined with the fate of a teenage preacher in an African refugee camp.

The church members, about 20 in number, were just trying to keep the sanctuary doors open in a changing neighborhood and with dwindling finances.

Continents away, the minister was just trying to stay alive.

In a story of experimentation and happenstance, the young preacher and the dying church would join together in a turn of events that saved one congregation and provided an incubator for another.

"We would have closed if Moses hadn't appeared," said Joyce Mkitarian of Lansdowne, a longtime member of Immanuel Lutheran.

Moses, in this case, is the church's pastor, the Rev. Moses Suah-Dennis, born 39 years ago in Bong County, Liberia.

Raised in a "yours, mine, and ours" family of 28 children, Suah-Dennis is the son of a government employee and a businesswoman who bought and sold food and merchandise.

He was walking to school one day in 1989 when civil war started in Liberia.

"You might be playing soccer or going to church and then hear the sounds of a gun," Suah-Dennis said. "You find out where the shooting is coming from and run in the opposite direction."

That's what he did on the day rebels invaded his hometown. Separated from his family, he fled with members of his church. They traveled by foot and car - sometimes amid gunshots - until they settled in refugee camps, first in Ivory Coast and finally in Ghana.

Once there, Suah-Dennis attended school and helped start a church in the camp.

Meanwhile, in East Lansdowne, Immanuel was struggling.

Founded in 1906, the congregation was started when a few neighbors began meeting in a house on Lexington Avenue. Their numbers grew, and they moved to a nearby public hall. Members started a building fund, bought lots on Penn Boulevard, and soon opened the new church.

At its height in the 1950s, the church was a thriving congregation of 400 members with a nursery school and social services center. But membership eroded as people aged, children moved away, and the neighborhood demographics shifted to include more Catholics, Africans, and African Americans.

In 2005, members realized they didn't have the money to keep up the building. They turned to the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for help.

By then, Suah-Dennis had worked his way through Ghana Christian University, with financial help from a church. When his sister immigrated to Philadelphia in 2001, Suah-Dennis joined her. He eventually entered the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia in Mount Airy.

It was the synod's then-bishop, Roy Almquist, who decided to put Immanuel Lutheran and Suah-Dennis together.

"Under normal circumstances, you would close a church that size," Almquist said. "But they were determined not to close. They wanted to find a way for their church to minister in a changing neighborhood."

The bishop proposed that Suah-Dennis lead Immanuel's members while also starting a congregation, called Faith, geared toward the growing local African community. After Immanuel members met Suah-Dennis, they enthusiastically endorsed the idea, Almquist said.

The new pastor led the established Immanuel congregation in a Sunday service that was traditional and contemplative. The African congregation, which soon began to grow, met in the late morning with a lively African- and gospel-music-flavored service. The two churches began attending joint ceremonies on holidays and other special occasions.

There were bumps. Suah-Dennis replaced the hymnal without consulting the church council, causing controversy. Over the years, members died, some moved away, and a few left, perhaps because they were unsettled by the changes. Now, only six Immanuel members are left to attend Sunday worship. The African service is attended by more than 100.

"It's been a transition for him, and for us," said Virginia Leitch, former Immanuel parish administrator.

But it's all worth it, she said, when she sees a crowded and busy church building.

Last month, the two churches achieved a milestone. They officially merged to become Faith Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church. The congregation again has thriving nursery and ministry programs, and has added an African news-and-music Internet radio station.

The union will be celebrated at a church service July 1.

Suah-Dennis hopes that as more people join the church, they will opt for attending the traditional morning service. But to make sure the legacy of Immanuel is not forgotten, the congregation is working on a permanent exhibit that will chronicle the church's history.

"I'm not worried about losing our identity, because in a way, it still exists," Mkitarian said. "Thanks to this whole project, Immanuel still exists."


Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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