In 12 years, Neema Community Church has gone from a prayer group in the Rev. David Nzioka’s Kansas City, Kan., apartment to a flourishing congregation.
The church recently moved from its location in Overland Park to a larger building at 621 S. Lee Ave. in Olathe to accommodate its increasing membership. The church has more than 200 members and sometimes sees up to 400 people at a service and draws people from as cities ranging from Gardner to North Kansas City to Lee’s Summit.
Its roots are in the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, and many of its members hail from places in that region such as Kenya or Uganda. However, the church also has members who have grown up in the Kansas City area.
Nzioka said he hopes to start a preschool in the new location by the end of the year.
He originally came from Kenya to study for a master’s degree at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. When he arrived, life was tough. Nzioka had left a parish he’d led for five years in Kenya, and here, he lived with his wife and daughter in a student apartment and didn’t have much of an income.
“The first three months, we really wanted to go back,” he said.
Once he found his footing here, he started the prayer group. He also got a job at Village Presbyterian Church as a seminary intern. As the group grew, his apartment was too small a space to meet.
First, they moved to a chapel, and then in 2005, Village Presbyterian gave them a meeting space at 99th Street and Mission Road.
“You could see that this is a church that is forming,” he said.
By 2008, he had 30 or 40 people attending every Sunday.
While building the church following, Nzioka finished his master’s degree and embarked on a doctoral degree at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa.
But instead of moving to Iowa, he spent two weeks at school, then two weeks in Kansas City. He kept that schedule for five years until he finished his degree.
Five years ago, the Presbyterian Church recognized Neema as an autonomous church.
“We started doing things on our own as a church,” he said. “And so, when people take ownership, they are able to do big things.”
The church holds its services in English but retains its roots by incorporating Swahili songs into the worship.
“That’s what people love,” he said. “It’s something that people know. It speaks to them personally, because it’s something they’ve grown up with. It makes you feel at home, because … we are very far from what you call home, 10,000 miles away.”
Even members who aren’t from eastern Africa and didn’t necessarily grow up singing these tunes enjoy the music and are proud of the church’s association with Kenya, Nzioka said.
Bernard Gacengeci grew up in Kenya and has been a member of Neema for 10 years. He appreciates “the love, the compassion among its members, and the pastor himself, and the fact that we worship God in the way that we were born and brought up to do,” he said. “(The church) has grown tremendously in numbers and in faith.”
Each year, the church sends a mission trip to Nzioka’s hometown of Thwake, Kenya. So far, they have built a church, a medical clinic, a well and a home for 12 orphans there. They personally distribute books, backpacks and hundreds of pairs of shoes on these trips.
As the congregation adjusts to its new location in Olathe, Nzioka has hopes for the future. On his list are plans to open a food pantry and start English as a second language classes at the church.
“What we are focusing on is to reach the neighborhood,” Nzioka said. “They know we are here, but we also want them to join us.”