Todd Robertson has been involved in church planting, the process of establishing new Christian churches, in Louisville and other cities around the United States. In 2010, the 50-year-old pastor was on staff at Walnut Street Baptist Church when he got the urge to carry the practice overseas. However, because he and his wife have a special needs son they were not able to leave the country for an extended period of time. So, Robertson did the next best thing. He moved his family to South Central Louisville and founded Antioch Church, which serves Louisville’s foreign-born population.
“My wife and I wanted to found a church that had a heightened sensitivity to cultural differences and would bring people together across natural barriers whether that is language or culture,” Robertson says. “That’s what we’ve attempted to do over these years.”
Antioch Church (7315 Southside Dr.) is in Kenwood Hills next to Beechmont neighborhood, where Catholic Charities of Louisville (CCL) and Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM) have resettled immigrants and refugees since the mid- ‘70s. The two organizations bring about 1,500 new arrivals to Louisville each year. Another 100-300 refugees come to the Metro after first being settled in another city because of family or cultural ties. According to Metro government, 50 percent of the city’s population growth over the past 15 years has come from international residents which make up about 6 percent of the city’s population.
Neighborhoods Impacted by Immigrants
The impact of all of this immigration is especially apparent in Beechmont and the surrounding neighborhoods, where foreign-born residents make up more than 30 percent of the population according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Waves of Latino, Vietnamese, African and Arab people have opened popular businesses like Vietnam Kitchen and the Miami Food Market in the area.
It is also felt in the area churches where foreign-born people have raised attendance or, in some cases, given new life to abandoned sanctuaries: a former Baptist church near Churchill Downs is now the Haitian Tabernacle Church (1122 Longfield Ave.) where services are held in French; Holy Name Catholic Church (2914 S. 3rd St.) has seen its attendance rebound mainly due to Cuban parishioners; and the community center Refuge Louisville (5007 Southside Drive) hosts three foreign language services – Evangelical Church Winning All (English & Nigerian), Evangelical Church Winning All (Kirundi and Swahili), and Kentucky Myanmar Christian Church (Myanmar).
“We utilize our building in South Louisville, but we also work with other like-minded evangelical churches throughout the city,” says Kristi Rhodes, Refuge Administrative Director. “Our desire is to help local churches connect to the refugee community.”
Refuge’s mission is not necessarily to convert foreign-born citizen to Christianity, although Rhodes says there have been some conversions. Evangelical churches have a history of reaching out to the needy whatever their religion. Robertson of Antioch says some of the refugee populations like the Karen people of Burma had large Christian populations before coming to America because of the work of missionaries. But many of the refugees and immigrants in Louisville want to hold onto their native cultures and religions. This group looks to the churches for the services they offer (language skills, job help, and food) and the sense of community.
“What we’ve found is a lot of our engagement has been on the personal relationship side,” Robertson says. “We’ve got about 70 families gardening in the back of the church, and we built a soccer field that is used by many of the refugee communities. Obviously our relationship to Christ is significant to us and that is a big part of our lives. That is what we share, but we don’t say ‘Convert to Christianity or we don’t want anything to do with you.’”
Like the “Tower of Babel”
Antioch actually held services at Refuge before the church moved to its own building. Robertson says that working with the refugee community has been a learning experience because he doesn’t speak a foreign language. There are five spoken among his congregation, and he claims to only know enough of each “to get myself in trouble or ask for the restroom.” In fact, the early days of Antioch were a little like the Tower of Babel in the Bible.
“In our first services we tried to do three languages – Arabic, Swahili, and English,” Robertson remembers. “When you are translating a sermon into two more languages by the time it got back around you are like ‘What are we talking about again?’ So, we then transitioned into translating the sermon into Nepali and Arabic. The Swahili speakers, most of them from Burundi, became part of other congregations in the area.”
After a little more trial and error, Antioch settled on in-ear transmitters. So, now each refugee can hear the sermon in their own language. Robertson says he is a little wiser to the logistics involved in serving the refugee community, but his intent has not changed.
“I think there was this idealistic view that we would have this amazing Sunday service every week that would have 92 different languages and it would sort of be the UN of Christianity,” he explains. “Now we recognize the complexity of something like that. But we are still people who believe God says, “love me with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.’ We’ve got a lot of good neighbors from all around the world and we’re trying our best to love them well.”